6 Dec

Two important reflections on the global role of the United States caught my attention during the last 24 hours, and I recommend them both as perceptive interpretations of what seems to be happening to American power and prestige and as presaging worse to come: Alfred W. McCoy, “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire: Four Scenarios for the end of the American Century by 2025,” available via, posted Dec. 5, 2010; Sahin Alpay,  “Wikileaks: the sad story of a declining superpower,” Today’s Zaman, December 6, 2010.

Both pieces paint a similar picture of the United States as heading for the geopolitical dumpster, but at somewhat different speeds and consequences. What for Alpay is sad is for McCoy catastrophic. McCoy, a distinguished historian who has been writing revealingly for decades about corrosive role of secrecy and the drug connections associated with the conduct of the ceaseless American wars in Third World countries, as well as being the author of a devastating expose of the reliance by the CIA on pre-Bush era torture ever since the early years of the Cold War. In depicting the future, McCoy looks at four scenarios for abrupt decline: by economic unraveling via the collapse of the dollar; by persisting military misadventures in Afghanistan, Iran, elsewhere; by an oil/energy squeeze by way of supply shortages and skyrocketing prices; and by stumbling into World War III as a result of the spiraling out of control of the intensifying rivalry with China. McCoy’s cogent line of reasoning suggests that these converging features of the global setting are so unfavorable to the United States’ accustomed role for the last century as to produce an abrupt collapse of its imperial status on the world stage accompanied by a devastating downturn at home, likely generating an irresponsible nativist backlash that will only make matters far worse. McCoy believes that the collapse will probably occur by 2025, and not later.

Alpay, a prominent university professor and a regular columnist in Turkey, relates his assessments closely to the illuminating Wikileaks revelations of the inner and hidden dynamics of American diplomacy, arguing along the way that these massive and embarrassing disclosures should be welcomed as fully in the spirit of democratic governance, and those who made it happen should be applauded and defended, not threatened and criminalized. WiliLeaks exposes the huge gaps that separate the deep and secretive politics of the policy elites from the dishonest public rationales offered to citizens and the world by American leaders. The revelations also confirm the misguided and inept thinking that underlies current foreign policy failures. Alpay’s main observation is to cast aside those who insist that the WikiLeaks phenomenon is itself a dark conspiracy by one of the following: Israel to build support for a waging war against Iran, U.S. Government eager to intensify tensions in the Arab world, rogue bureaucrats seeking to embarrass the elected Obama presidency. Instead of conspiracies so quickly embraced in the Middle East, Alpay believes that the main value of the 250,000 plus cables confirm what we should have already known: that the inner workings of power in the United States exhibit a lethal downward spiral of disarray that puts the Middle East and Central Asia in great and immediate danger. This sudden eruption of transparency demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt the governmental indifference toward those supposedly core values of a democratic society associated with law and decency, but it also provides ample proof of the incompetence, wrongheadedness, and an uncritical embrace of dysfunctional militarism that reigns supreme in Washington.

I would add a few peripheral points to these perceptive commentaries:

–whether decline and fall are inevitable is uncertain, but what makes these outcomes more and more probable and proximate, is this dual obsessive attachment of the Beltway Gang to dysfunctional militarism and a suicidal form of hyper-capitalism, both paving the way to political extremism at home and fiscal disaster for the world;

–while the preoccupation with American failures is understandable, it deflects attention from other trends that imperil the human future, and compound the difficulties already mentioned: global warming and its secondary effects on weather, ocean levels, food security, health, stability;

‘peak oil’ implying declining production and supply curves at a time of rising consumption and demand curves; water scarcities imperiling the wellbeing of over a billion persons;

–what seems dismaying is the absence of a coherent progressive opposition that is rooted in ideas, values, and trends that rests on several vital normative premises: equality and dignity of all persons, the embeddedness of human destiny in its larger natural and cosmic surroundings, the need for human security to be build upon a foundation of justice,  locally, nationally, and globally, a reliance on rationality, evidence, education, respect for law, and ethical responsibility in reaching public policy conclusions; the contrast with an ascending reactionary opposition is striking: its views are coherent and principled, but its vision is warped, based on hostility toward ‘otherness’, division of humanity into good and evil, racism, climate skepticism, a general repudiation of knowledge and reason as guides for policy, an absence of empathy for the suffering of others, national chauvinism, an exaggerated veneration of the military and military virtues;

–what may provide glimmers of hope is the incapacity of the mind to encompass the totality of the reality that confronts society, and will disclose itself by an unfolding that cannot be fully anticipated; uncertainty makes struggle against the impending darkness an urgent and necessary imperative; if we wish to live we must be willing to fight; the biggest domestic challenge in this country is directed at the youth, briefly awakened by the promises of the Obama presidential campaign but quickly disillusioned by the performance of the Obama presidency, and now regressing to a mindless urban hedonism that is pacified by social networking and preoccupied by a hermetic world of sex, food, and careers, or at least jobs, an atmosphere unintentionally forming the background of the film Social Networking (also confirmed by the texture and circumscribed concerns portrayed in Going the Distance); in the often invoked words of William Butler Yeats, ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction.’ If this remains the case, we should all check in at the nearest hospice!

–avoiding the worst of these future scenarios of doom is a global challenge, not just one confronting Americans; the global presence of the United States, epitomized by its 800 or so overseas military bases, should make people everywhere insist on having  a vote in American elections as an essential, if symbolic, element in any legitimate future form of global democracy; the rest of the world is disenfranchised here in America, yet its fate is often more determined, at least for now, by decisions made in the White House without any pretense of consulting those most affected. These decisions are often more consequential for human wellbeing than are the contests for leadership in national elections. The Brazilian leader, Lula, typified this awareness when he said prior to a G-20 meeting at the height of the world recession, “I pray for him more than for myself,” My claim is that the world needs votes, not prayers, if it is to create some relationship between representation, responsibility, and social/political/economic reality. Our political imaginations remain entrapped spatially, by way of geographic boundaries, while our lives are increasingly constituted and disempowered by an array of digital machinations.


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