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American decline: causes and consequences: Chomsky

As these and many other developments illustrate, though America’s hegemony has declined, its ambition has not.

Noam Chomsky


In the 2011 summer issue of the journal of the American Academy of Political Science, we read that it is “a common theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal – is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay.” It is indeed a common theme, widely believed, and with some reason.

But an appraisal of US foreign policy and influence abroad and the strength of its domestic economy and political institutions at home suggests that a number of qualifications are in order.

To begin with, the decline has in fact been proceeding since the high point of US power shortly after World War II, and the remarkable rhetoric of the several years of triumphalism in the 1990s was mostly self-delusion.

Furthermore, the commonly drawn corollary – that power will shift to China and India – is highly dubious. They are poor countries with severe internal problems. The world is surely becoming more diverse, but despite Unite States’ decline, in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power.

To review briefly some of the relevant history: During World War II, US planners recognized that the US would emerge from the war in a position of overwhelming power. It is quite clear from the documentary record that “President Roosevelt was aiming at United States hegemony in the postwar world,” to quote the assessment of diplomatic historian Geoffrey Warner. Plans were developed to control what was called a Grand Area, a region encompassing the Western Hemisphere, the Far East, the former British empire – including the crucial Middle East oil reserves – and as much of Eurasia as possible, or at the very least its core industrial regions in Western Europe and the southern European states.

The latter were regarded as essential for ensuring control of Middle East energy resources. Within these expansive domains, the US was to maintain “unquestioned power” with “military and economic supremacy,” while ensuring the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs. The doctrines still prevail, though their reach has declined.

Wartime plans, soon to be carefully implemented, were not unrealistic. The US had long been by far the richest country in the world. The war ended the Depression and US industrial capacity almost quadrupled, while rivals were decimated. At the war’s end, the US had half the world’s wealth and unmatched security. Each region of the Grand Area was assigned its ‘function’ within the global system.

The ensuing ‘Cold War’ consisted largely of efforts by the two superpowers to enforce order on their own domains: for the USSR, Eastern Europe; for the US, most of the world. By 1949, the Grand Area was already seriously eroding with “the loss of China,” as it is routinely called. The phrase is interesting: one can only ‘lose’ what one possesses. Shortly after, Southeast Asia began to fall out of control, leading to Washington’s horrendous Indochina wars and the huge massacres in Indonesia in 1965 as US dominance was restored. Meanwhile, subversion and massive violence continued elsewhere in the effort to maintain what is called ‘stability,’ meaning conformity to US demands.

But decline was inevitable, as the industrial world reconstructed and decolonization pursued its agonizing course. By 1970, US share of world wealth had declined to about 25%, still colossal but sharply reduced. The industrial world was becoming ‘tripolar,’ with major centers in the US, Europe, and Asia — then Japan-centered — already becoming the most dynamic region.

Twenty years later the USSR collapsed. Washington’s reaction teaches us a good deal about the reality of the Cold War. The Bush I administration, then in office, immediately declared that policies would remain pretty much unchanged, but under different pretexts.

The huge military establishment would be maintained, but not for defense against the Russians; rather, to confront the “technological sophistication” of third world powers. Similarly, they reasoned, it would be necessary to maintain “the defense industrial base,” a euphemism for advanced industry, highly reliant on government subsidy and initiative.

Intervention forces still had to be aimed at the Middle East, where the serious problems “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” contrary to half a century of deceit. It was quietly conceded that the problems had always been “radical nationalism,” that is, attempts by countries to pursue an independent course in violation of Grand Area principles.

These policy fundamentals were not modified. The Clinton administration declared that the US has the right to use military force unilaterally to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.”

It also declared that military forces must be “forward deployed” in Europe and Asia “in order to shape people’s opinions about us,” not by gentle persuasion, and “to shape events that will affect our livelihood and our security.” Instead of being reduced or eliminated, as propaganda would have led one to expect, NATO was expanded to the East. This was in violation of verbal pledges to Mikhail Gorbachev when he agreed to allow a unified Germany to join NATO.

Today, NATO has become a global intervention force under US command, with the official task of controlling the international energy system, sea lanes, pipelines, and whatever else the hegemonic power determines.

There was indeed a period of euphoria after the collapse of the superpower enemy, with excited tales about “the end of history” and awed acclaim for Clinton’s foreign policy. Prominent intellectuals declared the onset of a “noble phase” with a “saintly glow,” as for the first time in history a nation was guided by “altruism” and dedicated to “principles and values;” and nothing stood in the way of the “idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity,” which could at last carry forward unhindered the emerging international norm of humanitarian intervention.

Not all were so enraptured. The traditional victims, the Global South, bitterly condemned “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention,” recognizing it to be just the old “right” of imperial domination.

More sober voices at home among the policy elite could perceive that for much of the world, the US was “becoming the rogue superpower,” considered “the single greatest external threat to their societies,” and that “the prime rogue state today is the United States.”

After Bush Jr. took over, increasingly hostile world opinion could scarcely be ignored. In the Arab world particularly, Bush’s approval ratings plummeted. Obama has achieved the impressive feat of sinking still lower, down to 5% in Egypt and not much higher elsewhere in the region.

Meanwhile, decline continued. In the past decade, South America has been ‘lost.’ The ‘threat’ of losing South America had loomed decades earlier. As the Nixon administration was planning the destruction of Chilean democracy, and the installation of a US-backed Pinochet dictatorship – the National Security Council warned that if the US could not control Latin America, it could not expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.”

But far more serious would be moves towards independence in the Middle East. Post WWII planning recognized that control of the incomparable energy reserves of the Middle East would yield “substantial control of the world,” in the words of the influential Roosevelt advisor A.A. Berle.

Correspondingly, that loss of control would threaten the project of global dominance that was clearly articulated during World War II and has been sustained in the face of major changes in world order ever since.

A further danger to US hegemony was the possibility of meaningful moves towards democracy. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller writes movingly of Washington’s “yearning to embrace the aspiring democrats across North Africa and the Middle East.” But recent polls of Arab opinion reveal very clearly that functioning democracy where public opinion influences policy would be disastrous for Washington. Not surprisingly, the first few steps in Egypt’s foreign policy after ousting Mubarak have been strongly opposed by the US and its Israeli client.

While longstanding US policies remain stable, with tactical adjustments, under Obama there have been some significant changes. Military analyst Yochi Dreazen observes in the Atlantic that Bush’s policy was to capture (and torture) suspects, while Obama simply assassinates them, with a rapid increase in terror weapons (drones) and the use of Special Forces, many of them assassination teams. Special Forces are scheduled to operate in 120 countries.

Now as large as Canada’s entire military, these forces are, in effect, a private army of the president, a matter discussed in detail by American investigative journalist Nick Turse on the website Tomdispatch. The team that Obama dispatched to assassinate Osama bin Laden had already carried out perhaps a dozen similar missions in Pakistan.

As these and many other developments illustrate, though America’s hegemony has declined, its ambition has not.

Another common theme, at least among those who are not willfully blind, is that American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted.

The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country (a large majority think that Congress should just be disbanded) and bewilders the world, has few analogues in the annals of parliamentary democracy.

The spectacle is even coming to frighten the sponsors of the charade. Corporate power is now concerned that the extremists they helped put in office in Congress may choose to bring down the edifice on which their own wealth and privilege relies, the powerful nanny state that caters to their interests. (Chomsky.indo – al-Akhbar, August 24, 2011)

(Part 2 next edition)

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