Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of WisconsinMadison, has spent much of
his career researching the foundations, operations, and consequences of the American
empire. In The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New York: Harper & Row, 1972),
McCoy drew on fieldwork and interviews to document how the CIA was complicit in
the Southeast Asian heroin trade as part of the U.S. governments larger Cold War
strategy. The CIA tried and failed to suppress the publication of the book and to have
McCoy expelled from Yale, where he was a Ph.D. student at the time. His subsequent
book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Chicago:
Lawrence Hill Books, 1991), updated and expanded this argument, documenting how
CIA involvement in the drug trade persisted over the intervening decades. According to
McCoy, CIA involvement in fostering the global heroin supply was a key factor behind
the U.S. heroin pandemic in the 1980s.
McCoy then shifted his scholarly focus to understanding the U.S. governments
torture practices. In A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the
War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), he documented the CIAs
development of psychological torture techniques, which can be traced back to the Cold
War. The torture employed by the U.S. government following the attacks on September
11, 2001, was not an abnormality but, instead, had been a systematic feature of
the U.S. governments foreign policy since the Cold War.
Finally, in Policing Americas Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the
Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009) McCoy
traced the origins of the present-day U.S. surveillance state to the occupation of the
Philippines, which began in 1899. At the time, the U.S. government established a stateof-
the-art surveillance system to combat Filipinos who resisted the occupation and
instead demanded their independence. The techniques and methods developed in the Philippines eventually returned to the United States and served as the foundation for the
governments current surveillance apparatus.
This context is useful for understanding McCoys new book, In the Shadows of the
American Century. McCoy skillfully integrates his previous scholarship to explain the
rise of the American empire and the foundations of its operations. In doing so, he also
makes the argument that the reach and power of the American empire is in decline.
McCoy begins by providing a brief autobiographical account of his upbringing
and time at Yale as a graduate student. This account includes a firsthand description of
the CIAs attempt to suppress his research on the U.S. governments role in supporting
the global heroin trade. A key theme that emerges throughout the book is the coherence
of the U.S. governments foreign-policy activitiescomplicity in the global
drug trade, torture, surveillance, and investment in military technologiesin projecting
the American empires power abroad. In developing a coherent picture of the American
empire over the past 120 years, McCoy emphasizes three key phases.
The first phase began in 1899, following the Spanish-American War, when the
U.S. government established direct colonial rule in the Caribbean and Pacific. This
phase continued into the 1930s. Phase two began following World War II, when
America established itself as a preeminent global economic and military power. During
this phase, which lasted through the Cold War, the U.S. government employed a variety
of methods to project its power, including direct military interventions, the forging of
alliances with other governments, the establishment of international organizations (e.g.,
the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund), the establishment of
a worldwide network of military bases, and significant investments in military-related
science and technology.
In discussing the various methods of power projection, McCoys analysis makes
clear the dark side of American empire. Many of the alliances the U.S. government
forged were with brutal autocrats directly at odds with Americas core liberal values (see
chapter 2). American leaders were (and remain so today) all too willing to trade off these
values for commitments by foreign leaders to serve the interests of the U.S. government.
The U.S. governments complicity in the global heroin trade created a covert
netherworld, providing crucial support to criminal syndicates, rebel groups, and
clandestine government operations around the globe (see chapter 3). The development
of the most powerful surveillance apparatus in the history of humankind facilitated the
various activities of this hidden underworld (see chapter 4). Finally, in addition to
employing psychological torture directly, the U.S. government exported its innovations
to foreign governments around the world, who institutionalized these techniques as
part of their normal operating procedures (see chapter 5).
If these various actions are taken together, it becomes evident that the projection
of the American empire has had two significant and often overlooked costs. First, the
activities of the U.S. government have often empowered brutal individuals and organizations,
which has imposed real costs on innocent human beings. The recent
history of this shadowy domain, McCoy writes, has been marked by millions of deaths, massive fiscal malfeasance, and epidemic drug addiction (p. 82). Second, the
choices made by U.S. political leaders have resulted in moral rot due to the repeated
adoption of extreme illiberal means under the guise of achieving liberal ends.
The third phase of American empire, which in McCoys telling began at the turn of
the twenty-first century and continues today, involves investing in not only alliances and
trade pacts but also tools for cyberwar and space warfare (see chapter 6). Among other
things, this phase is defined by the development of a triple canopy of technology to
enable the U.S. government to project its power over the lower stratosphere (up to an
elevation of sixty thousand feet), the upper stratosphere, and the exosphere (two
hundred miles above Earth). The technologies being developed include drones, satellites,
and spacecraft that can potentially be used to surveil or strike targets around the
McCoy ultimately concludes, however, that the American empire is in decline for
a variety of reasons. Globalization has made it increasingly difficult to exert control over
other governments. China has increased its economic and military power and is expected
to continue to do so. Trust in the U.S. government has been eroded due to the
revelations of the scale and scope of its surveillance activities, which have included
actively spying on its own allies and citizens. The revelations of torture by the U.S.
government at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the Guantanamo Bay detention center
in Cuba have eroded Americas moral legitimacy around the world. This erosion of trust
and moral legitimacy has been compounded by the institutionalized adoption of drones
for offensive military strikes, which raises a host of ethical and legal questions. The
ongoing quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq have locked the U.S. government into an
endless war that not only wastes monetary resources but further reinforces the prior
erosions of legitimacy. As the empire continues to weaken, McCoy argues, the U.S.
government will desperately seek to maintain its position of power in the world by
further substituting military power for declining economic power in the desperate
attempt to maintain its standing in the world. This effort, however, will only further
exacerbate the aforementioned conditions driving Americas decline.
McCoy concludes by considering five scenarios that could contribute to the end of
the American century: an evolving world order, climate change, economic decline,
military misadventure, and World War III. It is possible that these scenarios might
contribute to the decline of the American empire, but, as McCoy rightfully notes, they
are not the only relevant possibilities. It is also possible that other offsetting variables will
dampen the impact of any or all of the factors he identifies. The debate about whether it
is truly the end of the American century is a contentious one (see, for instance, Joseph
S. Nye Jr., Is the American Century Over? [Malden, Mass.: Policy Press, 2015], for
arguments that it is far from over). Forecasting the rise and decline of nations is near
impossible given that the world comprises overlapping, open-ended, complex systems
beyond the grasp of limited human reason.
Given these caveats, here is what I take away from In the Shadows of the American
Century. At a minimum, McCoy sheds light on the foundations of the American empire, how it operates, and the significant overlooked costs of the U.S. governments
militaristic foreign policy. This contribution is, in itself, extremely valuable and necessary.
McCoy also identifies some of the key factors that pose potential threats to
Americas standing in the world. Although we cannot predict the future, we can have
a conversation about the nuances of these factors and what they mean for domestic and
international policy. Finally, if McCoy is ultimately right, and the American empire
fades away, his book will be a crucial source for understanding the causes of that