In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright first referred to the U.S. as "the indispensable nation." That, of course, was seven years after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War had entered the history books. As it happened, it was but one of many self-congratulatory things that American presidents, politicians, and officials would in those years say about this country and its global clout.
Still, when you think about this planet's powers, historically speaking, it's often true that the breaking point for empire tends to catch us off guard. No one in Washington in 1991, for instance, expected the Soviet Union, that other eternal "superpower" on Planet Earth, to suddenly implode, even if today we forget the shock of it all.
In the same way, it might prove all too easy to miss the moment when this indispensable nation of ours becomes an all-too-dispensable one. In fact, if on January 6, 2020, someone had whispered in your ear an accurate description of how this country, still then considered the wealthiest, most powerful, one-of-a-kind superpower ever, would mishandle the arrival of the coronavirus (and become a pandemic empire, catching the worst case of Covid-19 on the planet), you wouldn't have believed it, would you? And a year and almost 400,000 dead Americans later, you might still not have believed that Tony Gonzales, a Texas Republican congressman and former military man, would be trying to barricade the doors to the chamber of the House of Representatives as Trumpian rioters, some armed, some sporting Confederate flags, grew ever closer, while thinking: "Wow, wouldn't this be something. I fight in Iraq and Afghanistan just to be killed in the House of Representatives."
At this point, there's no way of knowing for sure if we Americans are now experiencing firsthand our increasing dispensability, but take a breath and let TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon whisper some thoughts on where the former "lone superpower" of this planet might be heading in 2021. Tom
The Rubble of Empire
Doctrines of Disaster and Dreams of Security as the Biden Years Begin
How can you tell when your empire is crumbling? Some signs are actually visible from my own front window here in San Francisco.
Directly across the street, I can see a collection of tarps and poles (along with one of my own garbage cans) that were used to construct a makeshift home on the sidewalk. Beside that edifice stands a wooden cross decorated with a string of white Christmas lights and a red ribbon a memorial to the woman who built that structure and died inside it earlier this week. We don't know and probably never will what killed her: the pandemic raging across California? A heart attack? An overdose of heroin or fentanyl?
Behind her home and similar ones is a chain-link fence surrounding the empty playground of the Horace Mann/Buena Vista elementary and middle school. Like that home, the school, too, is now empty, closed because of the pandemic. I don't know where the families of the 20 children who attended that school and lived in one of its gyms as an alternative to the streets have gone. They used to eat breakfast and dinner there every day, served on the same sidewalk by a pair of older Latina women who apparently had a contract from the school district to cook for the families using that school-cum-shelter. I don't know, either, what any of them are now doing for money or food.
Just down the block, I can see the line of people that has formed every weekday since early December. Masked and socially distanced, they wait patiently to cross the street, one at a time, for a Covid test at a center run by the San Francisco Department of Health. My little street seems an odd choice for such a service, since especially now that the school has closed it gets little foot traffic. Indeed, a representative of the Latino Task Force, an organization created to inform the city's Latinx population about Covid resources told our neighborhood paper Mission Local that
"Small public health clinics such as this one 'will say they want to do more outreach, but I actually think they don't want to.' He believes they chose a low-trafficked street like Bartlett to stay under the radar. 'They don't want to blow the spot up, because it does not have a large capacity.'"
What do any of these very local sights have to do with a crumbling empire? They're signs that some of the same factors that fractured the Roman empire back in 476 CE (and others since) are distinctly present in this country today even in California, one of its richest states. I'm talking about phenomena like gross economic inequality; over-spending on military expansion; political corruption; deep cultural and political fissures; and, oh yes, the barbarians at the gates. I'll turn to those factors in a moment, but first let me offer a brief defense of the very suggestion that U.S. imperialism and an American empire actually exist.
Imperialism? What's That Supposed to Mean?
What better source for a definition of imperialism than the Encyclopedia Britannica, that compendium of knowledge first printed in 1768 in the country that became the great empire of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries? According to the Encyclopedia, "imperialism" denotes "state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas." Furthermore, imperialism "always involves the use of power, whether military or economic or some subtler form." In other words, the word indicates a country's attempts to control and reap economic benefit from lands outside its borders.
In that context, "imperialism" is an accurate description of the trajectory of U.S. history, starting with the country's expansion across North America, stealing territory and resources from Indian nations and decimating their populations. The newly independent United States would quickly expand, beginning with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France. That deal, which effectively doubled its territory, included most of what would become the state of Louisiana, together with some or all of the present-day states of New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, and even small parts of what are today the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
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