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The Superpower Conundrum
The Rise and Fall of Just About Everything
By Tom Engelhardt
The rise and fall of great powers and their imperial domains has been a central fact of history for centuries. It's been a sensible, repeatedly validated framework for thinking about the fate of the planet. So it's hardly surprising, when faced with a country once regularly labeled the "sole superpower," "the last superpower," or even the global "hyperpower" and now, curiously, called nothing whatsoever, that the "decline" question should come up. Is the U.S. or isn't it? Might it or might it not now be on the downhill side of imperial greatness?
Take a slow train -- that is, any train -- anywhere in America, as I did recently in the northeast, and then take a high-speed train anywhere else on Earth, as I also did recently, and it's not hard to imagine the U.S. in decline. The greatest power in history, the "unipolar power," can't build a single mile of high-speed rail? Really? And its Congress is now mired in an argument about whether funds can even be raised to keep America's highways more or less pothole-free.
Sometimes, I imagine myself talking to my long-dead parents because I know how such things would have astonished two people who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and a can-do post-war era in which the staggering wealth and power of this country were indisputable. What if I could tell them how the crucial infrastructure of such a still-wealthy nation -- bridges, pipelines, roads, and the like -- is now grossly underfunded, in an increasing state of disrepair, and beginning to crumble? That would definitely shock them.
And what would they think upon learning that, with the Soviet Union a quarter-century in the trash bin of history, the U.S., alone in triumph, has been incapable of applying its overwhelming military and economic power effectively? I'm sure they would be dumbstruck to discover that, since the moment the Soviet Union imploded, the U.S. has been at war continuously with another country (three conflicts and endless strife); that I was talking about, of all places, Iraq; and that the mission there was never faintly accomplished. How improbable is that? And what would they think if I mentioned that the other great conflicts of the post-Cold-War era were with Afghanistan (two wars with a decade off in-between) and the relatively small groups of non-state actors we now call terrorists? And how would they react on discovering that the results were: failure in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and the proliferation of terror groups across much of the Greater Middle East (including the establishment of an actual terror caliphate) and increasing parts of Africa?
They would, I think, conclude that the U.S. was over the hill and set on the sort of decline that, sooner or later, has been the fate of every great power. And what if I told them that, in this new century, not a single action of the military that U.S. presidents now call "the finest fighting force the world has ever known" has, in the end, been anything but a dismal failure? Or that presidents, presidential candidates, and politicians in Washington are required to insist on something no one would have had to say in their day: that the United States is both an "exceptional" and an "indispensible" nation? Or that they would also have to endlessly thank our troops (as would the citizenry) for... well... never success, but just being there and getting maimed, physically or mentally, or dying while we went about our lives? Or that those soldiers must always be referred to as "heroes."
In their day, when the obligation to serve in a citizens' army was a given, none of this would have made much sense, while the endless defensive insistence on American greatness would have stood out like a sore thumb. Today, its repetitive presence marks the moment of doubt. Are we really so "exceptional"? Is this country truly "indispensible" to the rest of the planet and if so, in what way exactly? Are those troops genuinely our heroes and if so, just what was it they did that we're so darn proud of?
Return my amazed parents to their graves, put all of this together, and you have the beginnings of a description of a uniquely great power in decline. It's a classic vision, but one with a problem.
A God-Like Power to Destroy
Who today recalls the ads from my 1950s childhood for, if I remember correctly, drawing lessons, which always had a tagline that went something like: What's wrong with this picture? (You were supposed to notice the five-legged cows floating through the clouds.) So what's wrong with this picture of the obvious signs of decline: the greatest power in history, with hundreds of garrisons scattered across the planet, can't seem to apply its power effectively no matter where it sends its military or bring countries like Iran or a weakened post-Soviet Russia to heel by a full range of threats, sanctions, and the like, or suppress a modestly armed terror-movement-cum-state in the Middle East?
For one thing, look around and tell me that the United States doesn't still seem like a unipolar power. I mean, where exactly are its rivals? Since the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, when the first wooden ships mounted with cannons broke out of their European backwater and began to gobble up the globe, there have always been rival great powers -- three, four, five, or more. And what of today? The other three candidates of the moment would assumedly be the European Union (EU), Russia, and China.
Economically, the EU is indeed a powerhouse, but in any other way it's a second-rate conglomeration of states that still slavishly follow the U.S. and an entity threatening tocome apart at the seams. Russia looms ever larger in Washington these days, but remains a rickety power in search of greatness in its former imperial borderlands. It's a country almost as dependent on its energy industry as Saudi Arabia and nothing like a potential future superpower. As for China, it's obviously the rising power of the moment and now officially has the number one economy on Planet Earth. Still, it remains in many ways a poor country whose leaders fear any kind of future economic implosion (which could happen). Like the Russians, like any aspiring great power, it wants to make its weight felt in its neighborhood -- at the moment the East and South China Seas. And like Vladimir Putin's Russia, the Chinese leadership is indeed upgrading its military. But the urge in both cases is to emerge as a regional power to contend with, not a superpower or a genuine rival of the U.S.
Whatever may be happening to American power, there really are no potential rivals to shoulder the blame. Yet, uniquely unrivaled, the U.S. has proven curiously incapable of translating its unipolar power and a military that, on paper, trumps every other one on the planet into its desires. This was not the normal experience of past reigning great powers. Or put another way, whether or not the U.S. is in decline, the rise-and-fall narrative seems, half-a-millennium later, to have reached some kind of largely uncommented upon and unexamined dead end.
In looking for an explanation, consider a related narrative involving military power. Why, in this new century, does the U.S. seem so incapable of achieving victory or transforming crucial regions into places that can at least be controlled? Military power is by definition destructive, but in the past such force often cleared the ground for the building of local, regional, or even global structures, however grim or oppressive they might have been. If force always was meant to break things, it sometimes achieved other ends as well. Now, it seems as if breaking is all it can do, or how to explain the fact that, in this century, the planet's sole superpower has specialized -- see Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere -- in fracturing, not building nations.
Empires may have risen and fallen in those 500 years, but weaponry only rose. Over those centuries in which so many rivals engaged each other, carved out their imperial domains, fought their wars, and sooner or later fell, the destructive power of the weaponry they were wielding only ratcheted up exponentially: from the crossbow to the musket, the cannon, the Colt revolver, the repeating rifle, the Gatling gun, the machine gun, the dreadnaught, modern artillery, the tank, poison gas, the zeppelin, the plane, the bomb, the aircraft carrier, the missile, and at the end of the line, the "victory weapon" of World War II, the nuclear bomb that would turn the rulers of the greatest powers, and later even lesser powers, into the equivalent of gods.