Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 2, Number 23 July 14 - 20, 2002 Quezon City, Philippines
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?
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.
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.
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 successfully terminating the Civil War and
Germany by achieving unification and defeating France in the Franco-Prussian
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
³30 yearsı war² between the United States and Germany, with truces and local
conflicts scattered in between.
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 former U.S. President Franklin D. Rooseveltıs ³four
freedoms² (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear) alliance
with the Soviet Union, making possible the defeat of Germany and its allies.
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 perspective position.
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 organizationıs 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 United States and the Soviet Union 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.
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 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.
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 worldıs 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).
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
1991, the United States and the Soviet Union coexisted in the ³balance of
terror² 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 Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981 little
more than propaganda exercises, allowing the Soviet Union to proceed largely as
it deemed fit.
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 subservience.
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 Asia and Japan as China, Greece, and Iran, where free elections
remained absent or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed widespread
response, the United States sustained a massive anticommunist ideological
offensive. In retrospect, this initiative appears largely successful: Washington
brandished its role as the leader of the ³free world² at least as effectively
as the Soviet Union brandished its position as the leader of the ³progressive²
and ³anti-imperialist² camp.
Two, Many Vietnams
United Statesı success as a hegemonic power in the postwar period created the
conditions of the nationıs 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 true power, a world leader nobody follows and few
respect, and a nation drifting dangerously amidst a global chaos it cannot
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
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 didnıt 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 States simply could not risk.
Vietnam was not merely a military defeat or a blight on U.S. prestige. The war
dealt a major blow to the United Statesı ability to remain the worldıs
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.
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. ³One, two, many Vietnams² and ³Ho, Ho,
Ho Chi Minh² 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 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.
the 1968 revolutionaries also lashed out against other components of the Old
Left movements in the Third World, social-democratic movements in Western
Europe, and New Deal Democrats in the United States with what the
revolutionaries generically termed ³U.S. imperialism.² 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.
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 thin and unconvincing to a
growing portion of the worldıs populations.
onset of international economic stagnation in the 1970s had two important
consequences for U.S. power. First, stagnation resulted in the collapse of
³developmentalism² economically if the state took appropriate action
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 disruption and maximizing the
smooth transfer of power to regimes that were developmentalist but scarcely
revolutionary order, simmering discontents, and unchanneled radical
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 the withdrawal from Vietnam until September 11, 2001.
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
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 Trade
Organization to enforce free commercial flows across the worldıs frontiers.
the United States wasnıt watching, the Soviet Union was collapsing. Yes, Ronald
Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union an ³evil empire² and had used the
rhetorical bombast of calling for the destruction of the Berlin Wall, but the
United States didnıt really mean it and certainly was not responsible for the
Soviet Unionıs 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 Gorbachevıs 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.
collapse of communism in effect signified the collapse of liberalism, removing
the only ideological justification behind U.S. hegemony, a justification tacitly
supported by liberalismıs 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?
demonstrated that one could pick a fight with the United States and get away
with it. Even more than the defeat in Vietnam, Saddamıs 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
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.
intervention United States figured most prominently 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.
came September 11 legislators, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) now claims
it had warned the Bush administration of possible threats. But despite the CIAıs
focus on al Qaeda and the agencyıs 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.
W. Bush came to power very critical of the Clinton administrationıs handling of
world affairs. Bush and his advisors did not admit undoubtedly aware 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.
the terrorist attacks, Bush changed course, declaring war on terrorism, assuring
the American people that ³the outcome is certain² and informing the world that
³you are either with us or against us.² 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.
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 doesnıt
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.
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 ³irrelevant,²
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.
hawksı 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
the hawk reading has largely become the reading of the international left, which
has been screaming about U.S. policies chances of U.S. success are high. But
hawk interpretations are wrong and will only contribute to the United Statesı
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 Statesı
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.
Husseinıs 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.
such a conflict be won? The British General Staff has apparently already
informed Prime Minister Tony Blair that it does not believe so. And there is
always the matter of ³second fronts.² 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?
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 todayıs 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.
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 Japanıs well-publicized financial difficulties. Yet after overstating how
quickly Japan was moving forward, U.S. authorities now seem to be complacent,
confident that Japan lags far behind.
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: ³A Japanese laboratory has
built the worldıs 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.² The analysis goes on to note that there are
³contrasting scientific and technological priorities² 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 dominant power 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?
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.
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 hawksı
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, ³the 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.² And if the United States
still invades Iraq and is then forced to withdraw, it will look even more
ineffectual. President Bushıs 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. Re-posted by