Fighting for Peace Against an Empire in Decline

(This presentation was given to the United for Justice with Peace Conference in Boston, October 1, 2011)

Max Elbaum

It’s always difficult to identify the underlying motion & historical trends shaping our political moment. Especially so for activists focused on urgent tasks.  But it is an important component of our efforts to tackle this. We’ve been fighting the war on terror for a decade; many of us have been opposing racist imperial wars for decades before that.  Clearly we are dealing with problems deeply embedded in the U.S. political and economic structure, not just accidents or the policies of one administration or another. So the charge I’ve been given by conference organizers is to kick off a discussion of the processes that are likely to shape world for the next decade and beyond; and to draw out some of implications for peace movement.


I will try to do that by hitting a few major themes. First, draw out three key trends that are dramatically changing the map of global power and the way millions live. These imply that the period ahead will be extremely volatile, conflict-ridden and dangerous, but also full of opportunities for our side. Second, hit on a few of the social and political forces that these trends generate in U.S. politics, what that means for the terrain we’ll be fighting on next decade and more. Finally, identify some of factors favoring the side of peace and justice if we can leverage them to maximum advantage.


Point one: Power is slipping away from U.S. and being diffused over rest of the globe.  This is not a temporary or short-term phenomenon. There is a deep trend of declining U.S. economic and political power; what’s more, it’s accelerating, moving faster than had been predicted just a few years ago.

  • The U.S. still has the largest economy in the world. But GDP was down to 25% of the world economy in 1990, now it’s down to 20%. It was 50% in 1945.
  • China is projected to overtake the U.S. in five years. This is a change from projections just a decade ago, when this was supposed to take place in 2040 or 2050. Accompanied by rise of other BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India – and the global south generally. More and more South-South direct trade and relations, these used to go through the north.
  • Hollowed out economic base U..S; manufacturing in huge decline, losing lead in key technology like green energy. U.S. infrastructure is collapsing. While other countries build fast rail, the U.S. in the last decade lost two major cities, with no serious rebuilding effort. Does anyone in this room think it is an accident that New Orleans & Detroit were centers of African American life and political & cultural power?
  • Economics and politics: Jim O’Neill, chair of asset management at Goldman Sachs, writes: “the world is no longer dependent on leadership U.S. and Europe.” Analyst Juan Cole says: “Just a decade ago the U.S. was castigated by its critics as a hyper-power. Now it is beset by debt, mired in economic doldrums provoked by the corruption of its business classes and on the verge of withdrawing from Iraq and ultimately Afghanistan in defeat.”  Cole may be too optimistic about the withdrawal part, but he is certainly right that both of these were and are big defeats for the U.S.
  • U.S. military power remains unsurpassed, but even that usefulness is blunted. The military adventures started after 9/11 were aimed at turning the Middle East into a neo-colony and ensuring another 100 years of U.S. global domination. It was supposed to be one regime change after another favoring the U.S. Remember the time when the elite slogan was ‘wimps go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran”? It didn’t work. In fact, it has shown the limits of U.S. military power, over-extended the U.S. politically, militarily & financially and accelerated the U.S. decline.

Point 2: Demographic changes around the globe and in the U.S.

  • Globe has 7 billion people. 27% are under 15 years of age. Most in the global South.
  • About 5 billion are of working age, 3 billion want to be in work force. But globally there are only 1.2 billion actual full-time formal jobs. This means 1.8 billion people without regular work – left to the subsistence, informal economy, or migrating/traveling looking for work. And this at a time when ruling elites’ policy worldwide is austerity. The connection between this and upheavals in world so obvious it’s in the mainstream press: Arab spring driven by unemployed/underemployed young people; direct connection between austerity and the drug war and violence in Mexico, whose consequences are vastly underestimated by U.S. elite and most Anglos.
  • Particular point about U.S.: people of color percentage rising, majority people of color country by year 2050 or so.  Unstoppable process driven not just by immigration but also higher birthrates among peoples of color. There is a direct connection between this demographic shift and the right’s desperate sense that they need to “take our country back.”

Point 3: Humanity is at the end of the era of cheap fossil fuel energy, and in early stages of human-induced climate change.

  • For a couple hundred years the world economy has been powered by cheap oil. Now the ‘low hanging fruit’ (cheapest oil to extract) is gone while demand for energy is up. So there is a scramble for it by all powers, and the Middle East, which still contains the largest reserves of oil, are thus in everyone’s target sights. Amid climate change caused by burning this fuel: changing where there is arable land, where water resources are, what areas are habitable. People are on the move – again young people as above. Under-commented on dynamics in the crises in Libya and Sudan, migration northward to Europe. More and more land in the regions of Africa near the Sahara are turning into desert.
  • Michael Klare writes extensively about this, terming the present an era of wars for oil and (soon) water: an era of “resource wars.”
  • Which is the general conclusion of how these trends add up: Periods of imperial decline, with other powers on the rise, have traditionally been full of wars and conflict. Tendencies toward that scenario are obviously present today: we’re in a volatile period of transition from one global arrangement to whatever comes next, a transition where there is a sharp clash of class and national interests. The question is not whether those interests clash, but what form will those clashes take, how violent will it be, who will gain initiative and advantage? All intensified by millions of young unemployed with no economic prospects; and climate change. We are headed into a very difficult time. Not talking about one year or two; these conditions underlie politics for the next decade and more.

Next topic: How is this translating into large-social forces in U.S. politics?

  • There is a large body of folks who are freaked out by the fact that white America is losing its place “on top”; they see themselves as victims of growing numbers of uppity dark-skinned people abroad and at home. They are readying themselves to resist this by any means necessary. Their reactionary efforts are taking many forms, from the Tea Party to the Christian right, to openly racist groups with arms. Their slogan is “take our country back.” These folks are trying not just to reverse the Civil Rights Movement and the New Deal; they are still fighting the Civil War. This conflict has been a central thread of U.S. history and is resurfacing in new forms today.
  • Overlapping the above but not identical to it, a segment of the U.S. elite believes military force can be utilized to prevent U.S. losses and regain domination. These are the unreconstructed Neocons.  They have learned nothing from Iraq much less Vietnam, or they don’t care. To them, the U.S. has one ace, military power, and they want to use it. Just this week hawk Sen. Lindsay Graham said essentially we should add a war against Pakistan to the list of wars Washington is already fighting.
  • It’s no surprise these two sections are increasingly intertwined with the Israeli right wing. Israel’s settler colonialism is also based on addiction to permanent war and a racist view of others, for them Arabs and Muslims in particular. And the alliance between the U.S. and Israeli right is not just a factor world politics, it penetrates U.S. domestic politics. This alliance pushes a thoroughly racialized ‘clash of civilizations’ world view, where a white “Judeo-Christian” civilization is battling against dark-skinned Islam. The folks who have been on top in the global power configuration and are occupying Palestinian land see themselves as the victims; and few things are more dangerous than oppressors with huge arsenals of weapons who see themselves as victims.
  • Then there is a more realist wing of the elite. This set wants to shore up U.S. hegemony but realizes that U.S. power has limits in a changing world. So they want to use a different mix of military force and “soft power”; they prefer to be less unilateral and are willing to make concessions in some areas if pressured enough. These are the folks Noam Chomsky says at least dwell in the real world. But military force is still in their arsenal; their weapons of choice are drones and special ops and high tech, not major invasions and large-scale deployments of ground troops.
  • Finally there are the millions who are hurt most by empire – immigrant communities, communities of color, the working class and the labor movement, large numbers of youth and women overlapping with these other social categories. For the most part these sectors are oriented toward some kind of change in the country’s priorities and the U.S. role in the world. But these constituencies have been battered by 30 years of neoliberalism and are under fierce attack today as the ruling class is pushing social austerity, an all-out assault on the public sector, attempts to smash the labor movement, restrict voting rights for poor people and people of color, and so on. This potentially powerful majority is fragmented, its organizations have been weakened, its material resources diminished and its fighting capacity and self-confidence have taken a hit since late ’60s/early ’70s. It is not (yet) organized into a strong peace-jobs-justice-sustainability bloc that has durability, muscle and the flexibility to deal with the complexities of a landscape that is marked by extreme danger from the far right and simultaneously war-making and austerity from the more realist sectors of elite who oppose the Tea Party extremists. There is a base of millions for that kind of progressive bloc, and many of its potential component parts are visible. But it has not yet been brought into being.

Last Topic: Implications for the peace movement:  


We face a long difficult fight ahead. We should go into it with our eyes open and buckle up for a bumpy ride. But there are important factors in our favor that give us reasonable prospects of putting big dents in the war-makers’ plans and eventually bringing an end to this madness. Obviously from all the above, I think we have to be hard-nosed about what we are up against. Still I am hopeful, even optimistic, about our prospects. As Tom Hayden emphasizes, change happens slowly except when it happens fast. I’m of the generation that lived through the huge change from the 1950s to the 1960s; I saw those southern governors on those university steps saying ‘segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’; and then a few short years later, Jim Crow was history. There are many factors that favor our side and we can see, for instance with the spreading Occupy Wall Street motion, that our side is starting to stir.

  • One, the powers on the rise do not have military industrial complexes as deeply structured into their DNA as the U.S. does. They are not necessarily good guys, and the decline of U.S. power does not have as flip side the advance of a socialist or non-capitalist world revolutionary process as most of the left believed – for good reasons – from 1917 through the 1980s. But still, we are not seeing right now a simple repeat of previous periods when there was a shift in global power, where rising powers sought to challenge the existing hegemon militarily. Other countries know that is a fool’s course; and what’s more, many understand that war doesn’t even win much for the winning war-makers in today’s modern world. Occupation and direct colonialism (with a few exceptions, most notably Palestine – but also Puerto Rico) are remnants of the past century.
  • Two, there are growing limits on the ability of the U.S. empire to wage war. It’s hard for Washington to deploy troops. The U.S. populace learned something from experience even if many in the elite did not. The failed wars Iraq and Afghanistan, against the backdrop of Vietnam, has made the majority tired of these deployments. Even the right wing, for instance, can’t gin up its base for the war in Afghanistan; that’s one reason decided to make support for Israel rather than staying in Afghanistan the key line of attack on Obama regarding foreign policy for 2012. We will be battling many in isolationalist camp on a host of issues, but this fatigue in their base is a hindrance on war makers.
  • And then there is the economy. The empire is under financial strain, it is finding it hard to pay for its military adventures. Historically that’s been one of the key things of empires going down: they go broke and allies desert. We seeing signs of these things happening already.
  • Most important, the people in their millions have stepped on the stage of history and the majority are for peace. Even if demonstrations like the “World Says No to War” outpouring in February 2003 are not happening right now, the global public is still the “second superpower.” We see that in the Arab Spring, the Pink Tide in Latin America, the germinating protests in Europe, and hopefully the motion now starting in the U.S. will gather steam as well. And here in the U.S., over time, the demographics are on our side; the older whiter base of the right is a shrinking proportion of the populace, the younger and more heavily people of color sectors are growing in size.
  • Of course, it is not simple or automatic to translate these factors and mass upheavals into a coherent, durable force for a peace-jobs-justice-save-the-planet agenda, much less an agenda for fundamental social transformation. But it can happen, if there is a body of dedicated organizers who are strategic and in it for the long haul. Allow me to end on that note, by tinkering a bit with words from the person who was, in my view, the most outstanding combination of a political leader & a brilliant intellectual U.S. society has produced in the last 60 years, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“The moral arc of the universe is indeed long, and the way it bends will depend on us.”