richard barbrook on Fri, 2 Aug 2002 18:42:30 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Eagle Has Crash Landed by Immanuel Wallerstein


I thought that this article from the great American Marxist-Braudelian
might interest the nettime posse. There is one sentence which is
particularly wonderful:

> Ironically, the hawk reading has largely become the reading of the
> international left, which has been screaming about U.S. policies-mainly
> because they fear that the chances of U.S. success are high.

As I suspected, Donald Rumsfeld and Noam Chomsky really are two halves of
the same person...




Foreign Policy. The Magazine of Global Politics, Economic, and Ideas


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?

By Immanuel Wallerstein

The United States in decline? Few people today would believe this
assertion. The only ones who do are the U.S. hawks, who argue vociferously
for policies to reverse the decline. This belief that the end of U.S.
hegemony has already begun does not follow from the vulnerability that
became apparent to all on September 11, 2001. In fact, the United States
has been fading as a global power since the 1970s, and the U.S. response
to the terrorist attacks has merely accelerated this decline. To
understand why the so-called Pax Americana is on the wane requires
examining the geopolitics of the 20th century, particularly of the
century's final three decades. This exercise uncovers a simple and
inescapable conclusion: The economic, political, and military factors that
contributed to U.S. hegemony are the same factors that will inexorably
produce the coming U.S. decline.

Intro to hegemony

The rise of the United States to global hegemony was a long process that
began in earnest with the world recession of 1873. At that time, the
United States and Germany began to acquire an increasing share of global
markets, mainly at the expense of the steadily receding British economy.
Both nations had recently acquired a stable political base-the United
States by successfully terminating the Civil War and Germany by achieving
unification and defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War. From 1873 to
1914, the United States and Germany became the principal producers in
certain leading sectors: steel and later automobiles for the United States
and industrial chemicals for Germany.

The history books record that World War I broke out in 1914 and ended in
1918 and that World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945. However, it makes
more sense to consider the two as a single, continuous "30 years' war"
between the United States and Germany, with truces and local conflicts
scattered in between. The competition for hegemonic succession took an
ideological turn in 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany and
began their quest to transcend the global system altogether, seeking not
hegemony within the current system but rather a form of global empire.
Recall the Nazi slogan ein tausendjähriges Reich (a thousand-year empire).
In turn, the United States assumed the role of advocate of centrist world
liberalism-recall former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "four
freedoms" (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear)-and
entered into a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union, making possible
the defeat of Germany and its allies.

World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and
populations throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans,
with almost no country left unscathed. The only major industrial power in
the world to emerge intact-and even greatly strengthened from an economic
perspective-was the United States, which moved swiftly to consolidate its

But the aspiring hegemon faced some practical political obstacles. During
the war, the Allied powers had agreed on the establishment of the United
Nations, composed primarily of countries that had been in the coalition
against the Axis powers. The organization's critical feature was the
Security Council, the only structure that could authorize the use of
force. Since the U.N. Charter gave the right of veto to five
powers-including the United States and the Soviet Union-the council was
rendered largely toothless in practice. So it was not the founding of the
United Nations in April 1945 that determined the geopolitical constraints
of the second half of the 20th century but rather the Yalta meeting
between Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet
leader Joseph Stalin two months earlier.

The formal accords at Yalta were less important than the informal,
unspoken agreements, which one can only assess by observing the behavior
of the United States and the Soviet Union in the years that followed. When
the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (that is, U.S.,
British, and French) troops were located in particular places-essentially,
along a line in the center of Europe that came to be called the
Oder-Neisse Line. Aside from a few minor adjustments, they stayed there.
In hindsight, Yalta signified the agreement of both sides that they could
stay there and that neither side would use force to push the other out.
This tacit accord applied to Asia as well, as evinced by U.S. occupation
of Japan and the division of Korea. Politically, therefore, Yalta was an
agreement on the status quo in which the Soviet Union controlled about one
third of the world and the United States the rest.

Washington also faced more serious military challenges. The Soviet Union
had the world's largest land forces, while the U.S. government was under
domestic pressure to downsize its army, particularly by ending the draft.
The United States therefore decided to assert its military strength not
via land forces but through a monopoly of nuclear weapons (plus an air
force capable of deploying them). This monopoly soon disappeared: By 1949,
the Soviet Union had developed nuclear weapons as well. Ever since, the
United States has been reduced to trying to prevent the acquisition of
nuclear weapons (and chemical and biological weapons) by additional
powers, an effort that, in the 21st century, does not seem terribly

Until 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union coexisted in the
"balance of terror" of the Cold War. This status quo was tested seriously
only three times: the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, the Korean War in
1950-53, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The result in each case was
restoration of the status quo. Moreover, note how each time the Soviet
Union faced a political crisis among its satellite regimes-East Germany in
1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981-the
United States engaged in little more than propaganda exercises, allowing
the Soviet Union to proceed largely as it deemed fit.

Of course, this passivity did not extend to the economic arena. The United
States capitalized on the Cold War ambiance to launch massive economic
reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well
as in South Korea and Taiwan). The rationale was obvious: What was the
point of having such overwhelming productive superiority if the rest of
the world could not muster effective demand? Furthermore, economic
reconstruction helped create clientelistic obligations on the part of the
nations receiving U.S. aid; this sense of obligation fostered willingness
to enter into military alliances and, even more important, into political

Finally, one should not underestimate the ideological and cultural
component of U.S. hegemony. The immediate post-1945 period may have been
the historical high point for the popularity of communist ideology. We
easily forget today the large votes for Communist parties in free
elections in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and
Finland, not to mention the support Communist parties gathered in Asia-in
Vietnam, India, and Japan-and throughout Latin America. And that still
leaves out areas such as China, Greece, and Iran, where free elections
remained absent or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed
widespread appeal. In response, the United States sustained a massive
anticommunist ideological offensive. In retrospect, this initiative
appears largely successful: Washington brandished its role as the leader
of the "free world" at least as effectively as the Soviet Union brandished
its position as the leader of the "progressive" and "anti-imperialist"

One, Two, Many Vietnams

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.

What was the Vietnam War? First and foremost, it was the effort of the
Vietnamese people to end colonial rule and establish their own state. The
Vietnamese fought the French, the Japanese, and the Americans, and in the
end the Vietnamese won-quite an achievement, actually. Geopolitically,
however, the war represented a rejection of the Yalta status quo by
populations then labeled as Third World. Vietnam became such a powerful
symbol because Washington was foolish enough to invest its full military
might in the struggle, but the United States still lost. True, the United
States didn't deploy nuclear weapons (a decision certain myopic groups on
the right have long reproached), but such use would have shattered the
Yalta accords and might have produced a nuclear holocaust-an outcome the
United States simply could not risk.

But Vietnam was not merely a military defeat or a blight on U.S. prestige.
The war dealt a major blow to the United States' ability to remain the
world's dominant economic power. The conflict was extremely expensive and
more or less used up the U.S. gold reserves that had been so plentiful
since 1945. Moreover, the United States incurred these costs just as
Western Europe and Japan experienced major economic upswings. These
conditions ended U.S. preeminence in the global economy. Since the late
1960s, members of this triad have been nearly economic equals, each doing
better than the others for certain periods but none moving far ahead.

When the revolutions of 1968 broke out around the world, support for the
Vietnamese became a major rhetorical component. "One, two, many Vietnams"
and "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" were chanted in many a street, not least in the
United States. But the 1968ers did not merely condemn U.S. hegemony. They
condemned Soviet collusion with the United States, they condemned Yalta,
and they used or adapted the language of the Chinese cultural
revolutionaries who divided the world into two camps-the two superpowers
and the rest of the world.

The denunciation of Soviet collusion led logically to the denunciation of
those national forces closely allied with the Soviet Union, which meant in
most cases the traditional Communist parties. But the 1968 revolutionaries
also lashed out against other components of the Old Left-national
liberation movements in the Third World, social-democratic movements in
Western Europe, and New Deal Democrats in the United States-accusing them,
too, of collusion with what the revolutionaries generically termed "U.S.

The attack on Soviet collusion with Washington plus the attack on the Old
Left further weakened the legitimacy of the Yalta arrangements on which
the United States had fashioned the world order. It also undermined the
position of centrist liberalism as the lone, legitimate global ideology.
The direct political consequences of the world revolutions of 1968 were
minimal, but the geopolitical and intellectual repercussions were enormous
and irrevocable. Centrist liberalism tumbled from the throne it had
occupied since the European revolutions of 1848 and that had enabled it to
co-opt conservatives and radicals alike. These ideologies returned and
once again represented a real gamut of choices. Conservatives would again
become conservatives, and radicals, radicals. The centrist liberals did
not disappear, but they were cut down to size. And in the process, the
official U.S. ideological position-antifascist, anticommunist,
anticolonialist-seemed thin and unconvincing to a growing portion of the
world's populations.

The Powerless Superpower

The onset of international economic stagnation in the 1970s had two
important consequences for U.S. power. First, stagnation resulted in the
collapse of "developmentalism"-the notion that every nation could catch up
economically if the state took appropriate action-which was the principal
ideological claim of the Old Left movements then in power. One after
another, these regimes faced internal disorder, declining standards of
living, increasing debt dependency on international financial
institutions, and eroding credibility. What had seemed in the 1960s to be
the successful navigation of Third World decolonization by the United
States-minimizing disruption and maximizing the smooth transfer of power
to regimes that were developmentalist but scarcely revolutionary-gave way
to disintegrating order, simmering discontents, and unchanneled radical
temperaments. When the United States tried to intervene, it failed. In
1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent troops to Lebanon to restore
order. The troops were in effect forced out. He compensated by invading
Grenada, a country without troops. President George H.W. Bush invaded
Panama, another country without troops. But after he intervened in Somalia
to restore order, the United States was in effect forced out, somewhat
ignominiously. Since there was little the U.S. government could actually
do to reverse the trend of declining hegemony, it chose simply to ignore
this trend-a policy that prevailed from the withdrawal from Vietnam until
September 11, 2001.

Meanwhile, true conservatives began to assume control of key states and
interstate institutions. The neoliberal offensive of the 1980s was marked
by the Thatcher and Reagan regimes and the emergence of the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) as a key actor on the world scene. Where once (for
more than a century) conservative forces had attempted to portray
themselves as wiser liberals, now centrist liberals were compelled to
argue that they were more effective conservatives. The conservative
programs were clear. Domestically, conservatives tried to enact policies
that would reduce the cost of labor, minimize environmental constraints on
producers, and cut back on state welfare benefits. Actual successes were
modest, so conservatives then moved vigorously into the international
arena. The gatherings of the World Economic Forum in Davos provided a
meeting ground for elites and the media. The IMF provided a club for
finance ministers and central bankers. And the United States pushed for
the creation of the World Trade Organization to enforce free commercial
flows across the world's frontiers.

While the United States wasn't watching, the Soviet Union was collapsing.
Yes, Ronald Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and had
used the rhetorical bombast of calling for the destruction of the Berlin
Wall, but the United States didn't really mean it and certainly was not
responsible for the Soviet Union's downfall. In truth, the Soviet Union
and its East European imperial zone collapsed because of popular
disillusionment with the Old Left in combination with Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to save his regime by liquidating Yalta and
instituting internal liberalization (perestroika plus glasnost). Gorbachev
succeeded in liquidating Yalta but not in saving the Soviet Union
(although he almost did, be it said).

The United States was stunned and puzzled by the sudden collapse,
uncertain how to handle the consequences. The collapse of communism in
effect signified the collapse of liberalism, removing the only ideological
justification behind U.S. hegemony, a justification tacitly supported by
liberalism's ostensible ideological opponent. This loss of legitimacy led
directly to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which Iraqi leader Saddam
Hussein would never have dared had the Yalta arrangements remained in
place. In retrospect, U.S. efforts in the Gulf War accomplished a truce at
basically the same line of departure. But can a hegemonic power be
satisfied with a tie in a war with a middling regional power? Saddam
demonstrated that one could pick a fight with the United States and get
away with it. Even more than the defeat in Vietnam, Saddam's brash
challenge has eaten at the innards of the U.S. right, in particular those
known as the hawks, which explains the fervor of their current desire to
invade Iraq and destroy its regime.

Between the Gulf War and September 11, 2001, the two major arenas of world
conflict were the Balkans and the Middle East. The United States has
played a major diplomatic role in both regions. Looking back, how
different would the results have been had the United States assumed a
completely isolationist position? In the Balkans, an economically
successful multinational state (Yugoslavia) broke down, essentially into
its component parts. Over 10 years, most of the resulting states have
engaged in a process of ethnification, experiencing fairly brutal
violence, widespread human rights violations, and outright wars. Outside
intervention-in which the United States figured most prominently-brought
about a truce and ended the most egregious violence, but this intervention
in no way reversed the ethnification, which is now consolidated and
somewhat legitimated. Would these conflicts have ended differently without
U.S. involvement? The violence might have continued longer, but the basic
results would probably not have been too different. The picture is even
grimmer in the Middle East, where, if anything, U.S. engagement has been
deeper and its failures more spectacular. In the Balkans and the Middle
East alike, the United States has failed to exert its hegemonic clout
effectively, not for want of will or effort but for want of real power.

The Hawks Undone

Then came September 11-the shock and the reaction. Under fire from U.S.
legislators, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) now claims it had
warned the Bush administration of possible threats. But despite the CIA's
focus on al Qaeda and the agency's intelligence expertise, it could not
foresee (and therefore, prevent) the execution of the terrorist strikes.
Or so would argue CIA Director George Tenet. This testimony can hardly
comfort the U.S. government or the American people. Whatever else
historians may decide, the attacks of September 11, 2001, posed a major
challenge to U.S. power. The persons responsible did not represent a major
military power. They were members of a nonstate force, with a high degree
of determination, some money, a band of dedicated followers, and a strong
base in one weak state. In short, militarily, they were nothing. Yet they
succeeded in a bold attack on U.S. soil.

George W. Bush came to power very critical of the Clinton administration's
handling of world affairs. Bush and his advisors did not admit-but were
undoubtedly aware-that Clinton's path had been the path of every U.S.
president since Gerald Ford, including that of Ronald Reagan and George
H.W. Bush. It had even been the path of the current Bush administration
before September 11. One only needs to look at how Bush handled the
downing of the U.S. plane off China in April 2001 to see that prudence had
been the name of the game.

Following the terrorist attacks, Bush changed course, declaring war on
terrorism, assuring the American people that "the outcome is certain" and
informing the world that "you are either with us or against us." Long
frustrated by even the most conservative U.S. administrations, the hawks
finally came to dominate American policy. Their position is clear: The
United States wields overwhelming military power, and even though
countless foreign leaders consider it unwise for Washington to flex its
military muscles, these same leaders cannot and will not do anything if
the United States simply imposes its will on the rest. The hawks believe
the United States should act as an imperial power for two reasons: First,
the United States can get away with it. And second, if Washington doesn't
exert its force, the United States will become increasingly marginalized.

Today, this hawkish position has three expressions: the military assault
in Afghanistan, the de facto support for the Israeli attempt to liquidate
the Palestinian Authority, and the invasion of Iraq, which is reportedly
in the military preparation stage. Less than one year after the September
2001 terrorist attacks, it is perhaps too early to assess what such
strategies will accomplish. Thus far, these schemes have led to the
overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan (without the complete dismantling
of al Qaeda or the capture of its top leadership); enormous destruction in
Palestine (without rendering Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat "irrelevant,"
as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he is); and heavy opposition
from U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East to plans for an invasion of

The hawks' reading of recent events emphasizes that opposition to U.S.
actions, while serious, has remained largely verbal. Neither Western
Europe nor Russia nor China nor Saudi Arabia has seemed ready to break
ties in serious ways with the United States. In other words, hawks
believe, Washington has indeed gotten away with it. The hawks assume a
similar outcome will occur when the U.S. military actually invades Iraq
and after that, when the United States exercises its authority elsewhere
in the world, be it in Iran, North Korea, Colombia, or perhaps Indonesia.
Ironically, the hawk reading has largely become the reading of the
international left, which has been screaming about U.S. policies-mainly
because they fear that the chances of U.S. success are high.

But hawk interpretations are wrong and will only contribute to the United
States' decline, transforming a gradual descent into a much more rapid and
turbulent fall. Specifically, hawk approaches will fail for military,
economic, and ideological reasons.

Undoubtedly, the military remains the United States' strongest card; in
fact, it is the only card. Today, the United States wields the most
formidable military apparatus in the world. And if claims of new,
unmatched military technologies are to be believed, the U.S. military edge
over the rest of the world is considerably greater today than it was just
a decade ago. But does that mean, then, that the United States can invade
Iraq, conquer it rapidly, and install a friendly and stable regime?
Unlikely. Bear in mind that of the three serious wars the U.S. military
has fought since 1945 (Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War), one ended in
defeat and two in draws-not exactly a glorious record.

Saddam Hussein's army is not that of the Taliban, and his internal
military control is far more coherent. A U.S. invasion would necessarily
involve a serious land force, one that would have to fight its way to
Baghdad and would likely suffer significant casualties. Such a force would
also need staging grounds, and Saudi Arabia has made clear that it will
not serve in this capacity. Would Kuwait or Turkey help out? Perhaps, if
Washington calls in all its chips. Meanwhile, Saddam can be expected to
deploy all weapons at his disposal, and it is precisely the U.S.
government that keeps fretting over how nasty those weapons might be. The
United States may twist the arms of regimes in the region, but popular
sentiment clearly views the whole affair as reflecting a deep anti-Arab
bias in the United States. Can such a conflict be won? The British General
Staff has apparently already informed Prime Minister Tony Blair that it
does not believe so.

And there is always the matter of "second fronts." Following the Gulf War,
U.S. armed forces sought to prepare for the possibility of two
simultaneous regional wars. After a while, the Pentagon quietly abandoned
the idea as impractical and costly. But who can be sure that no potential
U.S. enemies would strike when the United States appears bogged down in

Consider, too, the question of U.S. popular tolerance of nonvictories.
Americans hover between a patriotic fervor that lends support to all
wartime presidents and a deep isolationist urge. Since 1945, patriotism
has hit a wall whenever the death toll has risen. Why should today's
reaction differ? And even if the hawks (who are almost all civilians) feel
impervious to public opinion, U.S. Army generals, burnt by Vietnam, do

And what about the economic front? In the 1980s, countless American
analysts became hysterical over the Japanese economic miracle. They calmed
down in the 1990s, given Japan's well-publicized financial difficulties.
Yet after overstating how quickly Japan was moving forward, U.S.
authorities now seem to be complacent, confident that Japan lags far
behind. These days, Washington seems more inclined to lecture Japanese
policymakers about what they are doing wrong.

Such triumphalism hardly appears warranted. Consider the following April
20, 2002, New York Times report: "A Japanese laboratory has built the
world's fastest computer, a machine so powerful that it matches the raw
processing power of the 20 fastest American computers combined and far
outstrips the previous leader, an I.B.M.-built machine. The achievement
... is evidence that a technology race that most American engineers
thought they were winning handily is far from over." The analysis goes on
to note that there are "contrasting scientific and technological
priorities" in the two countries. The Japanese machine is built to analyze
climatic change, but U.S. machines are designed to simulate weapons. This
contrast embodies the oldest story in the history of hegemonic powers. The
dominant power concentrates (to its detriment) on the military; the
candidate for successor concentrates on the economy. The latter has always
paid off, handsomely. It did for the United States. Why should it not pay
off for Japan as well, perhaps in alliance with China?

Finally, there is the ideological sphere. Right now, the U.S. economy
seems relatively weak, even more so considering the exorbitant military
expenses associated with hawk strategies. Moreover, Washington remains
politically isolated; virtually no one (save Israel) thinks the hawk
position makes sense or is worth encouraging. Other nations are afraid or
unwilling to stand up to Washington directly, but even their foot-dragging
is hurting the United States.

Yet the U.S. response amounts to little more than arrogant arm-twisting.
Arrogance has its own negatives. Calling in chips means leaving fewer
chips for next time, and surly acquiescence breeds increasing resentment.
Over the last 200 years, the United States acquired a considerable amount
of ideological credit. But these days, the United States is running
through this credit even faster than it ran through its gold surplus in
the 1960s.

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

President Bush's options appear extremely limited, and there is little
doubt that the United States will continue to decline as a decisive force
in world affairs over the next decade. The real question is not whether
U.S. hegemony is waning but whether the United States can devise a way to
descend gracefully, with minimum damage to the world, and to itself.

Immanuel Wallerstein is a senior research scholar at Yale University and
author of, most recently, The End of the World As We Know It: Social
Science for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1999).

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