Alfred McCoy

How bipartisan mistakes fueled America's decline — as the liberal world order falters

When the leaders of more than 100 nations gathered in Glasgow for the U.N. climate conference last week, there was much discussion about the disastrous effect of climate change on the global environment. There was, however, little awareness of its likely political impact on the current world order that made such an international gathering possible.

World orders are deeply rooted global systems that structure relations among nations and the conditions of life for their peoples. For the past 600 years, as I've argued in my new book To Govern the Globe, it's taken catastrophic events like war or plague to overturn such entrenched ways of life. But within a decade, climate change will already be wreaking a kind of cumulative devastation likely to surpass previous catastrophes, creating the perfect conditions for the eclipse of Washington's liberal world order and the rise of Beijing's decidedly illiberal one. In this sweeping imperial transition, global warming will undoubtedly be the catalyst for a witch's brew of change guaranteed to erode both America's world system and its once unchallenged hegemony (along with the military force that's been behind it all these years).

By charting the course of climate change, it's possible to draw a political road map for the rest of this tempestuous century — from the end of American global hegemony around 2030, through Beijing's brief role as world leader (until perhaps 2050), all the way to this century's closing decades of unparalleled environmental crisis. Those decades, in turn, may yet produce a new kind of world order focused, however late, on mitigating a global disaster of almost unimaginable power.

The Bipartisan Nature of U.S. Decline

America's decline started at home as a distinctly bipartisan affair. After all, Washington wasted two decades in an extravagant fashion fighting costly conflicts in distant lands, in part to secure the Middle East's oil at a time when that fuel was already destined to join cordwood and coal in the dustbin of history (though not faintly soon enough). Beijing, in contrast, used those same years to build industries that would make it the world's workshop.

In 2001, in a major miscalculation, Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization, bizarrely confident that a compliant China would somehow join the world economy without challenging American global power. "Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community," wrote two former members of the Obama administration, "shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States' liking… All sides of the policy debate erred."

A bit more bluntly, foreign policy expert John Mearsheimer recently concluded that "both Democratic and Republican administrations… promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order."

In the 15 years since then, Beijing's exports to the U.S. grew nearly fivefold to $462 billion annually. By 2014, its foreign currency reserves had surged from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion — a vast hoard of cash it used to build a modern military and win allies across Eurasia and Africa. Meanwhile, Washington was wasting more than $8 trillion on profitless wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa in lieu of spending such funds domestically on infrastructure, innovation, or education — a time-tested formula for imperial decline.

When a Pentagon team assessing the war in Afghanistan interviewed Jeffrey Eggers, a former White House staffer and Navy SEAL veteran, he asked rhetorically: "What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth a trillion? After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan." (And keep in mind that the best estimate now is that the true cost to America of that lost war alone was $2.3 trillion.) Consider it an imperial lesson of the first order that the most extravagantly funded military on Earth has not won a war since the start of the twenty-first century.

Donald Trump's presidency brought a growing realization, at home and abroad, that Washington's world leadership was ending far sooner than anyone had imagined. For four years, Trump attacked long-standing U.S. alliances, while making an obvious effort to dismiss or demolish the international organizations that had been the hallmark of Washington's world system. To top that off, he denounced a fair American election as "fraudulent" and sparked a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, functionally making a mockery of America's long history of promoting the idea of democracy to legitimate its global leadership (even as it overthrew unfriendly democratic governments in distant lands via covert interventions).

In that riot's aftermath, most of the Republican Party has embraced Trump's demagoguery about electoral fraud as an article of faith. As it happens, no nation can exercise global leadership if one of its ruling parties descends into persistent irrationality, something Britain's Conservative Party demonstrated all too clearly during that country's imperial decline in the 1950s.

After his inauguration last January, Joe Biden proclaimed that "America is back" and promised to revive its version of liberal international leadership. Mindful of Trump's battering of NATO (and that he, or someone like him, could take the White House in 2024), European leaders, however, continued to make plans for their own common defense without the U.S. "We aren't in the old status quo," commented one French diplomat, "where we can pretend that the Donald Trump presidency never existed and the world was the same as four years ago." Add in Biden's humiliating retreat from Afghanistan as Taliban guerrillas, wearing tennis sneakers and equipped with aging Soviet rifles, crushed an Afghan military armed with billions of dollars in U.S. gear, entering Kabul without a fight. After that dismal defeat, it was clear America's decline had become a bipartisan affair.

Global leadership lost is not readily recovered, particularly when a rival power is prepared to fill the void. As Washington's strategic position weakens, China has been pressing to dominate Eurasia, home to 70% of the world's population and productivity, and so build a new Beijing-centric global order. Should China's relentless advance continue, there will be serious consequences for the world as we know it.

Of course, the current order is, to say the least, imperfect. While using its unprecedented power to promote a liberal international system based on human rights and inviolable sovereignty, Washington simultaneously violated those same principles all too often in pursuit of its national self-interest — a disconcerting duality between power and principle that has afflicted every global order since the sixteenth century.

As the first hegemon that didn't participate in any way in the fitful, painful process of forging just such a liberal world order through six centuries of slavery, slaughter, and colonial conquest, China's rise could ultimately threaten the current system's better half — its core principles of universal human rights and secure state sovereignty.

The Coming of Climate Change

Beyond Washington's strategic failings, there was another far more fundamental force already at work eroding its global power. After seven decades of the profligate kind of fossil-fuel consumption that became synonymous with the U.S. world system, climate change is now profoundly disrupting the whole human community.

As of 2019, following years of bipartisan evasions and compromises (along with partisan Republican denials of the very reality of climate change), the U.S. still relied on fossil fuels for 80% of its total energy; renewables, only 20%. The situation was even worse in China, which depended on fossil fuels for 86% of its power and renewable sources for only about 14%. As energy expert Vaclav Smil explained, the underlying global problem was 150 years of embedded inertia that made the "production, delivery, and consumption of fossil fuels… the world's most extensive, and the most expensive, web of energy-intensive infrastructures."

If there is ever to be a true transition beyond fossil fuels, the world's two largest economies will have to play a determinative role in it. In the meantime, the picture is anything but cheery. Global carbon dioxide emissions rose by a staggering 50% from 22.2 gigatons in 1997 to a peak of 33.3 gigatons in 2019 and, despite a brief drop at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, are still rising. Significantly, China accounted for 30% of the world's total in that year, and the U.S. nearly 14% — for a combined 44% share of all global greenhouse gasses.

At the 2019 Madrid climate conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that, if current emissions continue, global warming will reach as high as 3.9° Celsius by century's end, with "catastrophic" consequences for all life on the planet. And at Glasgow two weeks ago, he renewed this warning, saying: "We are digging our own graves… Sea-level rise is double the rate it was 30 years ago. Oceans are hotter than ever — and getting warmer faster. Parts of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon than they absorb… We are still careening towards climate catastrophe."

In the 600 years since the age of exploration first brought the continents into close contact, 90 empires have come and gone. But there have been just three new world orders, each of which survived until it suffered some version of cataclysmic mass death. After the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, wiped out an estimated 60% of medieval Europe's population, the Portuguese and then Spanish empires expanded to form the first of those world orders, which continued for three centuries until 1805.

The devastation of the Napoleonic wars then launched the succeeding British imperial system, which survived a full century until 1914. Similarly, Washington's hegemony, along with its current world order, arose from the devastating destruction of World War II. Now, climate change is unleashing cataclysmic environmental changes that could soon enough overshadow such past catastrophes, while damaging or destroying the global order that has pervaded the planet for the past 70 years.

As wildfires worsen, ocean storms intensify, megadroughts spread, flooding increases drastically, and the seas rise precipitously, many millions of the world's poor will be uprooted from their precarious perches along seashores, flood plains, and desert fringes. Recall for a moment that the arrival between 2016 and 2018 of just two million refugees at the borders of the United States and the European Union unleashed a surge of populist demagoguery, which led to Britain's Brexit, Europe's increasing ultranationalism, and Donald Trump's election. Now, try to imagine what kind of a world of political upheaval lies in a future in which climate change generates anywhere from 200 million to 1.2 billion refugees by mid-century.

As at least a million refugees start to crowd America's southern border every year, while storms, fires, and floods batter coasts and countryside, the U.S. is almost certain to retreat from the world to cope with growing domestic crises. Include in that the inability of its two political parties to agree on just about anything (other than spending yet more money on the Pentagon). Similar and simultaneous pressures worldwide will certainly cripple the international cooperation that has long been at the core of Washington's world order.

China's Short Reign as Global Hegemon

So, when might shifting geopolitics and climate cataclysm converge to fully cripple Washington's current world order? Beijing plans to complete the technological transformation of its own economy and much of its massive trans-Eurasian infrastructure, the Belt and Road Project, by 2027. That projected date complements a prediction by the U.S. National Intelligence Council that "China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030."

By then, according to projections from the accounting firm PwC, China's gross domestic product will have grown to $38 trillion — more than 50% larger than a projected $24 trillion for the American one. Similarly, China's military, already the world's second largest, should by then be dominant in Asia. Already, as the New York Times reported in 2019, "in 18 of the last 18 Pentagon war games involving China in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. lost." As China pushes its maritime frontier farther into the Pacific, Washington may well be faced with a difficult choice — either abandon its old ally Taiwan or fight a war it could well lose.

Weighing Beijing's global future, it seems safe to assume that, minimally, China will gain enough strength to weaken Washington's global grip and is likely to become the preeminent world power around 2030. Count on one thing, though: the accelerating pace of climate change will almost certainly curtail China's hegemony within two or three decades.

As early as 2017, scientists at the nonprofit Climate Central reported that, by 2060 or 2070, rising seas and storm surges could flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide and, suggests corroborating research, Shanghai is "the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding." According to that group's scientists, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced there as most of the city "could eventually be submerged in water, including much of the downtown area."

Advancing the date of this disaster by at least a decade, a report in the journal Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050 and that rising waters will "threaten to consume the heart" of Shanghai by then, crippling one of China's main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp in the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came, possibly as early as three decades from now.

Meanwhile, increasing temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain, a prime agricultural region between Beijing and Shanghai currently inhabited by 400 million people. "This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future," according to Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a specialist on hydrology and climate at MIT. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of "extreme danger" when a combination of heat and humidity will reach a "wet bulb temperature" (WBT) of 31° Celsius, and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° WBT — where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the very sweat that cools the human body. After just six hours living in such a wet bulb temperature of 35° Celsius, a healthy person at rest will die.

If the "Chinese century" does indeed start around 2030, barring remarkable advances in the reduction of the use of fossil fuels on this planet, it's likely to end sometime around 2050 when its main financial center is flooded out and its agricultural heartland begins to swelter in insufferable heat.

A New World Order?

Given that Washington's world system and Beijing's emerging alternative show every sign of failing to limit carbon emissions in significant enough ways, by mid-century the international community will likely need a new form of global governance to contain the damage.

After 2050, the world community will quite possibly face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the foundational principles of the current global order: national sovereignty and human rights. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the hundreds of millions of future climate-change refugees.

By then, facing a spectacle of mass global suffering now almost unimaginable, the community of nations might well agree on the need for a new form of global governance. Such a supranational body or bodies would need sovereign authority over three critical areas — emissions controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. If the transition to renewable energy sources is still not complete by 2050, then this international body might well compel nations to curb emissions and adopt renewable energy. Whether under the auspices of the U.N. or a successor organization, a high commissioner for global refugees would need the authority to supersede state sovereignty in order to require nations to help resettle such tidal flows of humanity. The future equivalents of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank could transfer resources from wealthy temperate countries to feed tropical communities decimated by climate change.

Massive programs like these would change the very idea of what constitutes a world order from the diffuse, almost amorphous ethos of the past six centuries into a concrete form of global governance. At present, no one can predict whether such reforms will come soon enough to slow climate change or arrive too late to do anything but manage the escalating damage of uncontrollable feedback loops.

One thing is becoming quite clear, however. The environmental destruction in our future will be so profound that anything less than the emergence of a new form of global governance — one capable of protecting the planet and the human rights of all its inhabitants — will mean that wars over water, land, and people are likely to erupt across the planet amid climate chaos. Absent some truly fundamental change in our global governance and in energy use, by mid-century humanity will begin to face disasters of an almost unimaginable kind that will make imperial orders of any sort something for the history books.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His new book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

The defeat of the American superpower — and the real winner in Afghanistan

The collapse of the American project in Afghanistan may fade fast from the news here, but don't be fooled. It couldn't be more significant in ways few in this country can even begin to grasp.

"Remember, this is not Saigon," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a television audience on August 15th, the day the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital, pausing to pose for photos in the grandly gilded presidential palace. He was dutifully echoing his boss, President Joe Biden, who had earlier rejected any comparison with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, in 1975, insisting that "there's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable."

Both were right, but not in the ways they intended. Indeed, the collapse of Kabul was not comparable. It was worse, incomparably so. And its implications for the future of U.S. global power are far more serious than the loss of Saigon.

On the surface, similarities abound. In both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, Washington spent 20 years and countless billions of dollars building up massive, conventional armies, convinced that they could hold off the enemy for a decent interval after the U.S. departure. But Presidents Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan both proved to be incompetent leaders who never had a chance of retaining power without continued fulsome American backing.

Amid a massive North Vietnamese offensive in the spring of 1975, President Thieu panicked and ordered his army to abandon the northern half of the country, a disastrous decision that precipitated Saigon's fall just six weeks later. As the Taliban swept across the countryside this summer, President Ghani retreated into a fog of denial, insisting his troops defend every remote, rural district, allowing the Taliban to springboard from seizing provincial capitals to capturing Kabul in just 10 days.

With the enemy at the gates, President Thieu filled his suitcases with clinking gold bars for his flight into exile, while President Ghani (according to Russian reports) snuck off to the airport in a cavalcade of cars loaded with cash. As enemy forces entered Saigon and Kabul, helicopters ferried American officials from the U.S. embassy to safety, even as surrounding city streets swarmed with panicked local citizens desperate to board departing flights.

Critical Differences

So much for similarities. As it happens, the differences were deep and portentous. By every measure, the U.S. capacity for building and supporting allied armies has declined markedly in the 45 years between Saigon and Kabul. After President Thieu ordered that disastrous northern retreat, replete with dismal scenes of soldiers clubbing civilians to board evacuation flights bound for Saigon, South Vietnam's generals ignored their incompetent commander-in-chief and actually began to fight.

On the road to Saigon at Xuan Loc, an ordinary South Vietnamese unit, the 18th Division, fought battle-hardened North Vietnamese regulars backed by tanks, trucks, and artillery to a standstill for two full weeks. Not only did those South Vietnamese soldiers take heavy casualties, with more than a third of their men killed or wounded, but they held their positions through those long days of "meat-grinder" combat until the enemy had to circle around them to reach the capital.

In those desperate hours as Saigon was falling, General Nguyen Khoa Nam, head of the only intact South Vietnamese command, faced an impossible choice between making a last stand in the Mekong Delta and capitulating to communist emissaries who promised him a peaceful surrender. "If I am unable to carry out my job of protecting the nation," the general told a subordinate, "then I must die, along with my nation." That night, seated at his desk, the general shot himself in the head. In South Vietnam's last hours as a state, four of his fellow generals also committed suicide. At least 40 more lower-ranking officers and soldiers also chose death over dishonor.

On the road to Kabul, by contrast, there were no heroic last stands by regular Afghan army units, no protracted combat, no heavy casualties, and certainly no command suicides. In the nine days between the fall of Afghanistan's first provincial capital on August 6th and the capture of Kabul on August 15th, all of the well-equipped, well-trained Afghan soldiers simply faded away before Taliban guerrillas equipped mainly with rifles and tennis sneakers.

After losing their salaries and rations to graft for the previous six to nine months, those hungry Afghan troops simply surrendered en masse, took Taliban cash payments, and handed over their weapons and other costly U.S. equipment. By the time the guerrillas reached Kabul, driving Humvees and wearing Kevlar helmets, night-vision goggles, and body armor, they looked like so many NATO soldiers. Instead of taking a bullet, Afghanistan's commanders took the cash — both graft from padding their payrolls with "ghost soldiers" and bribes from the Taliban.

The difference between Saigon and Kabul has little to do with the fighting ability of the Afghan soldier. As the British and Soviet empires learned to their dismay when guerrillas slaughtered their soldiers in spectacular numbers, ordinary Afghan farmers are arguably the world's finest fighters. So why wouldn't they fight for Ashraf Ghani and his secular democratic state in far-off Kabul?

The key difference would seem to lie in the fading of America's aura as the planet's number one power and of its state-building capacities. At the peak of its global hegemony back in the 1960s, the United States, with its unequalled material resources and moral authority, could make a reasonably convincing case to the South Vietnamese that the political mix of electoral democracy and capitalist development it sponsored was the way forward for any nation. Today, with its reduced global clout and tarnished record in Iraq, Libya, and Syria (as well as in prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), America's capacity to infuse its nation-building projects with any real legitimacy — that elusive sine qua non for the survival of any state — has apparently dropped significantly.

The Impact on U.S. Global Power

In 1975, the fall of Saigon did indeed prove a setback to Washington's world order. Still, America's underlying strength, both economic and military, was robust enough then for a partial rebound.

Adding to the sense of crisis at the time, the loss of South Vietnam coincided with two more substantial blows to Washington's international system and the clout that went with it. Just a few years before Saigon's collapse, the German and Japanese export booms had so eroded America's commanding global economic position that the Nixon administration had to end the automatic convertibility of the dollar to gold. That, in turn, effectively broke the Bretton Woods system that had been the foundation of U.S. economic strength since 1944.

Meanwhile, with Washington mired in its self-made Vietnam quagmire, that other Cold War power, the Soviet Union, continued to build hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles and so functionally forced Washington to recognize its military parity in 1972 by signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Strategic Arms Limitation Protocol.

With the weakening of the economic and nuclear pillars on which so much of America's paramount power rested, Washington was forced to retreat from its role as the great global hegemon and become a mere first among equals.

Washington's Relations with Europe

Almost half a century later, the sudden, humiliating fall of Kabul threatens even that more limited leadership role. Although the U.S. occupied Afghanistan for 20 years with the full support of its NATO allies, when President Biden walked away from that shared "nation-building" mission, he did so without the slightest consultation with those very allies.

America lost 2,461 soldiers in Afghanistan, including 13 who died tragically during the airport evacuation. Its allies suffered 1,145 killed, including 62 German soldiers and 457 British troops. No wonder those partners held understandable grievances when Biden acted without the slightest notice to or discussion with them. "There is serious loss of trust," observed Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington. "But the real lesson… for Europe is this: Do we really want to be totally dependent on U.S. capabilities and decisions forever, or can Europe finally begin to be serious about becoming a credible strategic actor?"

For Europe's more visionary leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, the answer to that timely question was obvious: build a European defense force free from Washington's whims and so avoid "the Chinese-American duopoly, the dislocation, the return of hostile regional powers." In fact, right after the last American planes left Kabul, a summit of European Union officials made it clear that the time had come to stop "depending on American decisions." They called for the creation of a European army that would give them "greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world."

In short, with America First populism now a major force in this country's politics, assume that Europe will pursue a foreign policy increasingly freed from Washington's influence.

Central Asia's Geopolitics

And Europe may be the least of it. The stunning capture of Kabul highlighted an American loss of leadership that extended into Asia and Africa, with profound geopolitical implications for the future of U.S. global power. Above all, the Taliban's victory will effectively force Washington out of Central Asia and so help to consolidate Beijing's already ongoing control over parts of that strategic region. It, in turn, could prove to be the potential geopolitical pivot for China's dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, home to 70% of the globe's population and productivity.

Speaking at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan in 2013 (though nobody in Washington was then listening), China's President Xi Jinping announced his country's strategy for winning the twenty-first-century version of the deadly "great game" that nineteenth-century empires once played for control of Central Asia. With gentle gestures that belied his imperious intent, Xi asked that academic audience to join him in building an "economic belt along the Silk Road" that would "expand development space in the Eurasian region" through infrastructure "connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea." In the process of establishing that "belt and road" structure, they would, he claimed, be building "the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential."

In the eight years since that speech, China has indeed been spending over a trillion dollars on its "Belt and Road Initiative" (BRI) to construct a transcontinental grid of railroads, oil pipelines, and industrial infrastructure in a bid to become the world's premier economic power. More specifically, Beijing has used the BRI as a geopolitical pincers movement, a diplomatic squeeze play. By laying down infrastructure around the northern, eastern, and western borders of Afghanistan, it has prepared the way for that war-torn nation, freed of American influence and full of untapped mineral resources (estimated at a trillion dollars), to fall safely into Beijing's grasp without a shot being fired.

To the north of Afghanistan, the China National Petroleum Corporation has collaborated with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch the Central Asia–China gas pipeline, a system that will eventually extend more than 4,000 miles across the heart of Eurasia. Along Afghanistan's eastern frontier, Beijing began spending $200 million in 2011 to transform a sleepy fishing village at Gwadar, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea, into a modern commercial port only 370 miles from the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Four years later, President Xi committed $46 billion to building a China–Pakistan Economic Corridor of roads, rails, and pipelines stretching nearly 2,000 miles along Afghanistan's eastern borderlands from China's western provinces to the now-modernized port of Gwadar.

To the west of Afghanistan, Beijing broke through Iran's diplomatic isolation last March by signing a $400 billion development agreement with Tehran. Over the next 25 years, China's legions of laborers and engineers will lay down a transit corridor of oil and natural gas pipelines to China, while also building a vast new rail network that will make Tehran the hub of a line stretching from Istanbul, Turkey, to Islamabad, Pakistan.

By the time these geopolitical pincers pull Afghanistan firmly into Beijing's BRI system, the country may have become just another Middle Eastern theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. While the religious police harass women and troops battle festering insurgencies, the Taliban state can get down to its real business — not defending Islam, but cutting deals with China to mine its vast reserves of rare minerals and collect transit taxes on the new $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan (which desperately needs affordable energy).

With lucrative royalties from its vast store of rare-earth minerals, the Taliban could afford to end its current fiscal dependence on drugs. They could actually ban the country's now booming opium harvest, a promise their new government spokesman has already made in a bid for international recognition. Over time, the Taliban leadership might discover, like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran, that a developing economy can't afford to waste its women. As a result, there might even be some slow, fitful progress on that front, too.

If such a projection of China's future economic role in Afghanistan seems fanciful to you, consider that the underpinnings for just such a future deal were being put in place while Washington was still dithering over Kabul's fate. At a formal meeting with a Taliban delegation in July, China's foreign minister Wang Yi hailed their movement as "an important military and political force."

In response, Taliban head Mullah Abdul Baradar, displaying the very leadership that American-installed President Ashraf Ghani so clearly lacked, praised China as a "reliable friend" and promised to foster "an enabling investment environment" so that Beijing could play "a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development." Formalities finished, the Afghan delegation then met behind closed doors with China's assistant foreign minister to exchange what the official communiqué called "in-depth views on issues of common concern, which helped enhance mutual understanding" — in short, who gets what and for how much.

The World-Island Strategy

China's capture of Eurasia, should it be successful, will be but one part of a far grander design for control over what Victorian geographer Halford Mackinder, an early master of modern geopolitics, called the "world island." He meant the tricontinental land mass comprising the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. For the past 500 years, one imperial hegemon after another, including Portugal, Holland, Britain, and the United States, has deployed its strategic forces around that world island in a bid to dominate such a sprawling land mass.

While for the last half-century Washington has arrayed its vast air and naval armadas around Eurasia, it generally relegated Africa to, at best, an afterthought — at worst, a battleground. Beijing, by contrast, has consistently treated that continent with the utmost seriousness.

When the Cold War came to southern Africa in the early 1970s, Washington spent the next 20 years in an arm's-length alliance with apartheid South Africa, while using the CIA to fight a leftist liberation movement in Portuguese-controlled Angola. While Washington spent billions wreaking havoc by supplying right-wing African warlords with automatic weapons and land mines, Beijing launched its first major foreign-aid project. It built the thousand-mile Tanzania-to-Zambia railway. Not only was it the longest in Africa when completed in 1975, but it allowed landlocked Zambia, a front-line state in the struggle against the apartheid regime in Pretoria, to avoid South Africa when exporting its copper.

From 2015 on, building upon its historic ties to the liberation movements that won power across southern Africa, Beijing planned a decade-long trillion-dollar infusion of capital there. Much of it was to be designated for commodities-extraction projects that would make that continent China's second-largest source of crude oil. With such an investment (equaling its later BRI commitments to Eurasia), China also doubled its annual trade with Africa to $222 billion, three times America's total.

While that aid to liberation movements once had an ideological undercurrent, today it's been succeeded by savvy geopolitics. Beijing seems to understand just how fast Africa's progress has been in the single generation since that continent won its freedom from a particularly rapacious version of colonial rule. Given that it's the planet's second most populous continent, rich in human and material resources, China's trillion-dollar bet on Africa's future will likely pay rich dividends, both political and economic, someday soon.

With a trillion dollars invested in Eurasia and another trillion in Africa, China is engaged in nothing less than history's largest infrastructure project. It's crisscrossing those three continents with rails and pipelines, building naval bases around the southern rim of Asia, and ringing the whole tricontinental world island with a string of 40 major commercial ports.

Such a geopolitical strategy has become Beijing's battering ram to crack open Washington's control over Eurasia and thereby challenge what's left of its global hegemony. America's unequalled military air and sea armadas still allow it rapid movement above and around those continents, as the mass evacuation from Kabul showed so forcefully. But the slow, inch-by-inch advance of China's land-based, steel-ribbed infrastructure across the deserts, plains, and mountains of that world island represents a far more fundamental form of future control.

As China's geopolitical squeeze play on Afghanistan shows all too vividly, there is still much wisdom in the words that Sir Halford Mackinder wrote over a century ago: "Who rules the World Island commands the World."

To that, after watching a Washington that's invested so much in its military be humiliated in Afghanistan, we might add: Who does not command the World Island cannot command the World.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His latest book (to be published in October by Dispatch Books) is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

The failed legacy of the 50-year War on Drugs started with a lie

Fifty years ago, on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon stood before the White House press corps, staffers at his side, to announce "a new, all-out offensive" against drug abuse, which he denounced as "America's public enemy number one." He called on Congress to contribute $350 million for a worldwide attack on "the sources of supply." The first battle in this new drug war would be fought in South Vietnam where, Nixon said, "a number of young Americans have become addicts as they serve abroad."

While the president was declaring his war on drugs, I was stepping off a trans-Pacific flight into the searing tropical heat of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, to report on the sources of supply for the drug abuse that was indeed sweeping through the ranks of American soldiers fighting this country's war in Vietnam.

As I would soon discover, the situation was far worse than anything Nixon could have conveyed in his sparse words. Heroin vials littered the floors of Army barracks. Units legendary for their heroism in World War II like the 82nd Airborne were now known as the "jumping junkies." A later survey found that more than a third of all GIs fighting the Vietnam War "commonly used" heroin. Desperate to defeat this invisible enemy, the White House was now about to throw millions of dollars at this overseas drug war, funding mass urinalysis screening for every homeward-bound GI and mandatory treatment for any who tested positive for drugs.

Even that formidable effort, however, couldn't defeat the murky politics of heroin, marked by a nexus of crime and official collusion that made mass drug abuse among GIs possible. After all, in the rugged mountains of nearby Laos, Air America, a company run by the CIA, was transporting opium harvested by tribal farmers who were also serving as soldiers in its secret army. The commander of the Royal Lao Army, a close ally, then operated the world's largest illicit lab, turning raw opium into refined heroin for the growing numbers of GI users in neighboring Vietnam. Senior South Vietnamese commanders colluded in the smuggling and distribution of such drugs to GIs in bars, in barracks, and at firebases. In both Laos and South Vietnam, American embassies ignored the corruption of their local allies that was helping to fuel the traffic.

Nixon's Drug War

As sordid as Saigon's heroin politics were, they would pale when compared to the cynical deals agreed to in Washington over the next 30 years that would turn the drug war of the Vietnam era into a political doomsday machine. Standing alongside the president on that day when America's drug war officially began was John Erlichman, White House counsel and Nixon confidante.

As he would later bluntly tell a reporter,

"The Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news."

And just in case anyone missed his point, Erlichman added, "Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did."

To grasp the full meaning of this admission, you need to begin with the basics: the drug war's absolute, unqualified, irredeemable failure. Just three pairs of statistics can convey the depth of that failure and the scope of the damage the war has done to American society over the past half-century:

* Despite the drug war's efforts to cut supplies, worldwide illicit opium production rose 10-fold — from 1,200 tons in 1971 to a record 10,300 tons in 2017.

* Reflecting its emphasis on punishment over treatment, the number of people jailed for drug offenses would also grow 10-fold from 40,900 in 1980 to 430,900 in 2019.

* Finally, instead of reducing domestic use, the drug war actually helped stimulate a 10-fold surge in the number of American heroin users from just 68,000 in 1970 to 745,000 in 2019.

In addition, the drug war has had a profound impact on American society by perpetuating, even institutionalizing, racial disparities through the raw power of the police and prisons. Remember that the Republican Party saw the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended decades of Jim Crow disenfranchisement for Blacks in the deep South, as a rare political opportunity. In response, Nixon and his men began developing a two-part strategy for winning over white voters in the South and blunting the Democratic advantage with Black voters nationwide.

First, in the 1970 midterm elections, the Republicans began pursuing a "Southern strategy" of courting disgruntled white-supremacist voters in the South in a successful attempt to capture that entire region politically. Three years later, they launched a relentless expansion of the drug war, policing, and prisons. In the process, they paved the way for the mass incarceration of African Americans, denying them the vote not just as convicts but, in 15 states, for life as ex-convicts. Pioneering this cunning strategy was New York's Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller. The harsh mandatory penalties of 15 years to life for petty drug possession he got the state legislature to pass raised the number of people imprisoned on drug charges from 470 in 1970 to 8,500 in 1999, 90% of them African-American or Latinx.

Such mass incarceration moved voters from urban Democratic bailiwicks to rural prisons where they were counted in the census, but otherwise disenfranchised, giving a bit of additional help to the white Republican vote in upstate New York — a winning strategy Republicans elsewhere would soon follow. Not only did the drug war let conservatives shave opposition vote tallies in close elections, but it also dehumanized African Americans, justifying repressive policing and mass incarceration.

None of this was pre-ordained but the result of a succession of political deals made during three presidencies — that of Nixon, who started it; of Ronald Reagan, whose administration enacted draconian punishments for drug possession; and of the Democrat Bill Clinton, who expanded the police and prisons to enforce those very drug laws. After remaining remarkably constant at about 100 prisoners per 100,000 population for more than 50 years, the U.S. incarceration rate started climbing relentlessly to 293 by the end of Reagan's term in 1990 and 464 by the end of Clinton's in 2000. It reached a peak of 760 by 2008 — with a racial bias that resulted in nothing less than the "mass incarceration" of African Americans.

Reagan Domesticates the Drug War

While Nixon fought his war largely on foreign battlefields trying, and failing, to stop narcotics at their source, the next Republican president, Ronald Reagan, fully domesticated the drug war through ever harsher penalties for personal use and a publicity campaign that made abstinence a moral virtue and indulgence a fiercely punishable vice. Meanwhile, he also signaled clearly that he was determined to pursue Nixon's Southern strategy by staging a major 1980 election campaign rally in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had previously been murdered.

Taking office in 1981, Reagan found, to his surprise, that reviving the drug war at home had little public support, largely because the outgoing Democratic administration had focused successfully on drug treatment rather than punishment. So, First Lady Nancy Reagan began crisscrossing the country, while making TV appearances with choruses of cute kids wearing "Just Say No" T-shirts. Even after four years of the First Lady's campaign and the simultaneous spread of crack cocaine and cocaine powder in cities and suburbs nationwide, only about 2% of the electorate felt that drug abuse was the nation's "number one problem."

Then personal tragedy provided Reagan with the perfect political opportunity. In June 1986, just a day after signing a multimillion-dollar contract with the NBA's Boston Celtics, college basketball sensation Len Bias collapsed in his dorm at the University of Maryland from a fatal cocaine overdose. Five months later, President Reagan would sign the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, aka the "Len Bias Law." It would lead to a quantum expansion of the domestic drug war, including a mandatory minimum sentence of five years just for the possession of five grams of cocaine and a revived federal death penalty for traffickers.

It also put into law a racial bias in imprisonment that would prove staggering: a 100:1 sentencing disparity between those convicted of possessing crack-cocaine (used mainly by inner-city Blacks) and those using cocaine powder (favored by suburban whites) — even though there was no medical difference between the two drugs. To enforce such tough penalties, the law also expanded the federal anti-drug budget to a massive $6.5 billion.

In signing that law, Reagan would pay special tribute to the first lady, calling her "the co-captain in our crusade for a drug-free America" and the fight against "the purveyors of this evil." And the two of them had much to take credit for. After all, by 1989, an overwhelming 64% of Americans had come to feel that drugs were the nation's "number one problem." Meanwhile, thanks largely to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, Americans jailed for nonviolent drug offenses soared from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Driven by drug arrests, in 1995 nearly one-third of all African-American males between 20 and 29 would either be in prison or on parole.

Clinton's All-Too-Bipartisan Drug War

If those two Republican presidents were adept at portraying partisan anti-drug policies as moral imperatives, their Democratic successor, Bill Clinton, proved adept at getting himself reelected by picking up their seductive rhetoric. Under his administration, a racialized drug policy, with its disenfranchisement and denigration of African Americans, would become fully bipartisan.

In 1992, two years after being elected president, Clinton lost control of Congress to Republican conservatives led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Desperate for something he could call a legislative accomplishment, he tacked hard right to support the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994. It would prove the largest law-enforcement initiative in American history: nearly $19 billion dollars for 100,000 new cops to sweep the streets for drug offenders and a massive prison-expansion program to house those who would now be sentenced to life after three criminal convictions ("three strikes").

A year later, when the non-partisan U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended that the 100:1 disparity in penalties for crack-cocaine and cocaine powder be abolished, along with its blatant racial bias, Clinton flatly rejected the advice, signing instead Republican-sponsored legislation that maintained those penalties. "I am not," he insisted, "going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down."

The country's Black political leaders were eloquent in their condemnation of this political betrayal. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a former Democratic presidential candidate, claimed Clinton knew perfectly well that "crack is code for black" and labelled the president's decision "a moral disgrace" by a man "willing to sacrifice young black youth for white fear." The Congressional Black Caucus would similarly denounce the sentencing disparity as "a mockery of justice."

As they predicted all too accurately, the relentless rise of Black incarceration only accelerated. In the five years following passage of Clinton's omnibus crime bill, the country added 204 prisons and its inmate population shot up by a mind-boggling 28% to 1,305,300. Of those, nearly half (587,300) were Black, though African Americans made up only 13% of the country's population.

Facing a tough reelection campaign in 1996, Clinton again worked with hard-right congressional Republicans to pass the Personal Responsibility Work Act, which, as he put it, brought an "end to welfare as we know it." With that law's work requirement for welfare, even as unemployment among Black residents of cities like Chicago (left behind by industry) hit 20% to 25%, youth in inner cities across America found that street-level drug dealing was fast becoming their only opportunity. In effect, the Clintons gained short-term political advantage by doing long-term social and economic damage to a core Democratic constituency, the African American community.

Reviving Jim Crow's Racial Stereotypes

Nonetheless, during his 1996 reelection campaign, Clinton trumpeted such dubious legislative achievements. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, for instance, Hillary Clinton celebrated her husband's Violent Crime Control Act for taking back the streets from murderous minority teenagers. "They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators,'" Clinton said. "No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."

The term "super-predator" had, in fact, originated with a Princeton University political scientist, John Dilulio, who described his theory to the first couple during a 1995 White House working dinner on juvenile crime. In an article for a neo-conservative magazine that November, the academic trumpeted his apocalyptic analysis. Based solely on the spottiest of anecdotal evidence, he claimed that "black inner-city neighborhoods" would soon fall prey to such "super predators" — a new kind of juvenile criminal marked by "impulsive violence, the vacant stares, and the remorseless eyes." Within five years, he predicted, there would be 30,000 "more murderers, rapists, and muggers on the streets" who would "place zero value on the lives of their victims, whom they reflexively dehumanize as just so much worthless 'white trash.'" This rising demographic tide, he warned, would soon "spill over into upscale central-city districts, inner-ring suburbs, and even the rural heartland."

By the way, the truly significant part of Hillary Clinton's statement based on Dilulio's "analysis" was that phrase about bringing super-predators to heel. A quick quiz. Who or what does one "bring to heel": (a.) a woman, (b.) a man, or (c.) a child? Answer: (d.) None of the above.

That term is used colloquially for controlling a leashed dog. By implicitly referring to young Black males as predators and animals, Clinton was tapping into one of America's most venerable and virulent ethnic stereotypes: the Black "buck" or "brute." The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan reports that "the brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal — deserving punishment, maybe death… Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators."

Indeed, Southern fiction of the Jim Crow era featured the "Black brute" as an animal predator whose natural prey was white women. In words strikingly similar to those Dilulio and Clinton would later use for their super-predator, Thomas Dixon's influential 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan described the Black brute as "half child, half animal… a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger." When turned into a movie in 1915 as The Birth of a Nation (the first film ever screened in the White House), it depicted a Black man's animalistic rape of a virtuous white woman and reveled in the Klan's retribution by lynching.

In effect, the rhetoric about "super-predators" revived the most virulent stereotype from the Jim Crow lexicon. By the end of President Clinton's term in 2000, nearly every state in the nation had stiffened its laws on juveniles, setting aside family courts and sending young, mainly minority, offenders directly to adult prisons for long sentences.

Of course, the predicted wave of 30,000 young super-predators never happened. Instead, violent juvenile crime was already declining when Hillary Clinton gave that speech. By the time President Clinton's term ended in 2001, the juvenile homicide rate had fallen well below its level in 1985.

Amazingly, it would be another 20 years before Hillary Clinton was compelled to confront the meaning of those freighted words of hers. While she was speaking to a donors' meeting in South Carolina during her 2016 presidential campaign, Ashley Williams, a young Black activist, stood up in the front row and unfurled a small banner that read: "We have to bring them to heel." Speaking calmly, she asked: "Will you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?" And then she added, "I am not a super-predator, Hillary Clinton."

When Clinton tried to talk over her, she insisted: "I know that you called black people super-predators in 1994." As the Secret Service hurried that young woman out of the room amid taunts from the largely white audience, Clinton announced, with a palpable sense of relief, "Okay, back to the issues."

In its report on the incident, the Washington Post asked Clinton for a comment. In response, she offered the most unapologetic of apologies, explaining that, back in 1994, she had been talking about "violent crime and vicious drug cartels and the particular danger they pose to children and families."

"As an advocate, as first lady, as senator, I was a champion for children," she added, though admitting as well that, "looking back, I shouldn't have used those words."

That was it. No mention of mass incarceration. No apology for using the power of the White House pulpit to propagate the most virulent of racial stereotypes. No promises to undo all the damage she and her husband had caused. Not surprisingly, in November 2016, the African-American turnout in 33 states — particularly in the critical swing states of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — was markedly down, costing her the election.

The Burden of This Past

As much as both Republicans and Democrats might wish us to forget the costs of their deals, this tragic past is very much part of our present. In the 20 years since the drug war took final form under Clinton, politicians have made some relatively inconsequential reforms. In 2010, Congress made a modest cut in the sentencing disparity between the two kinds of cocaine that reduced the prison population by an estimated 1,550 inmates; Barack Obama pardoned 1,700 drug offenders; and Donald Trump signed the First Step Act that released 3,000 prisoners. Add up all those "reforms" and you end up with only 1.5% of those now in prison for drug offenses — just the tiniest drop of mercy in a vast ocean of misery.

So, even 50 years later, this country is still fighting a war on drugs and on non-violent drug users. Thanks to its laws, petty drug possession is still a felony with heavy penalties. As of 2019, this country's prisons remained overcrowded with 430,900 people convicted of drug crimes, while drug offenders represented 46% of all those in federal penitentiaries. In addition, the U.S. still has the world's highest incarceration rate at 639 prisoners per 100,000 population (nearly double Russia's), with 1,380,400 people imprisoned, of whom 33% are Black.

So many decades later, the drug war's mass incarceration still denies millions of African Americans the right to vote. As of 2020, 48 states refused their convicts the vote, while 34 states imposed a range of restrictions on ex-convicts, effectively denying suffrage to about 2.2 million Blacks, or 6.3% of all African-American adults.

Recent challenges have made more visible the drug war's once largely invisible mechanisms for denying African Americans their rightful political power as a community. In a 2018 plebiscite, Florida voters restored electoral rights to that state's 1.4 million ex-convicts, including 400,000 African Americans. Almost immediately, however, Republican governor Ron DeSantis required that 800,000 of those felons pay whatever court costs and fines they still owed before voting — a decision he successfully defended in federal court just before the 2020 presidential election. The effect of such determined Republican efforts meant that fewer than 8% of Florida's ex-convicts were able to vote.

But above all, Black male drug users are still stigmatized as dangerous predators, as we all saw in the recent trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who tried to defend kneeling on George Floyd's neck for nine minutes because an autopsy found that the victim had opioids in his blood. And in March 2020, a paramilitary squad of Louisville police broke down an apartment door with a battering ram on a no-knock drug raid for a suspected Black drug dealer and wound up killing his sleeping ex-girlfriend, medical worker Breonna Taylor.

Maybe now, half a century later, it's finally time to end the war on drug users — repeal the heavy penalties for possession; pardon the millions of nonviolent offenders; replace mass incarceration with mandatory drug treatment; restore voting rights to convicts and ex-convicts alike; and, above all, purge those persistent stereotypes of the dangerous Black male from our public discourse and private thoughts.

If only…

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His latest book (to be published in October by Dispatch Books) is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

The crumbling delusion of Washington's endless world dominion

Empires live and die by their illusions. Visions of empowerment can inspire nations to scale the heights of global hegemony. Similarly, however, illusions of omnipotence can send fading empires crashing into oblivion. So it was with Great Britain in the 1950s and so it may be with the United States today.

By 1956, Britain had exploited its global empire shamelessly for a decade in an effort to lift its domestic economy out of the rubble of World War II. It was looking forward to doing so for many decades to come. Then an obscure Egyptian army colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal and Britain's establishment erupted in a paroxysm of racist outrage. The prime minister of the day, Sir Antony Eden, forged an alliance with France and Israel to send six aircraft carriers to the Suez area, smash Egypt's tank force in the Sinai desert, and sweep its air force from the skies.

But Nasser grasped the deeper geopolitics of empire in a way that British leaders had long forgotten. The Suez Canal was the strategic hinge that tied Britain to its Asian empire — to British Petroleum's oil fields in the Persian Gulf and the sea lanes to Singapore and beyond. So, in a geopolitical masterstroke, he simply filled a few rusting freighters with rocks and sank them at the entrance to the canal, snapping that hinge in a single gesture. After Eden was forced to withdraw British forces in a humiliating defeat, the once-mighty British pound trembled at the precipice of collapse and, overnight, the sense of imperial power in England seemed to vanish like a desert mirage.

Two Decades of Delusions

In a similar manner, Washington's hubris is finding its nemesis in China's President Xi Jinping and his grand strategy for uniting Eurasia into the world's largest economic bloc. For two decades, as China climbed, step by step, toward global eminence, Washington's inside-the-Beltway power elite was blinded by its overarching dreams of eternal military omnipotence. In the process, from Bill Clinton's administration to Joe Biden's, Washington's China policy has morphed from illusion directly into a state of bipartisan delusion.

Back in 2000, the Clinton administration believed that, if admitted to the World Trade Organization, Beijing would play the global game strictly by Washington's rules. When China started playing imperial hardball instead — stealing patents, forcing companies to turn over trade secrets, and manipulating its currency to increase its exports — the elite journal Foreign Affairs tut-tutted that such charges had "little merit," urging Washington to avoid "an all-out trade war" by learning to "respect difference and look for common ground."

Within just three years, a flood of exports produced by China's low-wage workforce, drawn from 20% of the world's population, began shutting down factories across America. The AFL-CIO labor confederation then started accusing Beijing of illegally "dumping" its goods in the U.S. at below-market prices. The administration of George W. Bush, however, dismissed the charges for lack of "conclusive evidence," allowing Beijing's export juggernaut to grind on unimpeded.

For the most part, the Bush-Cheney White House simply ignored China, instead invading Iraq in 2003, launching a strategy that was supposed to give the U.S. lasting dominion over the Middle East's vast oil reserves. By the time Washington withdrew from Baghdad in 2011, having wasted up to $5.4 trillion on the misbegotten invasion and occupation of that country, fracking had left America on the edge of energy independence, while oil was joining cordwood and coal as a fuel whose days were numbered, potentially rendering the future Middle East geopolitically irrelevant.

While Washington had been pouring blood and treasure into desert sands, Beijing was making itself into the world's workshop. It had amassed $4 trillion in foreign exchange, which it began investing in an ambitious scheme it called the Belt and Road Initiative to unify Eurasia via history's largest set of infrastructure projects. Hoping to counter that move with a bold geopolitical gambit, President Barack Obama tried to check China with a new strategy that he called a "pivot to Asia." It was to entail a global military shift of U.S. forces to the Pacific and a drawing of Eurasia's commerce toward America through a new set of trade pacts. The scheme, brilliant in the abstract, soon crashed head-first into some harsh realities. As a start, extricating the U.S. military from the mess it had made in the Greater Middle East proved far harder than imagined. Meanwhile, getting big global trade treaties approved as anti-globalization populism surged across America — fueled by factory closures and stagnant wages — turned out, in the end, to be impossible.

Even President Obama underestimated the seriousness of China's sustained challenge to this country's global power. "Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community," two senior Obama officials would later write, "shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States' liking… All sides of the policy debate erred."

Breaking with the Beltway consensus about China, Donald Trump would spend two years of his presidency fighting a trade war, thinking he could use America's economic power — in the end, just a few tariffs — to bring Beijing to its knees. Despite his administration's incredibly erratic foreign policy, its recognition of China's challenge would prove surprisingly consistent. Trump's former national security adviser H.R. McMaster would, for instance, observe that Washington had empowered "a nation whose leaders were determined not only to displace the United States in Asia, but also to promote a rival economic and governance model globally." Similarly, Trump's State Department warned that Beijing harbored "hegemonic ambitions" aimed at "displacing the United States as the world's foremost power."

In the end, however, Trump would capitulate. By January 2020, his trade war would have devastated this country's agricultural exports, while inflicting heavy losses on its commercial supply chain, forcing the White House to rescind some of those punitive tariffs in exchange for Beijing's unenforceable promises to purchase more American goods. Despite a celebratory White House signing ceremony, that deal represented little more than a surrender.

Joe Biden's Imperial Illusions

Even now, after these 20 years of bipartisan failure, Washington's imperial illusions persist. The Biden administration and its inside-the-Beltway foreign-policy experts seem to think that China is a problem like Covid-19 that can be managed simply by being the un-Trump. Last December, a pair of professors writing in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs typically opined that "America may one day look back on China the way they now view the Soviet Union," that is, "as a dangerous rival whose evident strengths concealed stagnation and vulnerability."

Sure, China might be surpassing this country in multiple economic metrics and building up its military power, said Ryan Hass, the former China director in Obama's National Security Council, but it is not 10 feet tall. China's population, he pointed out, is aging, its debt ballooning, and its politics "increasingly sclerotic." In the event of conflict, China is geopolitically "vulnerable when it comes to food and energy security," since its navy is unable to prevent it "from being cut off from vital supplies."

In the months before the 2020 presidential election, a former official in Obama's State Department, Jake Sullivan, began auditioning for appointment as Biden's national security adviser by staking out a similar position. In Foreign Affairs, he argued that China might be "more formidable economically… than the Soviet Union ever was," but Washington could still achieve "a steady state of… coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values." Although China was clearly trying "to establish itself as the world's leading power," he added, America "still has the ability to more than hold its own in that competition," just as long as it avoids Trump's "trajectory of self-sabotage."

As expected from such a skilled courtier, Sullivan's views coincided carefully with those of his future boss, Joe Biden. In his main foreign policy manifesto for the 2020 presidential campaign, candidate Biden argued that "to win the competition for the future against China," the U.S. had to "sharpen its innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world."

All these men are veteran foreign policy professionals with a wealth of international experience. Yet they seem oblivious to the geopolitical foundations for global power that Xi Jinping, like Nasser before him, seemed to grasp so intuitively. Like the British establishment of the 1950s, these American leaders have been on top of the world for so long that they've forgotten how they got there.

In the aftermath of World War II, America's Cold War leaders had a clear understanding that their global power, like Britain's before it, would depend on control over Eurasia. For the previous 400 years, every would-be global hegemon had struggled to dominate that vast land mass. In the sixteenth century, Portugal had dotted continental coastlines with 50 fortified ports (feitorias) stretching from Lisbon to the Straits of Malacca (which connect the Indian Ocean to the Pacific), just as, in the late nineteenth century, Great Britain would rule the waves through naval bastions that stretched from Scapa Flow, Scotland, to Singapore.

While Portugal's strategy, as recorded in royal decrees, was focused on controlling maritime choke points, Britain benefitted from the systematic study of geopolitics by the geographer Sir Halford Mackinder, who argued that the key to global power was control over Eurasia and, more broadly, a tri-continental "world island" comprised of Asia, Europe, and Africa. As strong as those empires were in their day, no imperial power fully perfected its global reach by capturing both axial ends of Eurasia — until America came on the scene.

The Cold War Struggle for Control over Eurasia

During its first decade as the globe's great hegemon at the close of World War II, Washington quite self-consciously set out to build an apparatus of awesome military power that would allow it to dominate the sprawling Eurasian landmass. With each passing decade, layer upon layer of weaponry and an ever-growing network of military bastions were combined to "contain" communism behind a 5,000-mile Iron Curtain that arched across Eurasia, from the Berlin Wall to the Demilitarized Zone near Seoul, South Korea.

Through its post-World War II occupation of the defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, Washington seized military bases, large and small, at both ends of Eurasia. In Japan, for example, its military would occupy approximately 100 installations from Misawa air base in the far north to Sasebo naval base in the south.

Soon after, as Washington reeled from the twin shocks of a communist victory in China and the start of the Korean war in June 1950, the National Security Council adopted NSC-68, a memorandum making it clear that control of Eurasia would be the key to its global power struggle against communism. "Soviet efforts are now directed toward the domination of the Eurasian land mass," read that foundational document. The U.S., it insisted, must expand its military yet again "to deter, if possible, Soviet expansion, and to defeat, if necessary, aggressive Soviet or Soviet-directed actions."

As the Pentagon's budget quadrupled from $13.5 billion to $48.2 billion in the early 1950s in pursuit of that strategic mission, Washington quickly built a chain of 500 military installations ringing that landmass, from the massive Ramstein air base in West Germany to vast, sprawling naval bases at Subic Bay in the Philippines and Yokosuka, Japan.

Such bases were the visible manifestation of a chain of mutual defense pacts organized across the breadth of Eurasia, from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe to a security treaty, ANZUS, involving Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. in the South Pacific. Along the strategic island chain facing Asia known as the Pacific littoral, Washington quickly cemented its position through bilateral defense pacts with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.

Along the Iron Curtain running through the heart of Europe, 25 active-duty NATO divisions faced 150 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact divisions, both backed by armadas of artillery, tanks, strategic bombers, and nuclear-armed missiles. To patrol the Eurasian continent's sprawling coastline, Washington mobilized massive naval armadas stiffened by nuclear-armed submarines and aircraft carriers — the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean and the massive 7th Fleet in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

For the next 40 years, Washington's secret Cold War weapon, the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, fought its largest and longest covert wars around the rim of Eurasia. Probing relentlessly for vulnerabilities of any sort in the Sino-Soviet bloc, the CIA mounted a series of small invasions of Tibet and southwest China in the early 1950s; fought a secret war in Laos, mobilizing a 30,000-strong militia of local Hmong villagers during the 1960s; and launched a massive, multibillion dollar covert war against the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

During those same four decades, America's only hot wars were similarly fought at the edge of Eurasia, seeking to contain the expansion of Communist China. On the Korean Peninsula from 1950 to 1953, almost 40,000 Americans (and untold numbers of Koreans) died in Washington's effort to block the advance of North Korean and Chinese forces across the 38th parallel. In Southeast Asia from 1962 to 1975, some 58,000 American troops (and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians) died in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the expansion of communists south of the 17th parallel that divided North and South Vietnam.

By the time the Soviet Union imploded in 1990 (just as China was turning into a Communist Party-run capitalist power), the U.S. military had become a global behemoth standing astride the Eurasian continent with more than 700 overseas bases, an air force of 1,763 jet fighters, more than 1,000 ballistic missiles, and a navy of nearly 600 ships, including 15 nuclear carrier battle groups — all linked together by a global system of satellites for communication, navigation, and espionage.

Despite its name, the Global War on Terror after 2001 was actually fought, like the Cold War before it, at the edge of Eurasia. Apart from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force and CIA had, within a decade, ringed the southern rim of that landmass with a network of 60 bases for its growing arsenal of Reaper and Predator drones, stretching all the way from the Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily to Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam. And yet, in that series of failed, never-ending conflicts, the old military formula for "containing," constraining, and dominating Eurasia was visibly failing. The Global War on Terror proved, in some sense, a long-drawn-out version of Britain's imperial Suez disaster.

China's Eurasian Strategy

After all that, it seems remarkable that Washington's current generation of foreign policy leaders, like Britain's in the 1950s, is so blindingly oblivious to the geopolitics of empire — in this case, to Beijing's largely economic bid for global power on that same "world island" (Eurasia plus an adjoining Africa).

It's not as if China has been hiding some secret strategy. In a 2013 speech at Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev University, President Xi typically urged the peoples of Central Asia to join with his country to "forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation, and expand development space in the Eurasian region." Through trade and infrastructure "connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea," this vast landmass inhabited by close to three billion people could, he said, become "the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential."

This development scheme, soon to be dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative, would become a massive effort to economically integrate that "world island" of Africa, Asia, and Europe by investing well more than a trillion dollars — a sum 10 times larger than the famed U.S. Marshall plan that rebuilt a ravaged Europe after World War II. Beijing also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with an impressive $100 billion in capital and 103 member nations. More recently, China has formed the world's largest trade bloc with 14 Asia-Pacific partners and, over Washington's strenuous objections, signed an ambitious financial services agreement with the European Union.

Such investments, almost none of a military nature, quickly fostered the formation of a transcontinental grid of railroads and gas pipelines extending from East Asia to Europe, the Pacific to the Atlantic, all linked to Beijing. In a striking parallel with that sixteenth century chain of 50 fortified Portuguese ports, Beijing has also acquired special access through loans and leases to more than 40 seaports encompassing its own latter-day "world island" — from the Straits of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, around Africa, and along Europe's extended coastline from Piraeus, Greece, to Zeebrugge, Belgium.

With its growing wealth, China also built a blue-water navy that, by 2020, already had 360 warships, backed by land-based missiles, jet fighters, and the planet's second global system of military satellites. That growing force was meant to be the tip of China's spear aimed at puncturing Washington's encirclement of Asia. To cut the chain of American installations along the Pacific littoral, Beijing has built eight military bases on tiny (often dredged) islands in the South China Sea and imposed an air defense zone over a portion of the East China Sea. It has also challenged the U.S. Navy's long-standing dominion over the Indian Ocean by opening its first foreign base at Djibouti in East Africa and building modern ports at Gwadar, Pakistan, and Hambantota, Sri Lanka, with potential military applications.

By now, the inherent strength of Beijing's geopolitical strategy should be obvious to Washington foreign policy experts, were their insights not clouded by imperial hubris. Ignoring the unbending geopolitics of global power, centered as always on Eurasia, those Washington insiders now coming to power in the Biden administration somehow imagine that there is still a fight to be fought, a competition to be waged, a race to be run. Yet, as with the British in the 1950s, that ship may well have sailed.

By grasping the geopolitical logic of unifying Eurasia's vast landmass — home to 70% of the world's population — through transcontinental infrastructures for commerce, energy, finance, and transport, Beijing has rendered Washington's encircling armadas of aircraft and warships redundant, even irrelevant.

As Sir Halford Mackinder might have put it, had he lived to celebrate his 160th birthday last month, the U.S. dominated Eurasia and thereby the world for 70 years. Now, China is taking control of that strategic continent and global power will surely follow.

However, it will do so on anything but the recognizable planet of the last 400 years. Sooner or later, Washington will undoubtedly have to accept the unbending geopolitical reality that undergirds the latest shift in global power and adapt its foreign policy and fiscal priorities accordingly.

This current version of the Suez syndrome is, nonetheless, anything but the usual. Thanks to longterm imperial development based on fossil fuels, planet Earth itself is now changing in ways dangerous to any power, no matter how imperial or ascendant. So, sooner or later, both Washington and Beijing will have to recognize that we are now in a distinctly dangerous new world where, in the decades to come, without some kind of coordination and global cooperation to curtail climate change, old imperial truths of any sort are likely to be left in the attic of history in a house coming down around all our ears.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His latest book (to be published in October by Dispatch Books) is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

This is still Donald Trump's America — and the signs of decline are everywhere

After four years of Donald Trump's fitful tenure, America is awakening from a long, troubled sleep to discover, like the fictional character Rip Van Winkle, that the world it once knew has changed beyond all recognition.

In that classic American tale by Washington Irving published in 1819, an amiable but shiftless farmer strolls out of his colonial village to go hunting in the Catskill Mountains. There he happens upon a group of mysterious men, drinks deep from their keg of liquor, and falls into a long sleep. He awakens to find that he's grown a white beard down to his belly and his youth has withered into an unrecognizable old age. Walking back to the village, he discovers his wife is long dead and their house in ruins. Meanwhile, the sign above the village pub where he whiled away so many pleasant hours no longer bears the face of his beloved King George, the British monarch, but has been replaced by someone named General Washington. Inside, the convivial chatter of colonial days has given way to fervid electioneering for something called Congress, whatever that might be. Incredibly, Rip Van Winkle had slept right through the American Revolution.

While this country was similarly sleepwalking through the fever dream of President Donald Trump's version of America First, the world kept changing as decisively as it did during those seven years when General Washington's Continentals fought the British Redcoats. Just as King George suffered a searing defeat that cost him the 13 colonies, so the United States has, with similarly stunning speed, now lost its leadership of the international community.

Whose World Island Is It?

During the eight years before Donald Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. seemed to be adapting creatively to some serious challenges to its post-Cold War global hegemony. After the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, a bipartisan stimulus program saved the nation's auto industry and launched a slow but sustained economic recovery.

Fueled by renewed economic vitality, Washington seemed to have a reasonable shot at checking China's all too real and growing global economic challenge. After all, using the $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves it had earned by 2014 from its new role as the world's workshop, Beijing had launched a trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative focused on making the vast Eurasian landmass (and parts of Africa) into an integrated trade zone — a veritable "world island" that would exclude America and so radically undercut its global leadership.

In his two terms as president, Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor, pursued a clever countervailing strategy, seeking to split Beijing's potential world island economically at its continental divide in the Ural Mountains. Obama's planned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which pointedly excluded China, was the keystone to his strategy for drawing Asia's trade toward America, thereby rendering that Belt and Road Initiative a hollow shell. That draft treaty, which would have surpassed any other economic alliance except the European Union, was designed to integrate the economies of 12 Pacific basin nations that generated 40% of gross world product — and the U.S. was to be at the very heart of it.

To drain commerce away from the other half of Beijing's would-be world island, Obama was also pursuing negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. Its combined $18 trillion economy was already the world's largest, accounting for 20% of gross world product. The proposed regulatory alignment between Europe and the United States would supposedly have added $260 billion to their total annual trade. Obama's bold grand strategy was to use those two pacts to beggar Beijing's plans by giving the U.S. preferential access to 60% of the world economy.

Of course, Obama's effort was encountering strong headwinds even before he left office. In Europe, an opposition coalition of 170 civil society groups protested that the treaty would transfer control over the regulation of consumer safety, the environment, and labor from democratic states to closed corporate arbitration tribunals. In the U.S., Obama's scheme faced sharp criticism even within the Democratic Party. Key figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the potential degradation of labor and environmental laws via the TPP. In the face of such strong criticism, Obama had to rely on Republican votes to win Senate approval for fast-track authority to complete the final round of negotiations over the treaty. That opposition, however, ensured that neither agreement would be approved before he left office.

It was, however, Donald Trump who delivered the coup de grâce. Right after his inauguration, he curtailed trade talks with Europe and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying: "We're going to stop the ridiculous trade deals that have taken… companies out of our country, and it's going to be reversed."

Unilateral Foreign Policy

Trump would instead adopt a unilateral America First strategy that soon sparked a costly trade war with China. After two years of escalating tariffs on both sides of the Pacific that damaged the U.S. economy, Trump capitulated in January 2020, signing an agreement that rescinded the most prohibitive U.S. duties in exchange for Beijing's unenforceable promise to buy more American goods. The president then hailed his "big, beautiful" trade deal as a great victory, even though it was nothing less than an ill-concealed surrender.

While his White House seemed obsessed with gaming its bilateral ties with China, Beijing was stealing a page right out of Obama's strategic global playbook, outmaneuvering Washington by pursuing two multilateral trade agreements that should have seemed eerily familiar to anyone who lived through the Obama years. In November 2020, Beijing would lead 15 Asia-Pacific nations in signing a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that promised to create the world's largest free-trade zone, encompassing 2.2 billion people and nearly a third of the global economy.

Just a month later, China's President Xi Jinping scored what one expert called "a geopolitical coup" by signing a landmark agreement with European Union leaders for the closer integration of their financial services. In effect, the accord gives European banks easier access to the Chinese market, while drawing the continent more closely into Beijing's orbit. So serious is the shift away from Washington that President Biden's incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan publicly urged the NATO allies to first consult with the new administration before signing onto the deal — a plea they simply ignored. Indeed, this treaty is arguably the biggest breach in the NATO alliance since that mutual defense pact was formed more than 70 years ago.

Through a stunning inversion of Obama's bold yet unrealized geopolitical gambit of using multilateral pacts to draw Eurasia's trade toward America, those two agreements will give China preferential access to nearly half of all world trade (without even factoring in the still-developing Belt and Road project). In a diplomatic masterstroke, Bejing exploited Trump's absence from the international arena to negotiate agreements that could, along with that Belt and Road Initiative, steer a growing share of the Eurasian continent's capital and commerce toward China. In the years to come, Beijing's inclusiveness could well mean Washington's exclusion from much of the burgeoning trade that will continue to make Eurasia the epicenter of global economics.

The Decline and Fall of You-Know-Which Great Power

If that were all, then we could chalk up a few significant wins for China and just wait for Biden's foreign-policy team to try to even the score. But there's far more happening that suggests those treaties were a clear manifestation of deeper, more troubling trends.

When empires decline and fall, they seldom collapse in the sort of sudden apocalypse portrayed in a monumental series of paintings entitled "The Course of Empire" by another denizen of the Catskill Mountains, the renowned artist Thomas Cole. His 1836 painting in that series, now appropriately enough hung at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, shows a "savage enemy" plundering a grand imperial capital whose inhabitants, debased by years of luxurious living, can only flee in terror while women are raped and buildings burn.

Empires, however, usually experience a long, less dramatic decline before they fall in the Roman fashion, thanks to events whose logic only becomes apparent years or even decades later, as historians try to sort through the rubble. So it's likely to be in what, until mid-last week, was (and still in many ways remains) Donald Trump's America, where the signs of decline are as erratic as they are omnipresent.

The most telling harbinger of that decline, Trump himself, is now in exile at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. Ten years ago in an essay for TomDispatch entitled "Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025," I suggested that U.S. global hegemony would end not with Thomas Cole's apocalyptic bang, but instead with the whimper of empty populist rhetoric. "Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair," I wrote in December 2010, "a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence."

Trump's election in 2016 made all too real what, until then, had only seemed to me a troubling possibility. With a legerdemain worthy of that nineteenth-century showman P.T. Barnum's bag of bunkum (like the supposed Cardiff Giant or the Fiji Island Mermaid), Trump's TV show "The Apprentice" presented The Donald as a self-made billionaire of extraordinary financial savvy. Who better to rescue America from the job losses, stagnant wages, and foreign competition brought on by economic globalization? But Trump had cheated his way into an Ivy League college; many of his businesses had gone bankrupt; and his much-vaunted entrepreneurial flair came down essentially to frittering away a $400 million inheritance from his father. As journalist H.L. Mencken predicted back in 1920, America had finally come to the point where "the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

Once in office, Trump soon bent the nation (but not the world) to his will, rupturing time-tested alliances, tearing up treaties, denying incontrovertible climate science, and demanding respect for American authority with a thundering, if largely empty, rhetoric that threatened military retaliation or economic reprisals globally. Despite his manifestly inane policies, the Republican Party capitulated, corporate tycoons applauded, and nearly half the American public cleaved to their new-found savior.

As with all sell-out shows, the best was saved for last. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck with full force in March 2020, Trump turned up at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, donning a MAGA hat, to proclaim his "natural ability" when it came to medical science, while distinguished doctors stood by like studio extras in mute testimony to his otherwise risible claims. As the pandemic began climbing toward its terrible, still developing toll, Trump hijacked White House briefings by medical experts to promote a succession of crackpot claims — wearing a mask was merely "politically correct"; Covid-19 was just another flu that "becomes weaker with warmer weather"; hydroxychloroquine was a cure; and shining ultraviolet "light inside of the body" or injecting "disinfectant" were possible treatments. A surprising number of Americans started drinking bleach to protect themselves from the virus, forcing months of public-health warnings.

After nearly a century in which the United States had been a world leader in promoting public health, the Trump administration, to escape blame for its own escalating failures, walked out of the World Health Organization. Lending the country the aura of a failed state, the CDC itself, once the world's gold standard in medical research, bungled the development of a coronavirus test and so forfeited any serious, nationwide attempt to successfully track and trace the disease (the most effective means of its control).

While smaller nations like New Zealand, South Korea, and even impoverished Rwanda effectively curbed Covid-19, by the end of Trump's term the U.S. already had experienced more than 400,000 deaths and 24 million infections — significantly above any other developed nation and a full quarter of the world's total cases. Meanwhile, Beijing mobilized a rigorous public-health campaign that quickly contained the virus to just 4,600 deaths in a population of 1.4 billion. In only four months, China virtually eliminated the virus (despite periodic new local breakouts) and had its economy humming along with a 5% increase in gross domestic product, which accounted for 30% of global growth last year. Meanwhile, after 11 months of an incessant pandemic, the U.S. remained mired in a crippling recession. This striking disparity in state performance only accelerated China's quest to surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economy and, with all that financial clout, become its preeminent power.

A Tragicomic Encore

It was, however, President Trump's bid for an encore that would prove truly extraordinary when it came to imperial decline. During its 70 years as a global hegemon, Washington's public promotion of democracy has been the signature program that has helped legitimate its global leadership (no matter the CIA-style interventions it launched or the colonial-style wars it continually fought).

While the Cold War often compromised that commitment in particularly striking ways, following its end Washington has spent 30 years officially promoting fair voting and democratic transitions, with leaders like former president Jimmy Carter flying off to capitals on five continents to oversee and encourage free elections. Suddenly, the world watched in slacked-jaw amazement as, on January 6th on the White House ellipse, the president denounced a fair American election as fraudulent and sent a mob of 10,000 white nationalists, QAnon conspirators, and other Trumpsters off to storm the Capitol where Congress was ratifying the transition to a new administration.

Adding to this failed-state aura, the country's once-formidable national security apparatus crumpled like a Third World constabulary as right-wing militia men breached the frail security cordon around the Capitol and stormed its halls as if they were a lynch mob hunting for congressional leaders. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's desperate calls to a dawdling Pentagon and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's dangerously delayed mobilization of his state's National Guard, caused by the U.S. military's compromised chain of command, only seemed to echo the sort of tropical coup scenarios I witnessed in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, during the 1980s.

When Congress was finally back in session, the Capitol still rang with Republican calls, in the name of national unity, for forgetting what the president had incited. In that way, Republican congressional representatives seemed to echo the kind of impunity that has long protected fallen military juntas in Asia or Latin America from any accounting for their countless crimes. This attempt, in other words, to perpetuate a would-be autocrat's power through a (failed) coup was the sort of spectacle that many millions living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have experienced in their own fragile states but never expected to see in America.

Suddenly, our supposedly exceptional nation seemed tragically ordinary. The shimmering dome of the Capitol once symbolized the vitality of this nation's democracy, inspiring others to follow its principles or at least acquiesce to its power. This country now looks tattered and tired, caught like others before it between forgetting in the name of unity or demanding the powerful be held accountable for high crimes that will otherwise haunt the nation. Instead of aspiring to America's ideals or entrusting their security to its power, many nations will likely find their own way forward, cutting deals with all comers, starting with China.

Despite an aura of overwhelming strength, empires, even ones as powerful as America's, often prove surprisingly fragile and their decline regularly comes far sooner than anyone could have imagined — particularly when the cause is not Thomas Cole's "savage enemy" but their own self-destructive instincts.

Today, in the era of a 78-year-old president, a veritable Rip Van Biden, Americans and the rest of the world are, it seems, waking up in a new age. It could well be a daunting one.

Copyright 2021 Alfred McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, the now-classic book which probed the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over 50 years, and most recently In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books).

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