USSA wakes up to the shift in global power
Last Tuesday night was a sobering affair if you are a supporter of America’s engagement with the world. In his defining speech on Afghanistan at the West Point military academy, Barack Obama’s own tone was extremely sober, and at times he seemed close to choking up as he weighed sending more young men and women into the wastes of Helmand. His audience of West Point cadets sat silently for the most part, some even fighting off sleep.
The pundits regretted that Obama had not pulled off a Henry V peroration, as if announcing a ninth year of counterinsurgency in a country thousands of miles away could be compared to Agincourt. And the polling found a public deeply ambivalent about extending the war further, while also afraid of the consequences of too rapid a departure.
This was a chastened rather than confident America. And it isn’t hard to see why. Obama emerged as a candidate, and then as a president, precisely because Americans saw that their country was so far off track. But the reason change was vital then is why the atmosphere is now so dire, and Obama’s inability to overcome it all (what human could?) has brought Americans back to the sobriety of their current predicament.
I’ve long feared this moment would come. It feels like the late 1970s but with no cheerful Ronald Reagan in the wings and no obvious course of action to break out of the morass. The weekly news magazines are again full of ruminations on American decline; China’s emergence as the source of most of the world’s raw wealth creation has left Americans feeling left behind. I’ve never experienced such widespread gloom in the 25 years I’ve lived here.
The frustration of wars where victory seems impossible and of an economy now revealed as a Potemkin one, leveraged on debt and fraud and froth, is the reason. But the wars are the fundamental cause. The only thing more damaging to a superpower than never using military power is using it in such a way as to demonstrate its futility.
In some ways, Iraq and Afghanistan broke America the way Vietnam did. They demonstrated to the world that the most powerful military machine in world history could not defeat Islamist insurgencies or repair broken countries without absurd costs and ambiguous results.
To have experienced the blow of 9/11 and to watch almost a decade later as young Americans die for a kleptocracy in Kabul and a sectarian bazaar in Baghdad is to experience a deeply demoralising and discouraging morass. Osama Bin Laden, moreover, remains at large — eight years after the worst mass murder in US history. And he is sheltered by a supposed alleged ally that has received enormous sums of aid.
Americans see all of this as they lose jobs in vast numbers, or see their wealth vanish in a collapsing housing market, or struggle to send their children to college or even a doctor. They know, too, that even with all this sacrifice and effort, their security remains tenuous.
That’s why no president could have announced, as some Republicans wanted, an indefinite massive campaign in Afghanistan. It simply isn’t sustainable — politically or economically. The country is more broke than at any time since the second world war in a global economy still vulnerable to another relapse.
There is also a limit to how much pressure you can put on a military that has undertaken deployments far lengthier and more intense than any previous conflict. And there is growing scepticism that America really can afford the kind of global role it assumed after the cold war.
The polls reflect this mood with stark clarity. The Pew survey has polled Americans for decades on their attitude towards the wider world — measuring how unilateralist and isolationist the mood is, or how multilateral and interventionist. The latest results, announced last week, were striking.
The percentage of Americans now saying that the US should “mind its own business” and let the rest of the world get on with it is now higher than it ever was during the Vietnam war and higher than it was in the low point of the Carter era. A full 49% of Americans now favour isolationism. The previous peaks were 41% in 1995 and 1976; at the height of the Vietnam war, the isolationist position mustered only 35%.
For the first time, most Americans also see China as the pre-eminent economic power; and 47% believe that Afghanistan will revert to the Taliban once the US leaves.
This is an America still traumatised by 9/11 and deeply frustrated by its inability to reverse or rectify its potency almost a decade later. It is an America slowly coming out of denial about the profound strategic costs of two failed wars and occupations, where even success now seems to be at a cost not worth bearing.
It would be foolish, however, to think this could never change. If the US extricates itself from Iraq without that country imploding and if the Afghan surge actually shifts the dynamic on the ground, perceptions may shift once more.
If the CIA captures or kills Bin Laden, some closure might be possible. The death penalty for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after a civil trial in New York could restore Americans’ faith in their system, while finally achieving some kind of justice for the victims of 9/11. And the economy could turn around more powerfully than most predict. Nonetheless, this feels like an inflection point to me. Americans pinned their hopes on a young president and he has performed, in my judgment, about as well as one could have hoped for. But the superpower bluff has been called, the leverage is gone.
Obama arrived in China last month as a fiscal supplicant, not the leader of the free world. He cannot corner the Iranian regime without Russian or Chinese support. He cannot even get Israel, a country receiving $3 billion a year in aid and protected by America’s veto at the United Nations, simply to cease its construction of settlements in East Jerusalem or the West Bank.
These are not a consequence of his poor diplomacy; they are a consequence of a new world reality, where American power has been eviscerated by two intractable wars and a level of debt more typical of a South American country in the 1970s than a global hegemon.
America does not have a traditional empire the way Britain once did. Instead it has a neo-empire of military bases, vast armies and navies, aid agencies, spy services and covert operations. It is an empire that is premised on a massive debt controlled by others, and an empire where “shock and awe” has been demonstrated as futile against an asymmetric and nebulous enemy as a Wizard of Oz with the curtain pulled back. The spell has been undone.
The Bush wars may come to be seen as this neo-empire’s version of the Suez crisis — the moment when its power remained but its future clout evaporated. The difference, of course, is that Britain in the late 1950s had a friendly superpower to whom she could surrender global hegemony. America has no such luxury. And neither, one might add, does Europe.
Labels: Graveyard of Empires