---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 10 Jul 2002 11:41:13 -0700
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: The Eagle Has Crash Landed
The Eagle Has Crash Landed
Pax Americana is over. Challenges from Vietnam and the Balkans to the
Middle East and September 11 have revealed the limits of American
supremacy. Will the United States learn to fade quietly, or will U.S.
conservatives resist and thereby transform a gradual decline into a rapid
and dangerous fall?
By Immanuel Wallerstein
The United States in decline? Few people today would believe this
assertion. The only ones who do are the U.S. hawks, who argue vociferously
for policies to reverse the decline. This belief that the end of U.S.
hegemony has already begun does not follow from the vulnerability that
became apparent to all on September 11, 2001. In fact, the United States
has been fading as a global power since the 1970s, and the U.S. response to
the terrorist attacks has merely accelerated
this decline. To understand why the so-called Pax Americana is on the wane
requires examining the geopolitics of the 20th century, particularly of the
century's final three decades. This exercise uncovers a simple and
inescapable conclusion: The economic, political, and military factors that
contributed to U.S. hegemony are the same factors that will inexorably
produce the coming U.S. decline.
Intro to hegemony
The rise of the United States to global hegemony was a long process that
began in earnest with the world recession of 1873. At that time, the United
States and Germany began to acquire an increasing share of global markets,
mainly at the expense of the steadily receding British economy. Both
nations had recently acquired a stable political base, the United States by
successfully terminating the Civil War and Germany by achieving unification
and defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War. From 1873 to 1914, the
United States and Germany became the principal producers in certain leading
sectors: steel and later automobiles for the United States and industrial
chemicals for Germany.
The history books record that World War I broke out in 1914 and ended in
1918 and that World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945. However, it makes more
sense to consider the two as a single, continuous "30 years' war" between
the United States and Germany, with truces and local conflicts scattered in
between. The competition for hegemonic succession took an ideological turn
in 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany and began their quest to
transcend the global system altogether, seeking not hegemony within the
current system but rather a form of global empire. Recall the Nazi slogan
ein tausendjähriges Reich (a thousand-year empire). In turn, the United
States assumed the role of advocate of centrist world liberalism, recall
former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "four freedoms" (freedom of
speech, of worship, from want, and from fear)and entered into a strategic
alliance with the Soviet Union, making possible the defeat of Germany and
World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and
populations throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans,
with almost no country left unscathed. The only major industrial power in
the world to emerge intact, and even greatly strengthened from an economic
perspective, was the United States, which moved swiftly to consolidate its
But the aspiring hegemon faced some practical political obstacles. During
the war, the Allied powers had agreed on the establishment of the United
Nations, composed primarily of countries that had been in the coalition
against the Axis powers. The organization's critical feature was the
Security Council, the only structure that could authorize the use of force.
Since the U.N. Charter gave the right of veto to five powers, including the
United States and the Soviet
Unionthe council was rendered largely toothless in practice. So it was not
the founding of the United Nations in April 1945 that determined the
geopolitical constraints of the second half of the 20th century but rather
the Yalta meeting between Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin two months earlier.
The formal accords at Yalta were less important than the informal, unspoken
agreements, which one can only assess by observing the behavior of the
United States and the Soviet Union in the years that followed. When the war
ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (that is, U.S., British,
and French) troops were located in particular places, essentially, along a
line in the center of Europe that came to be called the Oder-Neisse Line.
Aside from a few minor adjustments, they stayed there. In hindsight, Yalta
signified the agreement of both sides that they could stay there and that
neither side would use force to push the other out. This tacit accord
applied to Asia as well, as evinced by U.S. occupation of Japan and the
division of Korea. Politically, therefore, Yalta was an agreement on the
status quo in which the Soviet Union controlled about one third of the
world and the United States the rest.
Washington also faced more serious military challenges. The Soviet Union
had the world's largest land forces, while the U.S. government was under
domestic pressure to downsize its army, particularly by ending the draft.
The United States therefore decided to assert its military strength not via
land forces but through a monopoly of nuclear weapons (plus an
air force capable of deploying them). This monopoly soon disappeared: By
1949, the Soviet Union had developed nuclear weapons as well. Ever since,
the United States has been reduced to trying to prevent the acquisition of
nuclear weapons (and chemical and biological weapons) by additional powers,
an effort that, in the 21st century, does not seem terribly successful.
Until 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union coexisted in the
"balance of terror" of the Cold War. This status quo was tested seriously
only three times: the Berlin blockade of 194849, the Korean War in 195053,
and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The result in each case was
restoration of the status quo. Moreover, note how each time the Soviet
Union faced a political crisis among its satellite regimes, East Germany in
1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia
in 1968, and Poland in 1981the United States engaged in little more than
propaganda exercises, allowing the Soviet Union to proceed largely as it
Of course, this passivity did not extend to the economic arena. The United
States capitalized on the Cold War ambiance to launch massive economic
reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well
as in South Korea and Taiwan). The rationale was obvious: What was the
point of having such overwhelming productive superiority if the rest of the
world could not muster effective demand? Furthermore, economic
reconstruction helped create clientelistic obligations on the part of the
nations receiving U.S. aid; this sense of obligation fostered willingness
to enter into military alliances and, even more important, into political
Finally, one should not underestimate the ideological and cultural
component of U.S. hegemony. The immediate post-1945 period may have been
the historical high point for the popularity of communist ideology. We
easily forget today the large votes for Communist parties in free elections
in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Finland,
not to mention the support Communist parties gathered in Asiain Vietnam,
India, and Japan, and throughout Latin America. And that still leaves out
areas such as China, Greece, and Iran, where free elections remained absent
or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed widespread appeal. In
response, the United States sustained a massive anticommunist ideological
offensive. In retrospect, this initiative appears largely successful:
brandished its role as the leader of the "free world" at least as
effectively as the Soviet Union brandished its position as the leader of
the "progressive" and "anti-imperialist" camp.
One, Two, Many Vietnams
The United States' success as a hegemonic power in the postwar period
created the conditions of the nation's hegemonic demise. This process is
captured in four symbols: the war in Vietnam, the revolutions of 1968, the
fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the terrorist attacks of September
2001. Each symbol built upon the prior one, culminating in the situation in
which the United States currently finds itself, a lone superpower that
lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a
nation drifting dangerously amidst a global chaos it cannot control.
What was the Vietnam War? First and foremost, it was the effort of the
Vietnamese people to end colonial rule and establish their own state. The
Vietnamese fought the French, the Japanese, and the Americans, and in the
end the Vietnamese won, quite an achievement, actually. Geopolitically,
however, the war represented a rejection of the Yalta status quo by
populations then labeled as Third World. Vietnam became such a powerful
symbol because Washington was foolish enough to invest its full military
might in the struggle, but the United States still lost. True, the United
States didn't deploy nuclear weapons (a decision certain myopic groups on
the right have long reproached), but such use would have shattered the
Yalta accords and might have produced a nuclear holocaust, an outcome the
simply could not risk.
But Vietnam was not merely a military defeat or a blight on U.S. prestige.
The war dealt a major blow to the United States' ability to remain the
world's dominant economic power. The conflict was extremely expensive and
more or less used up the U.S. gold reserves that had been so plentiful
since 1945. Moreover, the United States incurred these costs just as
Western Europe and Japan experienced major economic upswings. These
conditions ended U.S. preeminence in
the global economy. Since the late 1960s, members of this triad have been
nearly economic equals, each doing better than the others for certain
periods but none moving far ahead.
When the revolutions of 1968 broke out around the world, support for the
Vietnamese became a major rhetorical component. "One, two, many Vietnams"
and "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" were chanted in many a street, not least in the
United States. But the 1968ers did not merely condemn U.S. hegemony. They
condemned Soviet collusion with the United States, they condemned Yalta,
and they used or adapted the language of the Chinese cultural
revolutionaries who divided the world into two camps, the two superpowers
and the rest of the world.
The denunciation of Soviet collusion led logically to the denunciation of
those national forces closely allied with the Soviet Union, which meant in
most cases the traditional Communist parties. But the 1968 revolutionaries
also lashed out against other components of the Old Left, national
liberation movements in the Third World, social-democratic movements in
Western Europe, and New Deal Democrats in the United States, accusing them,
too, of collusion with
what the revolutionaries generically termed "U.S. imperialism."
The attack on Soviet collusion with Washington plus the attack on the Old
Left further weakened the legitimacy of the Yalta arrangements on which the
United States had fashioned the world order. It also undermined the
position of centrist liberalism as the lone, legitimate global ideology.
The direct political consequences of the world revolutions of 1968 were
minimal, but the geopolitical and intellectual repercussions were enormous
and irrevocable. Centrist liberalism tumbled from the throne it had
occupied since the European revolutions of 1848 and that had enabled it to
co-opt conservatives and radicals alike. These ideologies returned and once
again represented a real gamut of choices.
Conservatives would again become conservatives, and radicals, radicals. The
centrist liberals did not disappear, but they were cut down to size. And in
the process, the official U.S. ideological position, antifascist,
anticommunist, anticolonialist, seemed thin and unconvincing to a growing
portion of the world's populations.
The Powerless Superpower
The onset of international economic stagnation in the 1970s had two
important consequences for U.S. power. First, stagnation resulted in the
collapse of "developmentalism", the notion that every nation could catch up
economically if the state took appropriate action, which was the principal
ideological claim of the Old Left movements then in power.
One after another, these regimes faced internal disorder, declining
standards of living, increasing debt dependency on international financial
institutions, and eroding credibility. What had seemed in the 1960s to be
the successful navigation of Third World decolonization by the United
States, minimizing disruption and maximizing the smooth transfer of power
to regimes that were developmentalist but scarcely revolutionary, gave way
to disintegrating order, simmering discontents, and unchanneled radical
temperaments. When the United States tried to intervene, it failed. In
1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent troops to Lebanon to restore order.
The troops were in effect forced out. He compensated by invading Grenada, a
country without troops. President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama, another
country without troops. But after he intervened in Somalia to restore
order, the United States was in effect forced out, somewhat ignominiously.
Since there was little the U.S. government could actually do to reverse the
trend of declining hegemony, it chose simply to ignore this trend, a policy
that prevailed from the withdrawal from Vietnam until September 11, 2001.
Meanwhile, true conservatives began to assume control of key states and
interstate institutions. The neoliberal offensive of the 1980s was marked
by the Thatcher and Reagan regimes and the emergence of the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) as a key actor on the world scene. Where once (for more
than a century) conservative forces had attempted to portray themselves as
wiser liberals, now centrist liberals were compelled to argue that they
were more effective conservatives. The conservative programs were clear.
Domestically, conservatives tried to enact policies that would reduce the
cost of labor, minimize environmental constraints on producers, and cut
back on state welfare benefits. Actual successes were modest, so
conservatives then moved vigorously into the international arena. The
gatherings of the World Economic Forum in Davos provided a meeting ground
for elites and the media. The IMF provided a club for finance ministers and
central bankers. And the United States pushed for the creation of the World
Organization to enforce free commercial flows across the world's frontiers.
While the United States wasn't watching, the Soviet Union was collapsing.
Yes, Ronald Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and had
used the rhetorical bombast of calling for the destruction of the Berlin
Wall, but the United States didn't really mean it and certainly was not
responsible for the Soviet Union's downfall. In truth, the Soviet Union and
its East European imperial zone collapsed because of popular
disillusionment with the Old Left in combination with
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to save his regime by liquidating
Yalta and instituting internal liberalization (perestroika plus glasnost).
Gorbachev succeeded in liquidating Yalta but not in saving the Soviet Union
(although he almost did, be it said).
The United States was stunned and puzzled by the sudden collapse, uncertain
how to handle the consequences. The collapse of communism in effect
signified the collapse of liberalism, removing the only ideological
justification behind U.S. hegemony, a justification tacitly supported by
liberalism's ostensible ideological opponent. This loss of legitimacy led
directly to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein
would never have dared had the Yalta
arrangements remained in place. In retrospect, U.S. efforts in the Gulf War
accomplished a truce at basically the same line of departure. But can a
hegemonic power be satisfied with a tie in a war with a middling regional
power? Saddam demonstrated that one could pick a fight with the United
States and get away with it. Even more than the defeat in Vietnam, Saddam's
brash challenge has eaten at the innards of the U.S. right, in particular
those known as the hawks,
which explains the fervor of their current desire to invade Iraq and
destroy its regime.
Between the Gulf War and September 11, 2001, the two major arenas of world
conflict were the Balkans and the Middle East. The United States has played
a major diplomatic role in both regions. Looking back, how different would
the results have been had the United States assumed a completely
isolationist position? In the Balkans, an economically successful
multinational state (Yugoslavia) broke down, essentially into its component
parts. Over 10 years, most of the resulting states have engaged in a
process of ethnification, experiencing fairly brutal violence, widespread
human rights violations, and outright wars. Outside intervention, in which
the United States figured most prominently, brought about a truce and ended
the most egregious violence, but this intervention in no way reversed the
ethnification, which is now
consolidated and somewhat legitimated. Would these conflicts have ended
differently without U.S. involvement? The violence might have continued
longer, but the basic results would probably not have been too different.
The picture is even grimmer in the Middle East, where, if anything, U.S.
engagement has been deeper and its failures more spectacular. In the
Balkans and the Middle East alike, the United States has failed to exert
its hegemonic clout effectively,
not for want of will or effort but for want of real power.
The Hawks Undone
Then came September 11, the shock and the reaction. Under fire from U.S.
legislators, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) now claims it had warned
the Bush administration of possible threats. But despite the CIA's focus on
al Qaeda and the agency's intelligence expertise, it could not foresee (and
therefore, prevent) the execution of the terrorist strikes. Or so would
argue CIA Director George Tenet. This testimony can hardly comfort the U.S.
government or the American people. Whatever else historians may decide, the
attacks of September 11, 2001, posed a major challenge to U.S. power. The
persons responsible did not represent a major military power. They were
members of a nonstate force, with a high degree of determination, some
money, a band of dedicated followers, and a strong base in one weak state.
In short, militarily, they were nothing. Yet they succeeded in a bold
attack on U.S. soil.
George W. Bush came to power very critical of the Clinton administration's
handling of world affairs. Bush and his advisors did not admit, but were
undoubtedly aware, that Clinton's path had been the path of every U.S.
president since Gerald Ford, including that of Ronald Reagan and George
H.W. Bush. It had even been the path of the current Bush administration
before September 11. One only needs to look at how Bush handled the downing
of the U.S. plane
off China in April 2001 to see that prudence had been the name of the game.
Following the terrorist attacks, Bush changed course, declaring war on
terrorism, assuring the American people that "the outcome is certain" and
informing the world that "you are either with us or against us." Long
frustrated by even the most conservative U.S. administrations, the hawks
finally came to dominate American policy. Their position is clear: The
United States wields overwhelming military power, and even though countless
foreign leaders consider it unwise for Washington to flex its military
muscles, these same leaders cannot and will not do anything if the United
States simply imposes its will on the rest. The hawks believe the United
States should act as an imperial power for two reasons: First, the United
States can get away with it. And second, if Washington doesn't exert its
force, the United States will become increasingly marginalized.
Today, this hawkish position has three expressions: the military assault in
Afghanistan, the de facto support for the Israeli attempt to liquidate the
Palestinian Authority, and the invasion of Iraq, which is reportedly in the
military preparation stage. Less than one year after the September 2001
terrorist attacks, it is perhaps too early to assess what such strategies
will accomplish. Thus far, these schemes have led to the overthrow of the
Taliban in Afghanistan (without the complete dismantling of al Qaeda or the
capture of its top leadership); enormous destruction in Palestine (without
rendering Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat "irrelevant," as Israeli Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon said he is); and heavy opposition from U.S. allies in
Europe and the Middle East to plans for an invasion of Iraq.
The hawks' reading of recent events emphasizes that opposition to U.S.
actions, while serious, has remained largely verbal. Neither Western Europe
nor Russia nor China nor Saudi Arabia has seemed ready to break ties in
serious ways with the United States. In other words, hawks believe,
Washington has indeed gotten away with it. The hawks assume a similar
outcome will occur when the U.S. military actually invades Iraq and after
that, when the United States
exercises its authority elsewhere in the world, be it in Iran, North Korea,
Colombia, or perhaps Indonesia. Ironically, the hawk reading has largely
become the reading of the international left, which has been screaming
about U.S. policies, mainly because they fear that the chances of U.S.
success are high.
But hawk interpretations are wrong and will only contribute to the United
States' decline, transforming a gradual descent into a much more rapid and
turbulent fall. Specifically, hawk approaches will fail for military,
economic, and ideological reasons.
Undoubtedly, the military remains the United States' strongest card; in
fact, it is the only card. Today, the United States wields the most
formidable military apparatus in the world. And if claims of new, unmatched
military technologies are to be believed, the U.S. military edge over the
rest of the world is considerably greater today than it was just a decade
ago. But does that mean, then, that the United States can invade Iraq,
conquer it rapidly, and install a friendly and stable regime? Unlikely.
Bear in mind that of the three serious wars the U.S. military has fought
since 1945 (Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War), one ended in defeat and two
in draws, not exactly a glorious record.
Saddam Hussein's army is not that of the Taliban, and his internal military
control is far more coherent. A U.S. invasion would necessarily involve a
serious land force, one that would have to fight its way to Baghdad and
would likely suffer significant casualties. Such a force would also need
staging grounds, and Saudi Arabia has made clear that it will not serve in
this capacity. Would Kuwait or Turkey help out? Perhaps, if Washington
calls in all its chips. Meanwhile,
Saddam can be expected to deploy all weapons at his disposal, and it is
precisely the U.S. government that keeps fretting over how nasty those
weapons might be. The United States may twist the arms of regimes in the
region, but popular sentiment clearly views the whole affair as reflecting
a deep anti-Arab bias in the United States. Can such a conflict be won? The
British General Staff has apparently already informed Prime Minister Tony
Blair that it does not
And there is always the matter of "second fronts." Following the Gulf War,
U.S. armed forces sought to prepare for the possibility of two simultaneous
regional wars. After a while, the Pentagon quietly abandoned the idea as
impractical and costly. But who can be sure that no potential U.S. enemies
would strike when the United States appears bogged down in Iraq?
Consider, too, the question of U.S. popular tolerance of nonvictories.
Americans hover between a patriotic fervor that lends support to all
wartime presidents and a deep isolationist urge. Since 1945, patriotism has
hit a wall whenever the death toll has risen. Why should today's reaction
differ? And even if the hawks (who are almost all civilians) feel
impervious to public opinion, U.S. Army generals, burnt by Vietnam, do not.
And what about the economic front? In the 1980s, countless American
analysts became hysterical over the Japanese economic miracle. They calmed
down in the 1990s, given Japan's well-publicized financial difficulties.
overstating how quickly Japan was moving forward, U.S. authorities now seem
to be complacent, confident that Japan lags far behind. These days,
Washington seems more inclined to lecture Japanese policymakers about what
they are doing wrong.
Such triumphalism hardly appears warranted. Consider the following April
20, 2002, New York Times report: "A Japanese laboratory has built the
world's fastest computer, a machine so powerful that it matches the raw
processing power of the 20 fastest American computers combined and far
outstrips the previous leader, an I.B.M.-built machine.
The achievement ... is evidence that a technology race that most American
engineers thought they were winning handily is far from over." The analysis
goes on to note that there are "contrasting scientific and technological
priorities" in the two countries. The Japanese machine is built to analyze
climatic change, but U.S. machines are designed to simulate weapons. This
contrast embodies the oldest story in the history of hegemonic powers. The
concentrates (to its detriment) on the military; the candidate for
successor concentrates on the economy. The latter has always paid off,
handsomely. It did for the United States. Why should it not pay off for
Japan as well, perhaps in alliance with China?
Finally, there is the ideological sphere. Right now, the U.S. economy seems
relatively weak, even more so considering the exorbitant military expenses
associated with hawk strategies. Moreover, Washington remains politically
isolated; virtually no one (save Israel) thinks the hawk position makes
sense or is worth encouraging. Other nations are afraid or unwilling to
stand up to Washington directly, but even their foot-dragging is hurting
the United States.
Yet the U.S. response amounts to little more than arrogant arm-twisting.
Arrogance has its own negatives. Calling in chips means leaving fewer chips
for next time, and surly acquiescence breeds increasing resentment. Over
the last 200 years, the United States acquired a considerable amount of
ideological credit. But these days, the United States is running through
this credit even faster than it ran through its gold surplus in the 1960s.
The United States faces two possibilities during the next 10 years: It can
follow the hawks' path, with negative consequences for all but especially
for itself. Or it can realize that the negatives are too great. Simon
Tisdall of the Guardian recently argued that even disregarding
international public opinion, "the U.S. is not able to fight a successful
Iraqi war by itself without incurring immense damage, not least in terms of
its economic interests and its energy supply.
Mr. Bush is reduced to talking tough and looking ineffectual." And if the
United States still invades Iraq and is then forced to withdraw, it will
look even more ineffectual.
President Bush's options appear extremely limited, and there is little
doubt that the United States will continue to decline as a decisive force
in world affairs over the next decade. The real question is not whether
U.S. hegemony is waning but whether the United States can devise a way to
descend gracefully, with minimum damage to the world, and to itself.
Immanuel Wallerstein is a senior research scholar at Yale University and
author of, most recently, The End of the World As We Know It: Social
Science for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
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