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Mortal Splendor: THE AMERICAN EMPIRE IN TRANSITION by Walter Russell Mead(Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 381 pp.)

July 05, 1987|Milton Moskowitz | Moskowitz is a business journalist who is completing a book on multinational corporations.

Most Americans, clinging to an innocence of yesteryear, would probably be surprised to learn that there is an American empire whose hegemony extends over the non-Communist world. And just as they might be getting used to the idea (there's nothing like American flags protecting Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf to confirm this point), along comes Walter Russell Mead with the news that it's all over. We may be the shortest-reigning empire on record.

In "Mortal Splendor," Mead chronicles and forecasts what he calls "the basic political fact" of our times--"the decline, and ultimately, the fall of the American Empire." He does so with an impressive and insightful grasp of history.

The American empire, says Mead, emerged from a World War II bargain: "Britain Ltd. and France SA rejected a hostile takeover bid from Germany and called in the United States as a 'white knight' suitor." It signaled the end of European colonialism. After the w1634872352and its bloc--took its cues from the United States."

Empire, Mead reminds us, "breeds resistance; all of history bears out this statement. The American Empire is no exception; political and military movements opposed to American power have sprung up on four continents since the Second World War. There is no reason to suppose that such development will cease in the years to come."

Mead faults both liberals and conservatives for their inability to grapple with the problems confronting a declining empire. He characterizes Jimmy Carter as "the accountant of decline," a believer in simple idealism who didn't realise that his Democratic predecessors--Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson--had been just as deceitful as Nixon.

In reaction to the ambiguity of the Carter years, Ronald Reagan and the American right came to power. They were at least clear about what they wanted to do. Mead characterizes their message to the Third World as follows: "Pay off your foreign loans, cut back on your social spending, and allow the continued exploitation of your labor and raw materials by foreign-owned companies." And he adds: "It can be no surprise that a government with such a program is desperately worried about the spread of international terrorism."

The triumph of Reaganism was accompanied by a revival of apocalyptic thinking, which is, Mead points out, "characteristic of social groups that see no clear way into the future; it is a world view characteristic of a dying class."

According to Mead, the decline of the American empire has continued no matter who has been in the White House. "Nixon attempted to outmaneuver the forces of decline; Carter tried to make peace with them; and in both cases the realities of American decline destroyed the political power of the administration. It fell to Reagan to discover how the United States could, temporarily, be governed even as the process of decline accelerated." What Reagan did, says Mead, is simply to declare disasters--return of Vietnam POWs, receptions of Iranian hostages--victories. "These celebrations provide a focus for national pride, but they should not be confused with the achievements of an empire on the rise," notes Mead.

Mead concludes that the "United States appears firmly committed to a policy that risks defeat for the empire and disaster for the nation" and that "the outlook for democracy in the United States is not good."

Eighty percent of "The Mortal Splendor" is devoted to such ruminations. Even Mead is depressed by his analysis. And so in the last section of his book, he tells us how we can avoid the fate of Rome. His basic prescription is to make common cause with the peoples of the Third World. He makes the dramatic point that the people who today are subjects of the American empire live in a "single economic and political entity that is more interdependent than the thirteen colonies were in 1776." However, most of those people have little or nothing to say about what goes on in the government of the empire (the United States). That won't work in the future, warns Mead, any more than the United States could work half-slave, half-free or as a house divided against itself. The aim of the United States, he insists, should be to become " primus inter pares in a kind of global commonwealth."

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