This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In 1956, in an interview with journalist Anna Louise Strong, Chinese leader Mao Zedong famously said of American imperialism: "In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger." It wasn't the first time he had used the image. Ten years earlier he had told Strong that, even with its new world-ending weapon, the atom bomb, the U.S. was a paper tiger, adding of that bomb, "It looks terrible, but in fact it isn't. Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass slaughter, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two new types of weapon."
More than half a century later, with nuclear weapons once again on the table, Mao's language seems a bit dated. Paper? What's that? And America as a tweetable (or Twitter) tiger doesn't exactly do the trick, does it? Still, whatever its truth at the time, that ancient Maoist image might possibly have a second life in a new century. You know, the century in which the United States was finally led by a "very stable genius."
As TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, suggests today, we finally seem to have reached the paper-tiger stage of American imperial history. After all, we have a president who just screened The Greatest Showman, the new movie on P.T. Barnum and the founding of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, at Camp David and is himself, tweet by tweet and statement by statement, turning the empire into a failing sideshow in the ever more riveting three ring circus of Trump. Perhaps it's fitting that 2017 was the year Barnum's circus had its final performance. Tom
The World According to Trump
Or How to Build a Wall and Lose an Empire
By Alfred W. McCoy
As 2017 ended with billionaires toasting their tax cuts and energy executives cheering their unfettered access to federal lands as well as coastal waters, there was one sector of the American elite that did not share in the champagne celebration: Washington's corps of foreign policy experts. Across the political spectrum, many of them felt a deep foreboding for the country's global future under the leadership of President Donald Trump.
In a year-end jeremiad, for instance, conservative CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria blasted the "Trump administration's foolish and self-defeating decision to abdicate the United States' global influence -- something that has taken more than 70 years to build." The great "global story of our times," he continued, is that "the creator, upholder, and enforcer of the existing international system is withdrawing into self-centered isolation," opening a power vacuum that will be filled by illiberal powers like China, Russia, and Turkey.- Advertisement -
The editors of the New York Times remarked ruefully that the president's "boastfulness and belligerence and tendency to self-aggrandizement are not only costing America worldwide support, but also isolating it." Discarding the polite bipartisanship of Washington's top diplomats, Obama's former national security adviser, Susan Rice, ripped Trump for dumping "principled leadership -- the foundation of American foreign policy since World War II" -- for an "America first" stance that will only "embolden rivals and weaken ourselves."
Yet no matter how sharp or sweeping, such criticism can't begin to take in the full scope of the damage the Trump White House is inflicting on the system of global power Washington built and carefully maintained over those 70 years. Indeed, American leaders have been on top of the world for so long that they no longer remember how they got there. Few among Washington's foreign policy elite seem to fully grasp the complex system that made U.S. global power what it now is, particularly its all-important geopolitical foundations. As Trump travels the globe, tweeting and trashing away, he's inadvertently showing us the essential structure of that power, the same way a devastating wildfire leaves the steel beams of a ruined building standing starkly above the smoking rubble.
The Architecture of American Global Power
The architecture of the world order that Washington built after World War II was not only formidable but, as Trump is teaching us almost daily, surprisingly fragile. At its core, that global system rested upon a delicate duality: an idealistic community of sovereign nations equal under the rule of international law joined tensely, even tenuously, to an American imperium grounded in the realpolitik of its military and economic power. In concrete terms, think of this duality as the State Department versus the Pentagon.
At the end of World War II, the United States invested its prestige in forming an international community that would promote peace and shared prosperity through permanent institutions, including the United Nations (1945), the International Monetary Fund (1945), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947), the predecessor to the World Trade Organization. To govern such a world order through the rule of law, Washington also helped establish the International Court of Justice at The Hague and would later promote both human rights and women's rights.
On the realpolitik side of that duality, Washington constructed a four-tier apparatus -- military, diplomatic, economic, and clandestine -- to grimly advance its own global dominion. At its core was an unmatched military that (thanks to hundreds of overseas bases) circled the globe, the most formidable nuclear arsenal on the planet, massive air and naval forces, and an unparalleled array of client armies. In addition, to maintain its military superiority, the Pentagon massively promoted scientific research, producing incessant innovation that would lead, among so many other things, to the world's first system of global telecommunications satellites, which effectively added space to its apparatus for exercising global power.- Advertisement -
Complementing all this steel was the salve of an active worldwide diplomatic corps, working to promote close bilateral ties with allies like Australia and Britain and multilateral alliances like NATO, SEATO, and the Organization of American States. In the process, it distributed economic aid to nations new and old. Protected by such global hegemony and helped by multilateral trade pacts hammered out in Washington, America's multinational corporations competed profitably in international markets throughout the Cold War.
Adding another dimension to its global power was a clandestine fourth tier that involved global surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) and covert operations on five continents by the Central Intelligence Agency. In this way, with remarkable regularity and across vast expanses of the globe, Washington manipulated elections and promoted coups to insure that whoever led a country on our side of the Iron Curtain would remain part of a reliable set of subordinate elites, friendly to and subservient to the U.S.
In ways that to this day few observers fully appreciate, this massive apparatus of global power also rested on geopolitical foundations of extraordinary strength. As Oxford historian John Darwin explained in his sweeping history of Eurasian empires over the past 600 years, Washington achieved its "colossal Imperium... on an unprecedented scale" by becoming the first power in history to control the strategic axial points "at both ends of Eurasia" through its military bases and mutual security pacts.