If you think of the age of Trump as a spectator sport, then perhaps the truly riveting show isn't on the president's Twitter feed or in his latest shout-outs to the press or at another of those "cabinet meetings" where everyone is obliged to publicly praise you-know-perfectly-well-who (and so does he). I wouldn't for a second claim that any of those weren't spectacles in a media world in which the very word "spectacle" is now spelled D-o-n-a-l-d-T-r-u-m-p. Still, if you're into such things, I don't think there's a better one around than watching the president and his crew assiduously working to dismantle, piece by piece, an American imperial system, a genuine world order, that was almost three-quarters of a century in the making.
From his regular swipes at NATO to those threatened tariffs on German cars, from the ditching of the Iran nuclear pact to the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, from the cutting of U.N. peacekeeping funds to leaving the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, from the threats against the international criminal court to those leveled at just about any trade pact in sight, America First has turned out to be a curious kind of America Second policy. After all, the structure of much of our planet since the middle of the last century has been an America First one (even if Donald Trump is clueless on the subject). Now, it's being ditched and, in doing so, The Donald seems to be speeding up a process that, historically speaking, was already underway.
In that context, TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, offers a monumental look at what American decline is likely to mean in the context of the collapse of past world orders and on a planet that, thanks to climate change, seems to be in its own kind of decline. Tom
What Does It Take to Destroy a World Order?
How Climate Change Could End Washington's Global Dominion
By Alfred W. McCoy
Once upon a time in America, we could all argue about whether or not U.S. global power was declining. Now, most observers have little doubt that the end is just a matter of timing and circumstance. Ten years ago, I predicted that, by 2025, it would be all over for American power, a then-controversial comment that's commonplace today. Under President Donald Trump, the once "indispensable nation" that won World War II and built a new world order has become dispensable indeed.
The decline and fall of American global power is, of course, nothing special in the great sweep of history. After all, in the 4,000 years since humanity's first empire formed in the Fertile Crescent, at least 200 empires have risen, collided with other imperial powers, and in time collapsed. In the past century alone, two dozen modern imperial states have fallen and the world has managed just fine in the wake of their demise.
The global order didn't blink when the sprawling Soviet empire imploded in 1991, freeing its 15 "republics" and seven "satellites" to become 22 newly capitalist nations. Washington took that epochal event largely in stride. There were no triumphal demonstrations, in the tradition of ancient Rome, with manacled Russian captives and their plundered treasures paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, a Manhattan real-estate developer bought a 20-foot chunk of the Berlin Wall for display near Madison Avenue, a sight barely noticed by busy shoppers.
For those trying to track global trends for the next decade or two, the real question is not the fate of American global hegemony, but the future of the world order it began building at the peak of its power, not in 1991, but right after World War II. For the past 75 years, Washington's global dominion has rested on a "delicate duality." The raw realpolitik of U.S. military bases, multinational corporations, CIA coups, and foreign military interventions has been balanced, even softened, by a surprisingly liberal world order -- with sovereign states meeting as equals at the United Nations, an international rule of law that muted armed conflict, a World Health Organization that actually eradicated epidemic diseases which had plagued humanity for generations, and a developmental effort led by the World Bank that lifted 40% of humanity out of poverty.
Some observers remain supremely confident that Washington's world order can survive the inexorable erosion of its global power. Princeton political scientist G. John Ikenberry, for example, has essentially staked his reputation on that debatable proposition. As U.S. decline first became apparent in 2011, he argued that Washington's ability to shape world politics would diminish, but "the liberal international order will survive and thrive," preserving its core elements of multilateral governance, free trade, and human rights. Seven years later, amid a rise of anti-global nationalists across significant parts of the planet, he remains optimistic that the American-made world order will endure because international issues such as climate change make its "protean vision of interdependence and cooperation... more important as the century unfolds."
This sense of guarded optimism is widely shared among foreign-policy elites in the New York-Washington corridor of power. The president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, has typically argued that the "post-Cold War order cannot be restored, but the world is not yet on the edge of a systemic crisis." Through deft diplomacy, Washington could still save the planet from "deeper disarray" or even "trends that spell catastrophe."
But is it true that the decline of the planet's "sole superpower" (as it was once known) will no more shake the present world order than the Soviet collapse once did? To explore what it takes to produce just such an implosion of a world order, it's necessary to turn to history -- to the history, in fact, of collapsing imperial orders and a changing planet.
Admittedly, such analogies are always imperfect, yet what other guide to the future do we have but the past? Among its many lessons: that world orders are far more fundamental than we might imagine and that their uprooting requires a perfect storm of history's most powerful forces. Indeed, the question of the moment should be: Is climate change now gathering sufficient destructive force to cripple Washington's liberal world order and create an opening for Beijing's decidedly illiberal one or possibly even a new world in which such orders will be unrecognizable?
Empires and World Orders
Despite the aura of awe-inspiring power they give off, empires have often been the ephemeral creations of an individual conqueror like Alexander the Great or Napoleon that fade fast after his death or defeat. World orders are, by contrast, far more deeply rooted. They are resilient global systems created by a convergence of economic, technological, and ideological forces. On the surface, they entail a diplomatic entente among nations, while at a deeper level they entwine themselves within the cultures, commerce, and values of countless societies. World orders influence the languages people speak, the laws they live by, and the ways they work, worship, and even play. World orders are woven into the fabric of civilization itself. To uproot them takes an extraordinary event or set of events, even a global catastrophe.
Looking back over the last millennium, old orders die and new ones arise when a cataclysm, marked by mass death or a maelstrom of destruction, coincides with some slower yet sweeping social transformation. Since the age of European exploration started in the fifteenth century, some 90 empires, large and small, have come and gone. In those same centuries, however, there have been only three major world orders -- the Iberian age (1494-1805), the British imperial era (1815-1914), and the Washington world system (1945-2025).