A Critical Review: ‘The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World’

Sarah Buttle

‘The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World’ 

Immanuel Wallerstein who is the credited author of this unprecedented; both of academic writings and personal; collections of a lifetime studying the capitalist driven, hegemonic founding, geographically blessed state and the founder and enforcer of democracy and liberty- The United States of America.

Both declining rapidly as the leading world Actor and superpower of the twenty first century in terms of economics and trade, Wallerstein ventures through the historic events of the American civilisation. In a single text, he manages to comprehend the notorious failures of the United States.

The control of power no longer lies with the traditional superpowers of the late 19th and 20th century. From my discoveries of Wallerstein’s theories, I must admit fear, but above all I must admit anger. We now live in a chaotic time of unstable enemies and allies alike, and who is to blame? Well I will leave that question to the next reader of this great tale of American Decline in the 21st century.

The success of a book covering a major conflict or war, or even an entire nations decline of economic power and relevance in terms of retaining control and global power, is a task that acquires great skill and political and social knowledge. I quickly become aware and quite overwhelmed by how many socio-economic, cultural and religious conflicts America has been involved in throughout the last century. I was also overwhelmed by the scale of self-inflicted conflicts American has embarked upon, for ungodly reasoning’s through foreign policies.

I would like to share what I believe is the core message of his writings, the raw comparison of the economic state of the world order we witness today to that of ‘cancers that are metastasising all over the place’. It was clear that the author is both an academic and a theorist, making the text which is primarily too small in size to begin with, difficult to comprehend at times.

I found myself persevering through a slight sum of pages, with terminology becoming as alien as when first encountered.  Followed by an array of awkwardly long sentence structures throughout, it was indeed a difficult read. This being said, it was indeed a vast and courageous task to undertake for any writer. Quite honestly, I was indeed ignorant to this area of our history books. To say that I can now comprehend to a reasonable and adequate standard the decline of the American century, is a salute to the author Wallerstein.

Wallerstein was one of few academics who predicted the global economic crash of 2008 and it is on this alone that I would give him my full confidence and indeed absolute credibility.

‘The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World’ was published in 2003, the same year that U.S. President George W. Bush and its Pan-European partner Prime Minister Tony Blair,  aided the Bush Administration on the ground in both Vietnam and Afghanistan. This set out their coalition mission which was to end communism and defeat the USSR. Finally, they wanted to eliminate potential threats from dictatorships such as Saddam Hussein and his Islamic State supporters, but keeping certain regions in control of American and British control. The regions I mention are those who contain the worlds finite natural resources.

This began the war on terrorism, as in hindsight we can now see that this power did in fact defeat Suddam Hussein, but the war and conflict was only beginning for the Iraqis. They were the victims of a civil war, and possible the largest victim of the U.S.

So the war on terrorism prevails, although Wallerstein suggests this is Americas own causing, and this theory I now deem to be true as we look to the Middle east as of 2017. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Patrick Cockburn was a commissioned journalistic, dedicated to being on the front line just before the invasion. In his findings he confirms that the U.S. presence in Iraq created a much more violent and unstable country, and far worse than when Suddam Hussein was in control of Iraq, (Cockburn, 2006, pg.22).

The occupation of Iraq by U.S.A to stabiles the Iraqi state was a complete failure which I have noted from three other key readings in understanding world order, global geopolitics and global conflict: ‘World in Crisis’ published in 2009 and ‘Another Century of War’ published 2002, both written by Gabriel Kolko and thirdly, ‘The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq’ published in 2007 and written by Patrick Cockburn.

Understanding the geopolitics and essentially the importance of the geographical situation of states and regions and how they can have implications in terms of politics and particularly, Iraq’s oil reserves. ‘Prisoners of Geography’ written by Tim Marshall comprehends the constrains world leaders and their ideologies in globalisation and free market regimes are and will always be physically constrained by geography. Without reading these other sources, I may not have appreciated the entire context of Wallerstein’s book.

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This is causing repercussions and havoc in regions, who just merely act as the U.S’s stepping stone to the bigger players containing actual finite resources (gold, oil, petroleum). The big Actors like US, Russia, UK, China and Japan frankly are not concerned about those stones. I presumed that any agenda by the occupation in areas of conflict was to disarm weapons of mass destruction that could now or in future wars be used against the U.S. military.

This in hand would destroy or reduce the economic power and control that the Pentagon have dominantly held since 1945. This is with the exception of Japan, the Soviet Union (which we saw dissolved at the end of the century) and of course, the United Kingdom whom the U.S. are strongly reliant upon as a world ally. Increasingly, this relationship with the UK and the EU has never been more crucial, with unforeseen accounts of conflict rising.

Having read ‘The Decline of American Power’ which now fourteen years old, it does send shivers down your spine to think that Wallerstein essentially predicted, what Samuel P. Huntington also admitted in ‘The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order’, that similarly to Marx theory, that inevitably our capitalist economic theory, based on neoliberal ideologies which are no longer relevant, must be replaced with a new world order, operating potentially underneath a socialist economy (Wallerstein, 2003, p.102).

In part 1 of his book, which details accounts that the decline of the United States has arrived and that the ‘Eagle Has Crash Landed’. It states how the hegemonic power in the post-war period resulted in the conditions of the nations ‘hegemonic demise’. He concludes this by reflecting previous symbols that combined together are the reasoning’s for Americas lonely state as a world superpower. These processes are the war in Vietnam, the revolutions of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

He further paints the reality that America is in fact “a lone super-power that lacks true power a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously amidst a global chaos it cannot control”,(Wallerstein, 2003, p.17). 

As Wallerstein’s states; in ‘Part II. Multiple Rhetoric’s and Realities’ of his book; “We have entered into a long period of chaotic transformation of the world-system of which we are part. Its outcome is intrinsically unpredictable. But on the other hand we can influence its outcomes. This is the message of the sciences of complexity. This is the message that social sciences should be conveying today”, (Wallerstein, 2003, p.94).

With the Presidential campaign of Hilary Clinton and President Donald Trump, the increase in global warming disasters and the future of the European Union now being questioned, the stability of what and what once was a united world against communism is now in post-communism and post-USSR world.  It is clear we have not one common enemy, but rising internal enemies deriving from centuries of oppression from evil dictatorships and communist terrors. But also deriving from interferences made mistakenly and ignorantly by the United States of American, predominately under the Bush administration from 2001-2009.

Here we saw huge conflict arising from the Middle East, (Cockburn, 2006, pg.4,5 and 22). The United States after 1947 attempted to interfere and aimed to control a very large part of the change that occurred throughout the world, and a significant part of what is wrong with today is that result of American’s interventions as we can now see from the Vietnam War, the Afghan War, the Iraq Occupation, the Lebanon, Korea and many more. 

Others have paid for their consequences, and now the United States is looking like it also must pay and perhaps the event of 9/11 that shook the western world was the first indication that the U.S. was fighting a new war- a war against an emerging resilient force of militants, all sharing the same ideologies of the disapproval of the occupation of the U.S. in foreign regions, (Kolko, 2009, pg. 95)

“The American century was a geopolitical reality, one in which the other so-called superpower, the U.S.S.R., had a role, but not really the power to do anything but strut around in its cage; and then, in 1989, the cage imploded- With this implosion, the underlying political justification for U.S. hegemony disappeared, and the geopolitics of the world-system would now change’, (Wallerstein, 2003, pg. 38).

In 1972, there had been many press reports in America show casing to the entire nation, striking photos that would see surface as evidence for all claims which were being made against the United States occupation was indeed part taking in an immoral war, photos including burned skin hanging in shreds from Vietnamese babies, to prisoners of war being shot and countless slaughters, which portrayed the real horrors of war inflicted by the US. Soldiers reportedly did not want any part of future wars, even in a defensive posture, reported by Jim Bennet of ABC News (Griffin, 2012).

I give this example as it shares the same view as Wallerstein views the American military today– unnecessary and inhumane with no moral reasons to hold account such torture. They share the view that the U.S. will find any plausible excuse for funding foreign expenditure to a forgivable extent: the illusion of terrorism will be portrayed, but who were we really fighting? The failures in Iraq were possibly the first major light bulb moment that the decline of American control had begun. I have learned most of what I write from the primary bases of reading ‘The Decline of American Power’, and from this I can now discuss the decline of such a superpower that I must give full credit to Immanuel on his work, critically explaining the causes which resulted in the decline of American power: both at war in its foreign policies and at home.

I must now note, which I deem the most obvious critique of this book, and this is unfortunate to Wallerstein’s ambitions, not long after this book was published, America transitioned into further turmoil, loss and interference in Iraq and beyond. America is now turning into what is now a descending avalanche, of unprecedented change and unknown enemies.

All formal opposition groups of the U.S. occupations in the twentieth century across regions of Africa, Latin America, and of course the USSR former states and the Middle East (Turks, Kurds, Sunni, Shi). China remains in close proximity to U.S. intelligence and the CIA, but they do not impose further threats, bar that of nuclear power as they strive to become the world’s elite market share holder.

Relations with Russia seem to be an unforeseen transition, as Putin now focuses his attention with Iran an indeed its main trader, China in their foreign policy. Aside from the Iraqi Arab hostility to the occupation the US faced a number of problems of its own making after Wallerstein published his account of the decline of American power.

President George W. Bush pursued in 2002-2003 exactly the opposite diplomatic course of his father in 1990-1991. He spurned international legitimacy or the support of the UN. But once Saddam was gone the US was in desperate need of some sort of ‘demon’ or terrorist to take over in Iraq. Patrick Cockburn puts forward an Iraqi perspective which I would not disagree with;

“The invasion would appear to Iraqis, with good reason, to be a colonial venture little different from the British occupation in 1917. But Washington seemed to revel in creating the conditions for its own ling-term defeat. Imperial hubris had run rampant in the US after the easy neighboring Iran- notably Iran and Syria- were curtly informed that their days were numbered once a stable pro-US government was established in Baghdad.

Not surprisingly they did everything they could to make sure this never happened. The war created such bitter divisions around the world that is inspired many conspiracy theories about how it had started and why the US failed”, (Cockburn, 2016, pg. 220).

I guess it is clear I have yet to fault this book, but yet my critical analysis of ‘The Decline of American Power’ would to read this book alongside some other smaller books. I found when I first began reading Wallerstein’s text that it was quite over whelming and I found myself on many occasions using Google to search various words, terms and concepts I had never previously known existed.

By reading other books that explained geopolitical interests, histories of wars and conflicts and global demographic structures, I was able to read this old text, old as it was published in 2005 and much as happened since this publication, without any scrunched up nose as it all made perfectly good sense and clearly an extremely intelligent academic with a great grasp of global context of vast crises.

It is outstanding how many times Wallerstein nails it on the head, excuse the idiom, on predicting the future outcome and preventions necessary in order to avoid world crisis at an unprecedented rate. Many of his fears have indeed been inflicted and have become reality. As the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck said more than a century ago that “God takes special care of drunks, children and the United States of America.” It appears still to be true. But for how long will America hold onto its current power? (Marshall, 2015, pg. 85 & 86).


  1. Cockburn, P. (2006). The Occupation. Chapter II. 1st ed. London: Verso. Pg. 22
  2. Cockburn, P. (2006). The Occupation. Chapter II. 1st ed. London: Verso. Pg. 220
  3. Griffin, M. (2012). Media, War & Conflict. Sage Publications ‘Media, War & Conflict’. [online] pp.15,18. Available at: http://mwc.sagepub.com/content/3/1/7 [Accessed 2 Oct. 2017].
  4. Kolko, G. (2009). World in Crisis: The End of the American Century. 1st ed. New York: Pluto Press.
  5. Kolko, G. (2002). Another Century of War? New York: The New Press.
  6. Marshall, T. (2015). Prisoners of Geography. ‘Introduction’. 1st ed. London: Elliott and Thompson Limited, p.x.
  7. Wallerstein, I. (2003). Decline of American Power. ‘The Others: Who Are We? Who Are Others?’ The United States: The New Press, pp.122,123.
  8. Wallerstein, I. (2003). Decline of American Power. ‘Racism: Our Albatross’. The United States: The New Press, pp.94.
  9. Wallerstein, I. (2003). Decline of American Power. ‘Islam: Islam, the West, and the World’. The United States: The New Press, pp.102.
  10. Wallerstein, I. (2003). Decline of American Power. ‘The Twentieth Century: Darkness at Noon? The United States: The New Press, pp.38.
  11. Wallerstein, I. (2003). Decline of American Power. ‘Decline of the United States: The Eagle Has Crash Landed’. The United States: The New Press, pp.17.

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Sarah Buttle

Mental Health Youth Advisers for the Milestone Study