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? (Immanuel Wallerstein, July/August 2002, Foreign Policy)
The United States’ success as a hegemonic power in the postwar period created the conditions of the nation’s 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-a lone superpower that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously amidst a global chaos it cannot control.
You really have to read the whole essay to get a flavor for its completely nonsensical nature. it will have to suffice for now to point out that Mr. Wallerstein argues both that Vietnam was a disaster because of the damage that paying for it did to our economy and that we did not want the Cold War, which as a whole had obviously done far more damage, to end. In what can only be described as a Lewis Carroll moment, he describes the U.S. as losing ground in the economic race with Japan and describes the U.S. economy as relatively weak. In reality, there is not a single advanced nation whose economy is doing as well as ours. If Europe and/or Japan were actually capable of rivaling America as an economic power, the past two years were the time to show it. The Fed induced deflation, the bursting of the dot.com bubble, and the events of September 11th dealt a series of hammer blows to the U.S. economy and provided an opening for these other developed nations to exploit. Instead, their already feeble economies tumbled still further without us buying their products at the customary rate. More importantly, the American economy has shown its incredible resilience by not even going into recession despite these setbacks and is now growing again at rates others can only dream of.
Completely ignored in Mr. Wallerstein’s essay are the many demographic and systemic problems that make it utterly unlikely that America’s rivals can survive for very long into the future, never mind dominate that future. He goes prattling on about the Japanese challenge at a time when they face real population decline. Forget whether a country can pay for a modern social welfare state with a constantly declining workforce, the more general question is : has any nation in human history had a growing economy at the same time that it had a falling population? I’m unaware of any.
He likewise ignores the realities of what it truly means to be a hegemon :
The United States faces two possibilities during the next 10 years: It can follow the hawks’ 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, “the 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.” And if the United States still invades Iraq and is then forced to withdraw, it will look even more ineffectual.
Let’s assume he’s right, which seems highly dubious, and that our invasion of Iraq turns into a bloody and ineffective campaign, just like Korea and Vietnam were and like a land invasion of the Soviet Union would likely have been. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. unlike those three earlier scenarios we can now just nuke the living daylights out of Baghdad and no one can say boo. This is what it really means to be the world’s only superpower. The problem for the world is not that we are too arrogant now; we’ve really behaved quite decently despite the unprecedented amount of power we find in our hands. No, the problem is that there is absolutely nothing to stop us from behaving in arrogant, tyrannical, even monstrous fashion if we decide we want to. Mr. Wallerstein’s image of the U.S. meekly withdrawing from Iraq is a left over from the Cold War. It does not reflect the situation as it obtains today. American supremacy, in the truest sense, the sense of the supreme ability to determine which nations survive and which don’t, is only now, for the first time, becoming unlimited. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the American people had served as the sole limitation, their desire to be left alone and to bask in their unimaginable wealth effectively limiting what the government could do in the world. But that changed rather significantly on September 11th, in ways that Mr. Wallerstein seems not to have begun to comprehend. The American people, who were the only effective brake on the exercise of American power, now have their collective foot poised just above the gas pedal. As Ronald Reagan used to say : You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.