When I was young, I often imagined myself as an American diplomat. Back in the early 1960s, it seemed like serving my country in such a role would be an honorable, even glorious, path to take. Can you believe that I ever thought such a thing in this twenty-first-century moment when diplomats by the hundreds are being pushed out of, or have fled, the State Department? I'm sure you won't be shocked to learn that, despite my dreams, I'm not today the U.S. ambassador to South Korea (or Germany or Turkey or scores of other countries) -- not that, these days, anyone is. As those of you who read TomDispatch might guess, I never ended up in the State Department or anywhere else in the U.S. government in a job dealing with the rest of the world. Instead, sometime in the 1960s, in the midst of the horrors of the Vietnam War, my urge to serve went into opposition and I've never looked back.
However, that ancient Tom Engelhardt and his dreams popped imto mind again this week when I read today's piece by historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, whose take on this country's fall from imperial grace looks ever more eerily accurate as the Trump era progresses, day by day, tweet by tweet. Only this week, for instance, National (in)Security Advisor John Bolton evidently tried to depth-charge the coming North Korean talks in Singapore by comparing that country's nuclear situation to what he called the "Libyan model." Who -- certainly not Kim Jong-un and crew -- could forget what happened to de-nuked Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi? (In Hillary Clinton's infamous words, laughingly said, about the U.S. intervention in his country in 2011, "We came, we saw, he died.") And then President Trump, evidently misunderstanding what "the Libyan model" even was, followed up by directly threatening the North Korean leader with Gaddafi's fate. Brilliant! But I digress.
McCoy, thinking about what American decline amid such "diplomatic" chaos means on a planet in its own kind of decline, reminds us that in these last decades the urge to serve globally wasn't mine alone (or that of my then-future wife who joined the Peace Corps in 1964). There has, in fact, been a certain American tradition of grassroots involvement with the world -- ranging from evangelicals to military veterans to Peace Corps volunteers -- a tradition that we might indeed sadly lose in the chaos of an American world turning itself upside down.
As for me, I've always thought that TomDispatch represented my youthful urge to serve transferred to another dimension, my own aging version of citizen diplomacy. But enough about me. Consider instead what McCoy has to say about a world increasingly in chaos and what might be lost in it. Tom
Beyond Golden Shower Diplomacy
Preserving the Positive Legacy of an Empire in Decline
By Alfred W. McCoy
Month by month, tweet by tweet, the events of the past two years have made it clearer than ever that Washington's once-formidable global might is indeed fading. As the American empire unravels with previously unimagined speed, there are many across this country's political spectrum who will not mourn its passing. Both peace activists and military veterans have grown tired of the country's endless wars. Trade unionists and business owners have come to rue the job losses that accompanied Washington's free-trade policies. Anti-globalization protesters and pro-Trump populists alike cheered the president's cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The idea of focusing on America and rebuilding the country's tattered infrastructure has a growing bipartisan appeal.
But before we join this potential chorus of "good riddance" to U.S. global power, it might be worth pausing briefly to ask whether the acceleration of the American decline by President Trump's erratic foreign policy might not come with unanticipated and unpleasant costs. As Americans mobilize for the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential contest, they might look beyond Washington's mesmerizing celebrity scandals and consider instead the hidden consequences of the country's ongoing withdrawal from the global arena. Indeed, this fitful, uncontrolled retreat carries with it such serious risks that it might be time for ordinary voters and political activists alike to put foreign policy, in the broadest sense, at the top of their electoral watch list.
First, let's just admit the obvious. After 18 months in office, Trump's one-man style of diplomacy, though potentially capable of a few "wins," is clearly degrading American global stature. After surveying 134 countries, Gallup's pollsters recently reported that worldwide approval of U.S. leadership has plunged from 48% in 2016 to a record low of 30%, a notch below China's 31% and significantly under Germany's 41%.
As Trump has abrogated one international accord after another, observers worldwide have struggled to find some rationale for decisions that seem questionable on their merits and have frayed relations with long-standing allies. Given his inordinate obsession with the "legacy" of Barack Obama, epitomized in a report, whether true or not, of his ritual "defiling" of his predecessor's Moscow hotel bed via the "golden showers" of Russian prostitutes, there's a curious yet coherent logic to his foreign policy. You might even think of it as Golden Shower diplomacy. Whatever Obama did, Trump seems determined to undo with a visceral vehemence: the Trans-Pacific trade pact (torn up), the Paris climate accord (withdrawn), the Iran nuclear freeze (voided), close relations with NATO allies (damaged), diplomatic relations with Cuba (frozen), Middle Eastern military withdrawal (reversed), ending the Afghan war (cancelled), the diplomatic pivot to Asia (forgotten), and so on into what already seems like an eternity.
As bizarre as all this might be, Trump's four to eight years presiding over what still passes for U.S. foreign policy through such personal pique will have lasting consequences. The American presence on the global stage will be further reduced, potentially opening the way for the rise of those autocratic powers, Beijing and Moscow, hostile to the liberal international order that Washington promoted for the past 70 years, even as -- thanks to Trump's love of fossil fuels -- the further degradation of the planetary environment occurs.
The Delicate Duality of American Global Power
To fully understand what's at stake, you would need to reach back to the dawn of U.S. global dominion and try to grasp the elusive character of the power that went with it. In the closing months of World War II, when the United States stood astride a partially wrecked planet like a titan, Washington used its extraordinary clout to build a new world order grounded in a "delicate duality" that juxtaposed two contradictory attributes. It fostered an international community of sovereign nations governed by the rule of law, while also building its own superpower dominion through the raw Realpolitik of economic pressure, crushing military force, unrestrained covert action, and diplomatic leverage.
Keep in mind that America had emerged from the ashes of that world war as a behemoth of unprecedented power. With Europe, Japan, and Russia in ruins, the U.S. had the only intact industrial complex left and then accounted for about half of the world's entire economic output. At war's end, its military had swelled to more than 12 million troops, its Navy ruled the seas with more than 1,000 warships, and its air force commanded the skies with 41,000 combat aircraft. In the decade that followed, Washington would encircle Eurasia with hundreds of military bases, as well as bevies of strategic bombers and warships. In the process, it would also confine its Cold War enemies, China and Russia, behind that infamous Iron Curtain.
Throughout those early Cold War years, Washington's diplomats walked tall in the corridors of power, deftly negotiating defense pacts and trade deals that gave the country a distinct advantage on the world stage. Meanwhile, its clandestine operatives maneuvered relentlessly in the shadow lands of global power to topple neutral or hostile governments via coups and covert operations. Washington, of course, eventually won the Cold War, but its tactics produced almost unimaginably dreadful costs -- brutal military dictatorships across Asia and Latin America, millions of dead in Indochina, and devastated societies in Central Asia, Central America, and southern Africa.
Simultaneously, however, the U.S. victory in World War II also brought a surge of citizen idealism as millions of American veterans returned home, hopeful that their sacrifice had not only defeated fascism but also won a more peaceful world. To ensure that the ravaged planet would never again experience such global death and destruction, American diplomats also began working with their allies to build, step by step, nothing less than a novel architecture for global governance, grounded in the rule of international law.