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Tom Engelhardt: Where did the American Century go?

Life on an increasingly improbable planet.

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Image taken by Flickr user Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Photo Archive.

by Tom Engelhardt
by arrangement with TomDispatch

Vladimir Putin recently manned up and admitted it. The United States remains the planet’s sole superpower, as it has been since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “America,” the Russian president said, “is a great power. Today, probably, the only superpower. We accept that.”

Think of us, in fact, as the default superpower in an ever more recalcitrant world.

Seventy-five years ago, at the edge of a global conflagration among rival great powers and empires, Henry Luce first suggested that the next century could be ours. In February 1941, in his magazine LIFE, he wrote a famous essay entitled “The American Century.” In it, he proclaimed that if only Americans would think internationally, surge into the world, and accept that they were already at war, the next hundred years would be theirs. Just over nine months later, the Japanese attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into World War II. At the time, however, Americans were still riven and confused about how to deal with spreading regional conflicts in Europe and Asia, as well as the rise of fascism and the Nazis.

That moment was indeed a horrific one, and yet it was also just a heightened version of what had gone before. For the previous half-millennium, there had seldom been a moment when at least two (and often three or more) European powers had not been in contention, often armed and violent, for domination and for control of significant parts of the planet. In those many centuries, great powers rose and fell and new ones, including Germany and Japan, came on the scene girded for imperial battle. In the process, a modern global arms race was launched to create ever more advanced and devastating weaponry based on the latest breakthroughs in the science of war. By August 1945, this had led to the release of an awesome form of primal energy in the first (and thus far only) use of nuclear weapons in wartime. 

In the years that followed, the United States and the Soviet Union grew ever more “super” and took possession of destructive capabilities once left, at least in the human imagination, to the gods: the power to annihilate not just one enemy on one battlefield or one armada on one sea but everything. In the nearly half-century of the Cold War, the rivalry between them became apocalyptic in nature as their nuclear arsenals grew to monstrous proportions. As a result, with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they faced off against each other indirectly in “limited” proxy wars that, especially in Korea and Indochina, were of unparalleled technological ferocity.

Previously, the idea of a single power so mighty that it alone loomed over the planet was essentially relegated to fictional fantasies about extraordinary evil.

Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and, for the first time in historical memory, there was only one power that mattered. This was a reality even Henry Luce might have found farfetched. Previously, the idea of a single power so mighty that it alone loomed over the planet was essentially relegated to fictional fantasies about extraordinary evil. And yet so it was—or at least so it seemed, especially to the leadership that took power in Washington in the year 2000 and soon enough were dreaming of a planetary Pax Americana.

In a strange way, something similarly unimaginable happened in Europe. On that continent laid waste by two devastating twentieth-century wars, a single “union” was formed, something that not so long before would have been categorized as a madly utopian project. The idea that centuries of national rivalries and the rabid nationalism that often went with it could somehow be tamed and that former great powers and imperial contenders could be subsumed in a single peaceful organization (even if under the aegis of American global power) would once have seemed like the most absurd of fictions. And yet so it would be—or so it seemed, at least until recently.

A Planetary Brexit?

We seldom take in the strangeness of what’s happened on this curious planet of ours. In the years after 1991, we became so inured to the idea of a single superpower globe and a single European economic and political union that both, once utterly inconceivable, came to seem too mundane to spend a lot of time thinking about. And yet who would have believed that seventy years after Luce urged his country into that American Century, there would, in military terms, be no genuine rivals, no other truly great powers (only regional ones) on Planet Earth?

So many taken-for-granted things about our world were considered utterly improbable before they happened. Take China. I recall well the day in 1972 when, after decades of non-contact and raging hostility, we learned that President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were in Beijing meeting congenially with Communist leader Mao Zedong. A friend called to tell me the news. I thought he was joking and it struck me as a ridiculously lame joke at that.

There’s almost no way now to capture how improbable this seemed at the time—the leading communist revolutionary on the planet chatting cheerily with the prime representative of anti-communism. If, however, you had told me then that, in the decades to come, China would undergo a full-scale capitalist revolution and become the economic powerhouse of the planet, and that this would be done under the leadership of Mao’s still regnant communist party, I would have considered you mad.

And mind you, that’s just to begin to mention the improbabilities of the present moment. After all, in what fantasies—ever—about a globe with a single dominant power, would anyone have imagined that it might fail so utterly to bring the world to anything approximating heel? If you had told Henry Luce, or me, or anyone else, including the masters of the universe in Washington in 1991, that the only superpower left on Earth, with the best-funded, mightiest, most technologically destructive and advanced military imaginable, would, on September 11, 2001, be goaded by a group so modest in size and power as to be barely noticeable into a series of never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, we would have found that beyond improbable.

Who would have believed a movie or novel in which that same power, without national enemies of any significance in any of the regions where the fighting was taking place, would struggle unsuccessfully, year after year, to subdue scattered, lightly armed insurgents (aka “terrorists”) across a disintegrating region? Who could have imagined that every measure Washington took to assert its might only seemed to blow back (or blow somewhere, anyway)? Who would have believed that its full-scale invasion of one weak Middle Eastern country, its “mission accomplished” moment, would in the end prove a trip through “the gates of hell”? Who would have imagined that such an invasion could punch a hole in the oil heartlands of the region that, thirteen years later, is still a bleeding wound, now seemingly beyond repair, or that it would set loose a principle of chaos and disintegration that seems to be spreading like a planetary Brexit?

And what if I told you that, after fifteen years of such behavior, the only thing the leaders of that superpower can now imagine doing in the increasingly wrecked lands where they carry on their struggles is yet more of everything that hasn’t worked in all that time? Meanwhile—how improbable is this?—in its “homeland,” there is essentially no one, neither a movement in the streets, nor critical voices in the corridors of power protesting what’s happening or even exploring or suggesting other paths into the future.

Imagine that, wherever you looked, except in the borderlands of (and waters off) Russia and China, that single superpower was essentially unopposed and yet its ability to apply its unique status effectively in these years has been in eternal free-fall—even in perfectly peaceable areas to which it was closely allied.

Imagine that, wherever you looked, except in the borderlands of (and waters off) Russia and China, that single superpower was essentially unopposed and yet its ability to apply its unique status effectively in these years has been in eternal free-fall—even in perfectly peaceable areas to which it was closely allied. As an example, consider this: the president of that sole superpower flies to London and, in an England that (like much of Europe) hasn’t said no to Washington about anything of genuine significance in decades, strongly urges the British not to exit (or “Brexit”) the European Union (EU). He backs up his suggestion with a clearly stated threat. If they do so, he says, our closest trans-Atlantic partner will find itself at “the back of the queue” when it comes to future trade deals with Washington.

Remember, we’re talking about a country that has, in these years, seconded the US endlessly. As David Sanger of the New York Times recently (and delicately) put it:

No country shares Washington’s worldview quite the way Britain does, [American officials] say; it has long been the United States’ most willing security ally, most effective intelligence partner and greatest enthusiast of the free-trade mantras that have been a keystone of America’s internationalist approach. And few nations were as willing to put a thumb as firmly on the scales of European debates in ways that benefit the United States.

By now, of course, we all know how the populace of our most loyal ally, the other side of that “special relationship,” reacted—with anger at the president’s intervention and with a vote to exit the European Union not long after. In its wake, fears are rising of further Frexits and Nexits that might crack the EU open and usher in a new era of nationalist feeling in Europe.

Failed World?

As goes Britain, so, it seems, goes the world. Give Washington real credit for much of this. Those post-9/11 dreams of global domination shared by the top leadership of the Bush administration proved wildly destructive and it’s gotten no better since. Consider the vast swath of the planet where the devastation is most obvious: the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Then ask yourself: Are we still in the American Century? And if not, whose (or what) century are we in? 

If you had told me in 1975, when the Vietnam War finally ended some thirty-four years after Luce wrote that essay and twenty-eight years before the US invaded Iraq that, in 1979, Washington would become involved in a decade-long war in Afghanistan, I would have been stunned. If you had told me in 1975 that, in 2001, it would invade that same country and launch a second Afghan War, still underway fifteen years later with no end in sight, I wouldn’t have believed you. A quarter-century of American wars and still counting in a country that, in 1975, most Americans might not have been able to locate on a map. If you had added that, starting in 1990, the US would be involved in three successive wars in Iraq, the third of which is still ongoing, I might have been speechless. And that’s not to mention interventions of various sorts, also ongoing, in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria—none, by the way, by any normal standards successful.

If you were to do a little tabulation of the results of these years of American Century-ism across the Greater Middle East, you would discover a signature kind of chaos. In the early years of this century, officials of the Bush administration often referred to the region from China’s western border to northern Africa as an “arc of instability.” That phrase was meant to embody their explanation for letting the US military loose there: to bring order and, of course, democracy to those lands. And with modest exceptions, it was indeed true that most of the Greater Middle East was then ruled by repressive, autocratic, or regressive regimes of various sorts. It was, however, still a reasonably orderly region. Now, it actually is an arc of instability filled with states that are collapsing left and right, cities and towns that are being leveled, and terror outfits, each worse than the last, that are spreading in the regional rubble. Religious and ethnic divisions of every sort are sharpening and conflicts within countries, or what’s left of them, are on the rise.

Most of the places where the US has let its military and its air power loose—Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria—are now either failed or failing states. Under the circumstances, it might be reasonable to suggest that the very term “failed state” is outdated, and not just because it places all the blame for what’s happened on the indigenous people of a country. After all, if the arc of instability is now in any way “united,” it’s mainly thanks to spreading terror groups and perhaps the Islamic State brand.

Can there be any question that this is not the century of Henry Luce, nor the one that American political and military leaders dreamed of when the Soviet Union collapsed?

Moreover, in the stunted imagination of present-day Washington, the only policies imaginable in response to all this are highly militarized and call for more of the same: more air power in the skies over distant battlefields, more boots on the ground, more private contractors and hired guns, more munitions and weaponry (surprising amounts of which have, in these years, ended up in the hands not of allied forces, but of Washington’s enemies), more special operations raids, more drone assassination campaigns, and at home, more surveillance, more powers for the national security state, more… well, you know the story.

For such a world, a new term is needed. Perhaps something like failed region. This, it seems, is one thing that the American Century has come to mean seventy-five years after Henry Luce urged it into existence. And perhaps lurking in the undergrowth as well is another phrase, one not quite yet imaginable but thoroughly chilling: failed world.

With this in mind, imagine what the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia could mean in the long run, or the recent US-NATO pivot to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. If huge swaths of the planet have begun to disintegrate in an era when the worst the US faced in the way of opponents has been minority insurgencies and terror outfits, or more recently a terror caliphate, consider for a moment what kinds of chaos could come to regions where a potentially hostile power remains. And by the way, don’t for a second think that, even if the Islamic State is finally defeated, worse can’t emerge from the chaos and rubble of the failed region that it will leave behind. It can and, odds on, it will.

All of this gives the very idea of an American Century new meaning. Can there be any question that this is not the century of Henry Luce, nor the one that American political and military leaders dreamed of when the Soviet Union collapsed? What comes to mind instead is the sentiment the Roman historian Tacitus put in the mouth of Calgacus, a chieftain in what is now Scotland, speaking of the Roman conquests of his time: “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Perhaps this is no longer really the American century at all, despite the continuing status of the US as the planet’s sole superpower. A recent U.N. report estimates that, in 2015, a record sixty five million people were uprooted, mainly in the Greater Middle East.  Tens of millions of them crossed borders and became refugees, including staggering numbers of children, many separated from their parents. So perhaps this really is the century of the lost child.

What could be sadder?

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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