As a porn star sues President Donald Trump over a deal to keep her quiet about an alleged affair, and his White House is drained of everyone but his family, it’s hard not to think that America is entering into a period of decadence that rivals Imperial Rome in luridness. Even before the Daniels news, some historians and journalists compared Trump to famously degenerate Roman emperors. In an editorial earlier this year, New Yorker editor David Remnick predicted, “Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, undo the collective nervous system of a country, and degrade the whole of public life.” Caligula has been invoked even more often, a comparison that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called “unfair”—to Caligula.
If Trump is behaving like a Roman emperor, what does that say about the state of the American empire, the informal hegemony that the United States has enjoyed since 1945? Last summer, conservative pundit Bill Kristol suggested that Trump’s America mirrored the fall of the Roman Empire:
He’s not alone. Last December, leftist columnist Ryan Cooper wrote in The Week, “The American empire is crumbling.” University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy declared to The Intercept that Trump has been demolishing “pillars of U.S. global power.... He’s weakened the NATO alliance; he’s weakened our alliances with Asian allies along the Pacific littoral. He’s proposing to cut back on the scientific research which has given the United States—its military industrial complex—a cutting edge, a leading edge in critical new weapons systems since the early years of the Cold War.” (The Intercept is particularly invested in this analogy: Murtaza Hussain offered a similar analysis for the site two months later.)
The reality of imperial decline is hard to dispute, albeit with qualifications. There’s always a danger that short-term trends can be mistaken for historical inevitabilities. Paul Kennedy argued in his 1987 book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers that America was entering a period of long-term relative decline. He was prescient in many ways, predicting China’s rise and the Soviet Union’s decline, but premature in predicting the weakening of America, which enjoyed a quarter-century of unchallenged dominance; the relative decline has only just begun.
The American empire, which more mainstream scholars prefer to describe in softer terms as global hegemony or the liberal international order, has always rested on three pillars: economic strength, military might, and the soft power of cultural dominance.
Relative American decline in economic power is almost inevitable given the rising clout of nations like China and India. As Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs observed in 2012:
In 1980, the US share of world income (measured in purchasing power parity prices) was 24.6 per cent. In 2011, it was 19.1 per cent. The IMF projects that it will decline to 17.6 per cent as of 2016.
China, by contrast, was a mere 2.2 per cent of world income in 1980, rising to 14.4 per cent in 2011, and projected by the IMF to overtake the US by 2016, with 18 per cent.
But America won’t lose its dominance if these new powers accept the rules the United States has set down. Brookings Institute fellow Thomas Wright notes in his new book, All Measures Short of War, that during the long interlude between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Donald Trump, many American leaders thought they could get rising powers to buy into the American-led global system.
“Normally, the U.S. order would collapse upon the decline of the United States and the rise of a country like China,” he wrote. “But some U.S. strategists, scholars, and leaders believed they were creating an order that would become indispensable to rising powers because it transcended old notions of the national interest. Even after America had declined or reduced its leadership role, non-Western powers would need its rules and institutions to grow economically, to reassure other countries about their power, and to tackle common problems.”
For Wright, the real problem is that China is not, as American leaders had hoped, assenting to the American-led order. Rather, China is starting to assert itself as a regional power with an identity quite distinct from the liberal international order. China is challenging the liberal order by building islands in the South China Sea (as a display of force) and by eliminating term limits on President Xi Jinping (thus forestalling any political liberalization).
But Wright also notes that in terms of economic strength and military capabilities, the U.S. is maintaining or extending its advantage. “With enough political will, the United States could choose to have the most military might overall in almost any crisis or conflict,” Wright contends. “Finally, when compared on a global scale of relative power, it is clear that the United States is surpassing most other nations. The GDP gap between the United States and Russia is growing, and the United States has outperformed European countries following the financial crisis.”
Thus, America is not facing imperial decline so much as a period of renewed inter-imperial conflict, with newly emboldened regional powers like China and Russia eager to challenge the global hegemon. And the country is in a much weaker position to fend them off, due to the damage Trump is doing to the third pillar of the American empire: cultural dominance.
Most analysts, including McCoy and Wright, agree that American hegemony has always relied heavily on other countries’ consent. The American model is an attractive one to many of the world’s people, and democratic countries have long valued America as an ally. “The American empire was built by people who recognized that often the best way to exert power was through non-coercive means,” Cooper, of The Week, wrote. “Trump represents a different tradition—a pinched, ignorant, aggressive, insecure tradition, one that insists only military force and chest-thumping belligerence matters.”
Trump has alienated America’s allies by denigrating NATO, threatening a trade war, and nuclear brinksmanship. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 134 countries and released earlier this year, faith in American leadership has plummeted sharply to a new low of 30 percent, compared to 48 percent in 2016 while Barack Obama was president and 34 percent in George W. Bush’s final year. “When you factor in the 43% who disapprove of America’s leadership,” Quartz reported, “Trump now has a global net approval rating lower than Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.”
American power rests on a sturdy economic and military foundation that took many generations to build. It’ll take more than one president to destroy it. What Trump can do, though, is destroy allies’ faith in America. And that, combined with the growing ambition of China and Russia, could destabilize the entire world.