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Revisiting Emmanuel Todd’s Predictions in After the Empire

Not long ago I wrote of the “unipolar moment” of the late ’90s and a particular vision many geopolitical thinkers in the U.S. had during it of a New Economy America enjoying a quasi-permanent tech boom and in the process bounding above and beyond the rest of the world (ever more “the Michael Jordan of the world system,” as Thomas Friedman had it). By contrast Russia and China, Europe and Japan, would wither into irrelevance, the former staying poor and maybe collapsing outright, the latter stagnant at best within the shackles of their outdated, insufficiently dynamic economic models. The result would be that the unipolar moment would be much, much more than a moment. (Indeed, George and Meredith Friedman in The Future of War spun visions of the American Century, rather than drawing to a close, opening out into an “American epoch.”)

At the height of this euphoria Emmanuel Todd anticipated a very different outcome, perhaps not addressing every detail (not least in emphasizing the western end of Eurasia at the expense of the eastern), but still dealing with the fundamentals of the picture. In his book After the Empire he contended that far from continuing to race forward America’s dynamism would actually prove to be an illusion; that far from Russia’s decline proceeding all the way to the point of collapse the country’s decline was bottoming out; and that the U.S. would find the EU very much a relevant actor, one that would not necessarily remain deferential.

On every one of these points Todd was correct, and the fact seems to me to testify to the essential robustness of his analysis — which on the whole was more impressive than that of the theorists of permanent unipolarity. Still, there were ways in which he overstated things that proved important. He did not merely anticipate that the New Economy hype would fall apart, but went so far as to, on the basis of scandals like Enron and Arthur Anderson, suggest that the U.S. economy was riddled with accounting fraud of the type in which they had been implicated — to the point of making “American GNP . . . resemble that of the former Soviet Union when it comes to treating the numbers,” the exposure of which would lead to a major write-down of America’s economic weight.

Of course, that never happened.

Todd’s errors also extended to events in Europe. Certainly from the vantage point of 2022 he would seem to have been overoptimistic about Russian democratization (even if probably not to the extent of this by itself modifying his vision). And more significantly he was overoptimistic about the European Union, which he pictured drawing together with Russia (and perhaps Britain too) to create a super-powered European bloc whose mere existence would put an end to what he saw as a deindustrializing U.S. living beyond its means (largely, via the readiness of the rest of the world to let it run massive and growing trade deficits), and compel “imperial” retrenchment on the part of the United States (with, again, all this helped by the extent to which American weakness was telling).

Why did Todd get these parts of his scenario wrong? Looking back I think it worthwhile to remember that no one thought the U.S. could go on running the trade deficits it has for decades with so little apparent consequence to the acceptability of its currency, or its economic weight in the world — and that this has much to do with how thoroughly unprecedented the “creditism” of the twenty-first century has been, and its keeping a troubled economy superficially afloat through speculative fever and the sustenance of “zombie firms.” (Indeed, Todd was far from being the only one picturing a big write-down of the U.S. economy — Eamonn Fingleton predicting exactly that before the end of the century in Blindsight, a book that had on its back cover the endorsement of none other than then-U.S. President Bill Clinton himself — before he started talking about putting Social Security tax revenue into the stock market.)

I think it worth remembering, too, the horrified response to those accounting scandals of the tech bubble era, which was so severe that a right-wing Republican administration passed Sarbanes-Oxley and appointed a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chairman who actually took the job seriously. That mood did not last, of course — as demonstrated by Mr. Donaldson’s short time as SEC chair, and his replacement by the far more accommodating Harvey Pitt — and I get the impression that mainstream (read: neoliberalism-cheerleading) opinion has since striven mightily to forget it ever happened. But it did exist at the time in which Todd was writing, amid which his prediction, if pessimistic, would not have seemed so implausible as it does now.

I cannot speak so well to his prediction about Russia — but again, it was not too important to Todd’s vision, with Russia’s human and natural resources, and military capacities, giving it sufficient value as a partner that its failings from a democratic or civil liberties perspective could be overlooked. More significant is his optimism about the European Union at the time, which I think reflected the moment in which he was writing yet again. Todd, whom it seems to me can be thought of as at least left-leaning in the classical sense (not the same as left, and certainly no Marxist, just left- leaning), like many others of similar inclination entertained certain hopes about the European Union as an at least somewhat progressive alternative to the neoliberal/ neoconservative U.S. — more capable of long term-thinking and pragmatic compromise in the social and international spheres, “greener,” less militaristic, etc.. Indeed, I remember Jeremy Rifkin then writing of “the European Dream” as against “the American Dream,” which Todd would seem to have shared.

Since that time all of this has been dashed — by the EU’s brutal handling of the sovereign debt crisis in Greece, Italy and elsewhere, by the institution’s increasing militarism as it prosecuted wars in Libya, Mali and elsewhere — with Todd since characterizing the once “wonderful project” and “beautiful dream” of “many free, democratic, liberal, equal nations getting over the past and building a general European democracy,” turned into “a monstrous hierarchy,” with Germany reducing the EU to a “power zone” — a new German Empire. Indeed, he has since tended to wax emphatic about France’s having more in common culturally with the English-speaking nations than its continental neighbor, and become a proponent of outright Euroskepticism. Asked if he expected Britain(whose joining the EU in After the Empire, by bringing its financial importance to the bloc, was the likely decisive last act in the story of American hegemony) was going to leave the EU he replied “Of course!” — and added in the same breath that “I, a . . . Frenchman, confronted with the disappearance of my nation’s autonomy, if I have to make a choice between German hegemony and American hegemony, I’ll choose American hegemony without hesitating.”

It is a stark turnaround from his earlier position indeed, underlining just how dead the “European Dream” now lies.

Originally published at



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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.