The Fall of the US Empire – and Then What?

Sunday, September 5th, 2010 | Uncategorized

When I returned to the US after two months of travels this summer I couldn’t help noticing the significant signs of decay. Compared with the vibrant energy of places like Brazil, China, South Africa, and Indonesia, the US feels like a country in decline. Even the so-called old Europe—usually referred to in terms of Eurosclerosis—seems to be more innovative these days. Germany’s current unemployment rate is below its pre-crisis figure (compared with a record-high 9.5% in the US, that in reality is more like 17% if you include people that gave up looking for a job or survive with low pay part time jobs) and its second-quarter growth of 9% compares favorably with the 1.6% rate in the US. But what’s worse is the negative social impact: about 50 million Americans temporarily have not enough to eat; and one in eight Americans—and one in four (!!) children—are living on food stamps. Schools are closing. Roads are not being repaired. Bridges are crumbling. Inner cities are still in a downward spiral. Although the stimulus projects have been doing some good, the physical, social, and educational infrastructure of the country continues to be in steep decline. Yet, the US continues to spend its powerful resources to the wrong ends: fighting two wars that can’t be won (with more than $1 trillion spent to date, and 1.2 million people killed in Iraq alone after the invasion), maintaining more than 760 military bases outside the US in about 150 countries (for comparison, at the height of the Roman Empire, the Romans had an estimated 37 major military bases, at the height of the British Empire, the British had 36 of them planetwide). Currently, almost half of the $ 1.5 trillion world military spending is accounted for by one single country: the US.

Over the past 30 years, the average income of men in the US has not changed (about $45k, inflation adjusted). Yet over the same period, GDP grew by 110%. So where did the surplus go? To the top. In 1950, the earning ratio between CEO and shop floor worker was 30:1. Currently, that ratio is at 300:1. Today, the top 1% of the population owns 37% of all assets, while the bottom 80% share no more than 12%. This gap continues to widen. The Bush tax cuts were another $1.7 trillion expense that contributed to widening this gap.

In 1980, the peace researcher Johan Galtung predicted the fall of the Soviet empire within a decade. In early 1989 I heard him bet publicly that the Berlin Wall would crumble “before the end of the year” (which it did on November 9, pretty much on schedule, as we all know).

In 2000, Galtung predicted the fall of the US empire by 2025—but then, when George W. Bush was elected, he revised his prediction by 5 years to 2020 (based on the assumption that Bush would significantly accelerate the process of decline, which of course he did). The fall of the US empire, according to Galtung, could possibly benefit US citizens and lead to a blossoming of the republic. Or, in another scenario, it might lead to a more fascist reaction to the current crisis (for more detail see Galtung’s most recent book, The Fall of the US Empire—And Then What?).

So, looking at how the US shows more and more symptoms of a third world country, and looking at the paralysis of the current political system and how the financial oligarchy is tightening its grip on our beautiful country, the question on the table is what keeps us from changing this? Why do we continue to move trillions of dollars to bankers, billionaires, and ill-conceived wars? Why not redirect the same streams of money to areas with where it could have a profoundly positive social impact: conditional cash transfers to poor people and communities (which Brazil has used with major success), massive investments in education, green technologies (which China does with great success), and hybrid social and business entrepreneurship, which could move urban and rural communities from despair to social, economic, and ecological well-being. What’s holding us back?

21 Comments to The Fall of the US Empire – and Then What?

Ivica Baraba
September 6, 2010

I agree with all written here, thank you for this post.

I think that the US American leaders/systems are still stuck in an old, patriarchical mental model. There is a lack of awareness about how different things are interrelated. To me the fact that they are waging war is a good example for that, particularly the way these two wars are being operated, in a very linear way.

Greetings from one of one of your CBA 1st generation students!

September 6, 2010

I appreciate your reflections Otto, as you close your post you wonder why we don’t make different decisions. As someone who has been working for change for a long time, I think that our problem is that the very structures that we have in place for deciding AND for implementing are themselves falling short.

Yes – we have a privileged sliver of the population that seems to manipulate hate and fear at a popular level, and that’s one big challenge. But when I hear calls for investments in things like education(which of course I think is essential), I must also consider both, the obstacles to making that choice (vs. how easy it was to choose war) as well as how those investments will be implemented.

I wonder how our emergent thinking can be put to use to address these significant structural constraints.

Juergen Große-Puppendahl
September 6, 2010

Otto, you asked “what’s holding us back?”.
You mentioned Johan Galtung whose peace, conflict, development, and civilization theories and his Transcend method are really profound. Accordingly let me transfer your question “What’s holding us back” into the question “What is the underlying root problem?” It might be that the decline in the US has to do with deep cultural assumptions (cosmologies). A cosmology of a civilization is understood as the collective unconscious ideas of what constitutes the normal and natural reality. These ideas are not necessarily conscious and encompass acc. to Galtung assumptions on nature, self, society, time, episteme etc. According to Galtung deep cultural assumptions are often the root causes of conflicts and consequently of taking wrong turns.

So, what are the underlying civilization assumptions in the US, contributing to the crisis and how could a therapy beside the U-therapy look like?

Deborah Knox
September 6, 2010

Otto, You might enjoy reading How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins if you have not already. While he is looking at how formerly highly successful companies falter and even die outright, I feel like the pattern he identified has can be applied to many phenomena. Using his terminology, we may be in Denial of the Brutal Facts and Grasping for Salvation stages.

Deborah Knox

Erik Mathijs
September 6, 2010

Hi Otto,
Pretty strong analysis. It makes me wonder what makes one stay in the USA if the real action is happening elsewhere? There must be another side to the coin…

Cyntrhia Parker
September 7, 2010

Thanks for this post. One more subtle (?)sign of decay:US students rank 21 or lower globally on math and science but 1st in the world in confidence.The “America is the greatest” is a paradigm that will need mountains of disconfirming evidence to dislodge. Trouble is it could easily be replaced with fear that being dislodged as #1 necessarily means becoming a victim.

Allan Jaenicke
September 9, 2010

The fall of any empire is a natural and necessary event. We have grown up with a sense of entitlement to have more than we had yesterday. We want salary increases, not decreases, to enable us to have better health (insurance), happiness (experiences) and love (status).

The inevitable fall (disruption) is largely attributable to the fact that we are fearful of losing what we have (or believe we are entitled to.) There could be an alternative way to better health, more happiness and more love. But if it means losing the established road towards that goal, we resist.

As a result, the empire falls and a new one is created elsewhere…but as long as it is a better empire, who cares?

September 10, 2010

You ask: “What is holding us back?”

Is it not that top bracket that holds 37% of the wealth?

I would be very very interested to hear your ideas about how money is tied to social, ecological, and cultural poverty or growth. Is it possible to make movements forward in such a climate? Is it possible to change that wealth structure without force or without devastation?

Michael Dickens
September 13, 2010

“Over the past 30 years, the average income of men in the US has not changed (about $45k, inflation adjusted). Yet over the same period, GDP grew by 110%.”

I assume you meant median income, because mean income would reflect the rise in GDP.

On a more general note, I don’t see how you make the point that income disparity is widening and one in four children live off of food stamps [citation needed] and then conclude that the US is going to crumble.

I think what you have to say is interesting and there’s maybe something to it, but it’s too wrapped in rhetoric and backed up with misleading or misused statistics.

Ronny Warelius
September 15, 2010

I totally agree with the prediction Johan Galtung has made, without knowing of his predictions I put my money on 2020 about a year ago (I was 19 at the time so hadn’t gathered enough knowledge to even know if there was something wrong before that or I think I would’ve probably joined in around year 2000) (quite a number of my friends are placing bets on it. and the … funny or very unfunny thing is that only a single person put his money on a year passed 2035).

It has just been this perfect storm of greed, poor city-planning (you can’t walk to anything in the states anymore cus every single road and parking-lot takes up so much space), heavy vehicles, short-term destruction of infrastructure (for short-term profits) and a lifetime of thousands of sacrifices for all kinds of moral highgrounds (when something was bad, people just said it was nessesary and lived with it instead of saying “hell no! we had it good yesterday so you better make it better than yesterday today”.

I couldn’t mention all the stuff that’s gone wrong in USA if I had a year to do it, and the only reason the population haven’t taken up their weapons for the reason they was intented for (to revolt incase of crazy goverment), is because they believe France, Canada, UK, Norway and Cuba has a crappier situation than the US of A. And the reason for this is, the media as a corporation has had the right to influence elections since 1979.

Matt Nixon
September 16, 2010


I am sure you are partly wanting to stimulate a debate here. Well done – it is a good topic.

Have you read “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman? He writes a quite compelling case for why the US is far from finished and in fact will remain the dominant world power in the 21st century.

Here is a quote that I rather liked from the book:

“American culture is the manic combination of exultant hubris and profound gloom. The net result is a sense of confidence constantly undermined by the fear that we may be drowned by melting ice caps caused by global warming or smitten dead by a wrathful God for gay marriage, both outcomes being our personal responsibility. American mood swings make it hard to develop a real sense of the United States at the beginning of the twenty first century. But the fact is that the United States is stunningly powerful. It may be that it is heading for catastrophe, but it is hard to see one when you look at the basic facts.”

In his analysis, the US is uniquely poised for further dominance. The self-critical nature of the US’s “adolescent” culture (his word) is partly what stimulates its constant ability to renew itself. And its global position with two coasts, the strongest military forces etc make it very hard to knock off top spot.

Not sure I buy all he says, but it is interesting to consider whether the common views (eg China will outgrow the US etc) really are based on long term forecasts and facts about how the global economy and power really works.

I for one have not written the USA off quite yet!

September 16, 2010

Everything you say is true. What then is holding us back from doing the rational thing, rather than allowing the irrational widening of inequalities, charging into wars, ecological destruction?

The big issue you ignore is the issue of POWER.

While the USA is nominally a democracy, in reality it makes little difference who you vote for.

Most people voted for Obama, implying that they supported a programme of change largely similar to the one you outline. Has this happened?

No because Obama is unable to challenge the big corporate multinationals that hold the real power, and which still provide most of the funding for his party.

Until questions of who holds power are actually addressed, political and social change will not happen.

September 17, 2010


Everything that you said in your post seems to resonate with me. B. Obama campaigned on what seemed to be a strong current of “change” and I tend to believe that in many situations, he recognizes (or at least feels) that to “change” is to shift the structure or recurring feedback loops that make up the system of governance, and thus behavior, in this country. Without considerable change in that structure, it is and will continue to be incredibly difficult to create change . . . unless, at a true grassroots level, individuals can begin changing the their sphere of attention.

Cisco Gonzales
September 23, 2010

I agree as well, including colleagues who attended university here in the USA 20 years ago and upon returning to the America they too are surprised and saddened at the number of homeless people or people simply begging in the streets. Read Paul Krugman he offers some good insights on where all of that great wealth went.

Michael Bischoff
September 24, 2010

My understanding is that we, as a country, are addicted… addicted to cheap oil, cheap money, and privilege. In that addiction, we’re mostly in denial. Having worked some with people in recovery from drugs and alcohol, I have hope that we, as a country can recover. We won’t start the recovery, though, till we’re able to get to the 1st step–admitting that we, by our own wills, are powerless over the addiction and turning to a deep source for guidance and correction.

Siddhartha Banerjee
September 25, 2010

I haven’t quite written the US off (Matt), either. The US can still turn on a dime compared to other countries. But I am far from optimistic that US cosmologies which Juergen (Große-Puppendahl) refers to above so tellingly will permit it to adapt to a post-imperial future.

Nations are held captive by their historical experiences (“downloading”, in Otto’s Phrase) and in the US case, so far, war or domination has always worked in subjugating competitors – whether for land, ideology or political power.

Vietnam was a punctuation mark in this trajectory. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan are the shape of things to come. Spread thin and increasingly on the defensive, the US has not recognized that the world has changed, that the half-life of force is increasingly limited, and that the age of divinely chosen nations to rule the earth has conclusively passed.

But these realities are not reflected in the national conversation. So, force still enjoys enormous legitimacy in the US as a problem-solving tool, over adaptation, education, and cultural alignment with a new world.

John Maloney
September 26, 2010
aurora TILLON
September 28, 2010

Thank you for this post Otto ! What ‘s holding us back? It is a big question …
Before 1989, we all understood the divides: free markets versus controlled economies; competition and individualism versus communal causes; paid versus free health care; individual affluence and freedom versus distributed wealth and self-effacement. Upon moving from the Eastern to the Western Europe, I experienced a loss in values I grew up with: altruism, solidarity, and empathy.
In my understanding, the current crisis is exposing a pandemic loss in these aforementioned values, along with a rationalized collapse in confidence, trust, and equality (ex. huge bonuses next to massive restructuring etc.) I think that this situation, although excessive, is a symptom of our values system and it it also what keeps us back from changing.
Yet, an attitude of “every man for himself” cannot continue. The challenge will be financial, technological, but above all human and social. If the technological or financial solutions cannot be overlooked in answering to this systemic crisis, it won’t be sufficient without a new position about the world or without (re)thinking what we want for ourselves and for the humanity. A globalized change in mentality can occur by a reevaluation of our values, and a recalibration of our behavior to uphold values that will help building a new global society and a new economy for people, more equitable and sustainable; values we uphold to ourselves, the others, and the planet…

September 29, 2010

wow — what a great conversation here. Matt and Siddhartha, to your points: yes, i have not written off the US either — the forces of renewal are enormous here — but still somewhat dormant at this point (i elaborate on that in my next blog entry posted today). Michael — in regard to the numbers, i need to look up the source, maybe its average worker salary or so, but i don’t think that the general point i made is in dispute: the the middle class by and large missed out on the gains, while the surplus went to the top. And yes, political power and how money is buying it (and the media that belong to it) is a BIG issue. I also agree with Juergen that deep cultural assumptions (cosmologies, in Galtung’s words) are key for all of this. an example is when you compare how china and how the West implemented the ideas of markets and entrepreneurialism over the past 30 years (see my next blog entry).
tbc — otto

David Cooper
November 1, 2010

Otto, In addition to your clarion call to an acute awareness of the challenges that we face in the U.S., I must also draw our attention to the devastating effects of America being the world’s number one incarcerator (jailer).

According to a Pew Charitable Trust report that begins with the words, ” For the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison—a fact that significantly impacts state budgets without delivering a clear return on public safety” (, we have an issue that has become a political leveraging tool that is not producing the results being promised by fear-instilling, get-tough-on-crime politicians.

The United States spends over $61 billion annually to house and manage over 2.7 million prisoners and 4.7 million probationers/parolees. Many of these people are imprisoned for non-violent offenses and could be safely rehabilitated at far less expense than the cost of incarceration.

The current rate of U.S. incarceration and its long-term devastating effects are economically, socially, and morally unsustainable.

Carl Damm
November 3, 2010

Hi Otto,

I think that the US has put itself in a defeated stance position, a battle that is already lost.

As you share about the military bases all across the planet and expenditures to maintain these, it seems like the US has projected forward an image as world leader that it is now trying to maintain, this costs a lot of energy and resources, for it is not an identity that carries itself…that is sustainable.

There was a recent study done where a class was divided by two. Both parts got the same test. One half was complimented for their effort in accomplishing the test (the inner drive). The other was complimented for their talents (the outside affirmation drive).

It turned out that the ones that were complimented by their talents, lost their motivation for becoming better and even started lying about their grades to maintain their talent image in the eye of their sourroundings, whilst the ones complimented for their effort, became better and better through sustained effort.

I think the US has put itself in a dangerous position with a very clear identity in the world it is now struggling to maintain.

It seems like there is a letting go proces coming up a head and the deep need to ask:

Who Are We as a country?
And What Is Our Work in this world?

With Love,

Will the Smith from Denmark

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