Friday :: Jun 4, 2004

The End Of The American Era

by pessimist

No nation on Earth in its entire history ever had the opportunity the United States had in 1945 to shape the world in its own image (read: mental picture). With the world in ruins due to the most devastating war ever known, only the United States stood relatively unscathed.

Some, as if in prediction of today's PNAC neocon wet dream, felt that the opportunity to be the world's ruler was at hand and should be seized. No one would be able to withstand the mighty (and very experienced) US military. Not even the Soviet Union. Los Alamos saw to that.

So here we are, about to remember the carnage of the Normandy Invasion, and what can we say about this opportunity?

Not only was it not taken, it was squandered.

Dimensions Of The U.S. Setback

How serious is the strategic setback that U.S. power is now suffering as a result of the neo-conservatives' over-reaching in Iraq and Palestine? Its full dimensions are still not discernible-not least, because we still do not know how much worse the situation may become for the U.S., in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East, before it finally stabilizes.

But already, it is clear that U.S. power is suffering a setback in Iraq of truly historic proportions. The very best of currently foreseeable scenarios is one in which the Bush administration finds a way to avert a total collapse of its military's situation in Iraq by finding a formula to bring in a workable U.N. umbrella.

But even under this scenario, the dreams of those who believe that the U.S. has a "manifest destiny" to remake the whole world in a manner of its own liking-that is, the group spearheaded by the neo-conservatives-- will have been crushed.

A combination of two very different factors - the neo-conservatives' anti-Saudi zeal and the continuing pressures from al-Qaeda - has left the U.S. military without an easy fallback position inside Saudi Arabia to rely on as a location for military bases. The strategic balance in the Gulf region is certainly going to continue changing in very interesting ways, and to the detriment of the ability of the U.S. to maintain a large force there over the long term.

The power to act in world affairs has, as we know, two main components. These are sometimes called "hard power" and "soft power". We might also call them "the power to coerce" and "the power to convince". The first of these consists of both military power and the ability to dominate the economies of other powers. The latter is harder to define, but I like to think of it as composed of equal parts of moral authority, which gives birth to that elusive quality, "legitimacy", and of the possession of a vision for the future that is capable of winning the support of the majority of the peoples of the world.

Two times in the history of the world, the United States of America has stood astride world politics, dominating it like the Colossus of ancient days. The first of those hegemonic moments was 1945. In 1945, all the major Allied governments possessed the immense moral authority of having saved the world from the scourge of domination by the Axis powers. But only the U.S., at that point in history, had abundant command of the components of hard power. In terms of the components of hard power, the United States "won", at that point, without a doubt.

The second was 1991 when, following the collapse of the Soviets' global power, the United States led a global coalition that was easily able to demonstrate its military capabilities half a world away from Washington, in Iraq.

From 1948 on, the Soviets put up a sturdy fight against U.S. hegemonism. But their "vision" was so flawed that it was incapable of winning serious adherence from most of the world. And indeed, their attempts to implement their vision inside their own borders led to massive economic failure. In 1989, as we know, the Soviets' bid to maintain control of a sizeable portion of Europe through the "Warsaw Pact" collapsed completely, and four years later the Soviet Union itself was dismantled into its component parts. That collapse was caused both by a failure to generate the components of hard power, and by the failure of their vision both at home and abroad.

The Soviets' collapse provided the moment of opportunity for those in the United States who dreamed of America's global hegemonism. These people were, primarily, the neo-conservatives. But it was not they who were in power at the moment of Soviet collapse from 1989 through 1993; and it was not they who were in power throughout the 1990s. Instead, the administrations of the first President Bush (1988-92) and President Bill Clinton (1992-2000) were dominated by people whose main instincts were multilateralist rather than hegemonic.

In many ways, Clinton's approach to world affairs set the stage for the arrival in power in January 2001 of the more ambitious and reckless "play to win" people: the neo-conservatives. These men are not, I should note, conservative at all in the real meaning of the word, but rather, radicals willing to take huge risks in pursuit of their deeply radical and transformative ideological goals.

The great harm their decisions have caused and continue to cause to the lives and interests of Iraqis and Palestinians, to the integrity of the world system and the ideal of a world based on norms and international order-and also, I would say, to the true interests of the American people- is still fresh and easy to discern. It is what we read about with depressing regularity in the news pages every day…

In sum, what the U.S. is currently undergoing in Iraq marks a significant turning-point in the unfolding of world affairs. Dealing with this turning-point in a way that averts further, broader conflicts but leads instead to a more cooperative, egalitarian world is a task that requires immense wisdom-from people outside as well as people inside the United States.

That challenge may yet come. But we all also need to start rapidly educating the U.S. political elite that from now on, Washington should stop trying to throw its weight around and start acting as a truly cooperative member of the global community. In today's inter-connected world, cooperation is the only way anyone can "win".

Now, just 13 years after 1991, it is clear that because of the misjudgments and misguided actions of its own leadership-culminating the disastrous decision to attack Iraq and then try to run it with a totally inadequate occupation force-- the U.S. has "wasted" that second moment of hegemony and will not easily be able to regain it. A new era has begun. It has yet to be seen whether this will be an era of basically cooperative multilateralism or one of strife among the various global powers. Let's hope and work for the former!

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pessimist :: 5:24 PM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!