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Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Trumping the Empire

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

I was 12. It was 1956. I lived in New York City and was a youthful history buff. (I should have kept my collection of American Heritage magazines!) Undoubtedly, I was also some kind of classic nerd. In any case, at some point during the Suez crisis of that year, I can remember going to the U.N. by myself and sitting in the gallery of the General Assembly, where I undoubtedly heard imperial Britain denounced for its attempt to retake the Suez Canal (in league with the French and Israelis). I must admit that it was a moment in my life I had totally forgotten about until historian Alfred McCoy, whose new Dispatch Book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, is due out in September, brought it to mind again. And I certainly hadn't imagined that Suez might have any applicability to this moment. But almost 16 years after this country's disastrous "war on terror" was launched and with yet another major Middle Eastern city in rubble, we are undoubtedly witnessing a change in the balance (or imbalance) of power on this unruly planet of ours -- and who better to make sense of it than historian McCoy?

Think of him as a modern Edward Gibbon, writing in the twenty-first century on the decline and fall of a great empire. However, unlike Gibbon, who wrote his classic book on Rome centuries after its empire had disappeared from the face of the earth, McCoy has no choice but to deal with American decline contemporaneously -- in, that is, the very act of its happening.

I had a canny friend who assured me a couple of decades ago that when European countries finally started saying no to Washington, I'd have a signal that I was on another planet. So we must now be on Mars. I was struck, for instance, by a recent piece in the Guardian describing the G20 summit as "the 'G1' versus the 'G19.'" In other words, it's increasingly Donald Trump's Washington against the world, which is the definition of how not to make an empire work. Since imperial decline may, in fact, have been a significant factor in bringing Donald Trump to power, think of him as both its harbinger and -- as McCoy so vividly describes today -- its architect. Tom

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The Demolition of U.S. Global Power
Donald Trump's Road to Debacle in the Greater Middle East
By Alfred W. McCoy

The superhighway to disaster is already being paved.

From Donald Trump's first days in office, news of the damage to America's international stature has come hard and fast. As if guided by some malign design, the new president seemed to identify the key pillars that have supported U.S. global power for the past 70 years and set out to topple each of them in turn. By degrading NATO, alienating Asian allies, cancelling trade treaties, and slashing critical scientific research, the Trump White House is already in the process of demolishing the delicately balanced architecture that has sustained Washington's world leadership since the end of World War II. However unwittingly, Trump is ensuring the accelerated collapse of American global hegemony.

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Stunned by his succession of foreign policy blunders, commentators -- left and right, domestic and foreign -- have raised their voices in a veritable chorus of criticism. A Los Angeles Times editorial typically called him "so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality" that he threatened to "weaken this country's moral standing in the world" and "imperil the planet" through his "appalling" policy choices. "He's a sucker who's shrinking U.S. influence in [Asia] and helping make China great again," wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman after surveying the damage to the country's Asian alliances from the president's "decision to tear up the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal in his first week in office."

The international press has been no less harsh. Reeling from Trump's denunciation of South Korea's free-trade agreement as "horrible" and his bizarre claim that the country had once been "a part of China," Seoul's leading newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, expressed the "shock, betrayal, and anger many South Koreans have felt." Assessing his first 100 days in office, Britain's venerable Observer commented: "Trump's crudely intimidatory, violent, know-nothing approach to sensitive international issues has encircled the globe from Moscow to the Middle East to Beijing, plunging foes and allies alike into a dark vortex of expanding strategic instability."

For an American president to virtually walk out of his grand inaugural celebrations into such a hailstorm of criticism is beyond extraordinary. Having more or less exhausted their lexicon of condemnatory rhetoric, the usual crew of commentators is now struggling to understand how an American president could be quite so willfully self-destructive.

Britain's Suez Crisis

Blitzed by an incessant stream of bizarre tweets and White House conspiracy theories, observers worldwide seem to have concluded that Donald Trump is a president like no other, that the situation he's creating is without parallel, and that his foreign policy is already a disaster without precedent. After rummaging around in history's capacious closet for some old suit that might fit him, analysts have failed to find any antecedent or analogue to adequately explain him.

Yet just 60 years ago, a crisis in the ever-volatile Middle East overseen by a bumbling, mistake-prone British leader helped create a great power debacle that offers insight into the Trumpian moment, a glimpse into possible futures, and a sense of the kind of decline that could lie in the imperial future of the United States.

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In the early 1950s, Britain's international position had many parallels with America's today. After a difficult postwar recovery from the devastation of World War II, that country was enjoying robust employment, lucrative international investments, and the prestige of the pound sterling's stature as the world's reserve currency. Thanks to a careful withdrawal from its far-flung, global empire and its close alliance with Washington, London still enjoyed a sense of international influence exceptional for a small island nation of just 50 million people. On balance, Britain seemed poised for many more years of world leadership with all the accompanying economic rewards and perks.

Then came the Suez crisis. After a decade of giving up one colony after another, the accumulated stress of imperial retreat pushed British conservatives into a disastrous military intervention to reclaim Egypt's Suez Canal. This, in turn, caused a "deep moral crisis in London" and what one British diplomat would term the "dying convulsion of British imperialism." In a clear instance of what historians call "micro-militarism" -- that is, a bold military strike designed to recover fading imperial influence -- Britain joined France and Israel in a misbegotten military invasion of Egypt that transformed slow imperial retreat into a precipitous collapse.

Just as the Panama Canal had once been a shining example for Americans of their nation's global prowess, so British conservatives treasured the Suez Canal as a vital lifeline that tied their small island to its sprawling empire in Asia and Africa. A few years after the canal's grand opening in 1869, London did the deal of the century, scooping up Egypt's shares in it for a bargain basement price of 4 million. Then, in 1882, Britain consolidated its control over the canal through a military occupation of Egypt, reducing that ancient land to little more than an informal colony.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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