The good European

After the Empire: the breakdown of the American order

Emmanuel Todd <em>Columbia, 233pp, £21</em>

I would recommend this extraordinary book to everyone troubled by US neo-imperialism. It asks why "America is now commonly perceived as a narcissistic, warmongering bully. How did a country that until recently played an essential role in building international order suddenly become a symbol of global disorder?"

A bestseller in France and Germany, After the Empire is now published in English. Emmanuel Todd argues that the US is making crass foreign policy decisions which alienate the international community; that its economy is declining rapidly; that its military is capable only of attacking weak, failed states; and that the future belongs to Eurasia - Europe, Russia and Japan. He suggests that this linked land mass possesses the majority of global wealth and is able to work with other countries because it shares a universalist ethic that respects the rest of the world, including Arab and Muslim countries.

Todd is a researcher at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris. In 1976 he published La Chute Finale (published here as The Final Fall) which predicted the collapse of the Soviet system. At the time he was widely pronounced "anti-communist", just as, following the publication of Apres L'Empire, he was sometimes attacked as "anti-American". He defies such labels and describes himself as a historian and anthropologist, and it was his exasperation as a historian rather than political passion that motivated him to write this book. In late 2002 he believed that the world was about to repeat the same mistake that it had made during the 1970s - misinterpreting an expansion in US military activity as a sign of its increasing power, when in fact it masks a decline.

He rejects the stereotype of the "typical French intellectual" carrying the usual anti-American virus. In Paris, he tells us, his family is suspected of a deep preference for the US and UK. He says these suspicions are justified. His father's father was an American citizen of Jewish-Austrian origins. His mother's family spent the Second World War as refugees in the US because of their Jewish origins. His pro-American bias led him to oppose the Maastricht treaty and see no need for a counterweight to the United States. But it is the recent role of the US in promoting disorder and armed conflict that has turned him into a good European.

His book first appeared in September 2002. Since then, he suggests, his thesis of America's "theatrical micro militarism" has been well illustrated by its pre-emptive strike against a military midget - an underdeveloped country of 24 million people exhausted by a decade of economic sanctions. He suggests that the hysterical media coverage "must not blind us to a fundamental reality: the size of the opponent chosen by the US is the true indicator of its current power".

He points out that the US's huge fiscal and balance of payments debt is deeply weakening. Rather than being the unstoppable superpower of our imagination, America is in reality rather more like the crumbling Roman empire - overextended with excessive arms spending and inequality and disgruntlement at home.

The book's anthropological determinism is often hard to accept. Todd describes the US as a country of "castrating women" and writes that American Jews have a "neurotic cult of the Holocaust". He also favours a European nuclear deterrent. Clearly, he does not fear controversy and he fiercely voices the typical European criticism of US anti-Arab, anti-Muslim extremism and its lack of even-handedness on Israel and Palestine without feeling any need to parade his Jewish credentials.

I fear that Todd is too optimistic in believing that the decline in population growth and expansion of education in developing countries mean that all is well for the future. He also has an interesting view of Russia's future as a nuclear power (something that still obsesses the US) moving ineluctably towards alliance with Europe.

He is fairly kind to the UK, believing that when Britain finds its natural place in alliance with Germany and France, supporting multilateralism and a more just and equal world, the future will be safer for us all and the US will return to its historical commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

I doubt that anyone will sign up for all of Emmanuel Todd's analysis, but this is a brave and challenging book which contains a great deal of truth.

Clare Short is MP for Birmingham and Ladywood

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The Hutton report - How a judge let Blair off