Alfred McCoy

A New Deal for a withering world

Alfred McCoy: Toward a More Perfect North American Union?

In case you hadn’t noticed — and if you’re part of the Biden administration foreign-policy team, you probably haven’t — this country is in decline, globally as well as domestically, and increasingly pugnacious about it. If you want evidence of that reality (and it is a reality), all you have to do is check out You Know Who and the crazed Trumpublican Party he’s helped bring into being. As I wrote during the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump was always the symptom rather than the disease. At the time, I compared him to the Zika mosquito, not the virus it carried, adding that “our increasingly unnerved and disturbed world is his circus right now.” I also put him, all too accurately, in the same camp with that Hungarian autocrat-in-the-making Viktor Orbán long before Tucker Carlson and crew began to broadcast his glories.

Such decline was felt at the most visceral level throughout the American heartland in a country in which inequality had already reached unparalleled levels (and has since only grown worse). A rising sense that this country needed something radically different led significant numbers of Americans, often on the skids themselves, to put The Donald in the White House — and yes, it should have been (but wasn’t) an irony that they turned to a billionaire grifter for relief.

Such all-American decline was anything but new, as scholar Chalmers Johnson, author of the classic book Blowback, would have told you long ago. In fact, think of Donald Trump as, from moment one, President Blowback. He would have been inconceivable if the post-Cold War world hadn’t already become a monstrous tale of all-American f__k up, chaos, and decline. (What else would you call the disastrous Global War on Terror and the nightmarish conflicts that went with it?)

Who today can even recall the world after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, when the U.S. was left as the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth? Honestly, it’s hard to believe that happened barely more than 30 years ago. There’s certainly all too much that’s bare about our American world now, and let’s not forget that this country’s imperial decline has taken place on a planet that — thank you, fossil fuels! — is itself visibly in decline.

The question is: Will such decline continue to be a disaster of the first order at home and abroad or could it possibly be turned into something more positive? Today, let TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, a classic history of empires gone astray, suggest what a United States that remains a significant regional power might do in its own hemisphere to come to grips with the decline of our own country, of the hemisphere, and of the planet as a whole. Tom

An American New Deal for An Entire Continent? The Fading of Washington's Global Dreams and the Coming of a New World

A few recent headlines reveal the painfully inhumane, dangerously volatile state of U.S. relations with its own home region, the continent of North America. A record-breaking 2.76 million border crossings from Mexico filled homeless shelters to the bursting point in cities nationwide in 2022. This year, the possible cessation of Covid restrictions could allow tens of thousands more migrants, now huddling in the cold of northern Mexico, to surge across the border, as some are already able to do. Most of those refugees are Central Americans, fleeing cities ravaged by gang warfare and farms devastated by climate change. The inept U.S. response to such a disturbing world ranges from the Biden administration’s nervously biding its time without a plan in sight to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s cutting an ugly scar through a pristine national forest by building a four-mile border “wall” out of rusted shipping containers (which he now has to dismantle).

Meanwhile, miserable millions in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince are struggling to survive in the world’s worst slums, ravaged by recent earthquakes and roiled by endemic gang violence. While the U.N. Security Council debated launching an international military intervention to address what its secretary-general called “an absolutely nightmarish situation,” the U.S. expelled another 26,000 Haitian asylum seekers without hearings in 2022. The harshness of that was caught in September 2021 when Border Patrol horsemen used “unnecessary force” to herd Haitians back across the Rio Grande. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Washington’s recent economic sanctions on communist Cuba — imposed by Trump and maintained by Biden — have sparked the flight to the U.S. of 250,000 refugees last year, more than 2% of the island’s population.

Farther south, after years of U.S.-led economic blockades and at least one Washington-sponsored coup, Venezuela has hemorrhaged 6.8 million of its citizens in what the U.N. called “the largest refugee and migrant crisis worldwide.” In 2018, only 100 Venezuelans crossed the southern U.S. border. In 2022, that number was an unprecedented 188,000. And keep in mind that all of this is likely to seem but a trickle in the years to come when, as the World Bank warned recently, a human flood may head north as the devastation of climate change uproots as many as four million people annually from Mexico and Central America.

The Fundamentals of Geopolitical Change

As bad as this might seem, there are some faint signs that, however fitfully, the U.S. could at least be moving toward a more positive relationship with its home continent of North America — which includes Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the island nations of the Caribbean. And it can’t happen soon enough since, within a decade, the growth of a multipolar world will slowly replace Washington’s dreams of global hegemony with multinational alliances like the European Union or rising regional powers like Brazil, India, Nigeria, and Turkey.

At the broadest level, geopolitical change is eroding the capacity of any would-be hegemon, China included, to dominate much of the globe the way Washington did for the past 75 years. As the U.S. share of the global economy declined from a whopping 50% in 1950 to just 13% in 2021, its world leadership followed a similar downward trajectory, a process not unlike what Great Britain experienced in the decades before World War I. This relative economic and imperial decline is now undercutting Washington’s long-sought goal of maintaining its dominance over Eurasia, the epicenter of global power. It did so for decades via a tripartite geopolitical strategy — controlling the continent’s western end thanks to NATO and its east via a vast chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral, while working assiduously to block either China or Russia from achieving any sort of full-scale dominance in Central Asia.

Dream on, as they say. In this century, with its disastrous wars, Washington has already lost much of its influence in both the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, as once-close allies (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) go their own ways. Meanwhile, China has gained significant control over Central Asia, while its recent ad-hoc alliance with an ever-more-battered Russia only fortifies its growing geopolitical power on the Eurasian continent.

Although the Ukraine war has momentarily strengthened the NATO alliance, the unilateral U.S. retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, ending a disastrous 20-year war, forced European leaders for the first time in half a century to consider what life and NATO might be like on a changing planet. They are only now beginning to imagine what taking charge of their own defense would mean perhaps a decade from now, with most U.S. military forces withdrawn from Europe. For the first time in memory, in other words, we could truly find ourselves on another planet.

At Eurasia’s eastern end, Beijing and Washington seem to be squaring off ominously for an armed showdown over Taiwan that — as laid out in a six-phase scenario by the Reuters news service — would likely destroy that island’s cities, disrupt world trade, and devastate much of East Asia. Given Beijing’s strategic advantage of simple proximity to that island and the likelihood of heavy U.S. naval losses in such a conflict, Washington would, in the end, probably blink and retreat from the “first island chain” (Japan-Taiwan-Philippines) to a “second island chain” (Japan-Guam-Palau) or even a “third island chain” (Alaska-Hawaii-New Zealand).

Even without such a disastrous future conflict, which could of course go nuclear, Washington’s position in Eurasia is already beginning to fade. Elsewhere in the world, its influence in South America has fallen strikingly since the Cold War of the last century, while China, capitalizing on a now half-century-old alliance with independent states in Africa, has become the leading power on that continent.

The Rise of Regional Powers

Amid Washington’s fading global hegemony, its most lasting legacy, the liberal international order, has indeed fostered economic growth strengthening a set of regional powers known as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or, more recently, the “13 new emerging economies” (including Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa). Their rise is likely to prevent either Washington or Beijing from exercising anything akin to the kind of global dominion of the imperial age or the Cold War era that followed. Instead, regional associations like the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union are likely to grow ever stronger.

With its own global power fading fast, the United States will undoubtedly become a far more regional power. While some Washington insiders might see this trend as at best a retreat or at worst a defeat, it’s actually an opportunity to fundamentally reconsider relations with our home region, North America.

The current U.S. posture toward this continent is a twisted knot of contradictions, the bitter legacy of a fraught history. For more than a century, there has been a striking duality in Washington’s relations with its home region, marked by amity in the north and ambiguity or even hostility to the south, particularly Central America and the Caribbean. After breaking Britain’s decades of informal imperial rule over the whole of Latin America at the dawn of the twentieth century, Washington tried to control its southern neighbors with repeated military interventions — taking Puerto Rico in 1898 and seizing the Panama Canal Zone in 1903, while sending Marines to occupy Caribbean countries like Haiti for decades at a time.

In a bold attempt to change its imperial posture, President Franklin Roosevelt adopted a “good neighbor policy” in the 1930s, briefly abjuring armed occupations. Building on that goodwill, in 1947 Washington forged a mutual defense pact, the Rio Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, with some two-dozen countries in this hemisphere, including Mexico, most of Central America, and all of South America. The Cold War, however, soon brought a surge of controversial CIA interventions — the toppling of Guatemala’s democratic reformist government in 1954, the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961, the occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and a series bloody covert wars in Central America during the 1980s.

Even now, the social trauma from those secret wars, marked by massacres and U.S.-financed death squads, is evident in criminal gangs like MS-13 whose 60,000 estimated members now terrorize the northern tier of Central America, forcing many thousands of their victims to flee for the relative safety of the U.S. border. Instead of a collaborative effort to address an increasingly horrific regional brew of endemic violence and climate change, Washington has reacted ever more repressively, while mobilizing border patrols in a futile effort to seal off its southern frontier, as if it had no role in, or responsibility for, the fate of its neighbors.

To the north, by contrast, Canada provides a model for regional collaboration. After tense relations throughout the nineteenth century marked by several abortive U.S. invasions of Canada, Washington, starting in 1903, negotiated its boundary disputes with Ottawa. Those arbitrations became a model for modern international relations, while winning Secretary of State Elihu Root a Nobel Peace Prize. To cap off that process, in 1909 the two countries established the International Joint Commission, which has, for 110 years, amicably settled some 50 disputes, a few of which could otherwise have become quite serious.

As allies in World War I and World War II, the two nations have also developed a military alliance that has only deepened over the decades. Not only was Canada a co-founder of NATO in 1949, but at the height of the Cold War the countries merged their continental defenses by forming the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). As a fully binational command, with senior officers from both air forces, NORAD has become the strongest American alliance, charged with the aerial and, since 2006, maritime defense of the entire North American continent. Building on such resilient military ties, in 1994, the two nations joined Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which, though modified slightly under President Trump, has sustained close commercial ties among those three countries for the past 30 years.

Beyond NAFTA and NORAD

As a legacy of its troubled hemispheric history, however, U.S. relations with the rest of North America are a tangle of contradictions that only complicate painfully persistent problems. Yet there are now obvious solutions, using this country’s relationships with Canada and the European Union as models, that could begin to transcend the ever more unnerving irrationality of armed borders, asymmetric power, and punitive policies towards poorer southern neighbors.

In the wake of World War II and 1,000 years of almost endless warfare that made Europe the world’s most bloodstained continent, visionary new leaders moved step by step toward forming a regional confederation that would replace conflict with cooperation. That European Union (EU), in turn, would create unprecedented levels of productivity and prosperity (until, at least, Britain withdrew from the EU and, in more recent times, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine). Although all of the 27 member states retain their full sovereignty, the EU executive commission and parliament have, since the Lisbon Pact was signed in 2007, taken charge of common concerns for their 500 million citizens, including environmental policy, economic development, human rights, border security, and migration within the union.

To resolve its growing problems, the whole of North America – including Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean countries — could clearly benefit from a parallel union among its 23 sovereign states and their 590 million people. In many ways, the task should be easier than Europe’s. While the EU has 13 “official languages,” a North American Union would need only three — English, French, and Spanish — fewer than tiny Switzerland.

As in Europe once upon a time, the primary barrier to North American integration is the economic inequality between north and south. Since its introduction in 1994, NAFTA has fundamentally reshaped North American economic relations, increasing cross-border investment and tripling regional trade among Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. And here’s one surprising post-NAFTA development: between 1994 and 2007, undocumented Mexican migration to the United States only grew; since 2008, however, there has been a reverse flow “as more Mexican-born immigrants began leaving the United States than arriving.”

Hoping to imitate this success, in 2000 Congress approved the U.S.-Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership and, five years later, adopted the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). But special interests hobbled CAFTA from the outset, maximizing the negatives and muting the positives of such a multilateral accord, while its Caribbean counterpart has had, at best, little impact.

The Search for Solutions

With examples of both successful and failed agreements in this hemisphere, improved NAFTA-like pacts with the Caribbean and Central America could be negotiated. Given a genuine investment program aimed at more equitable economic integration, Washington could conceivably reduce, however gradually, the glaring economic inequality between the U.S. and Canada and their southern neighbors.

With such economic fundamentals in place, those countries could then move toward European Union-style shared governance, so as to better navigate the growing climate crisis and its threat of demographic disaster. Through genuine regional collaboration, as well as a redefinition of “defense” (as in Defense Department) as greater protection from onrushing natural disasters, Washington could become the epicenter of a multinational union.

As its population continues to age, with seniors expected to outnumber those under 18 by 2034, the United States will, in fact, have a pressing need for new migrant flows from the labor-rich nations of Central America and the Caribbean — as the Biden White House suggested in its June 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration. And as climate change brings raging tropical storms to the Caribbean and devastating drought to Central America’s northern triangle, Canada and the U.S. will be able to mobilize their legions of skilled scientists to search for environmental solutions that will allow rural populations to shelter more safely in place.

Finally, the massive U.S. defense budget, still dedicated to Washington’s dying dreams of global dominance (and the corporate weapons makers that go with it), could be redirected toward a new kind of regional defense. Its focus would be coping with a continent-wide eruption of climate-related disasters, including ever more intense droughts, floods, fires, storms, and the displaced populations that will go with them.

Managing such common concerns equitably (and effectively) will mean developing limited areas of shared sovereignty on the model of the European Union. To create a successor to the long-moribund Organization of American States (OAS), Ottawa and Washington could lead North America’s 23 sovereign nations in forming a permanent secretariat, akin to the European Commission.

Balancing national sovereignty with regional solidarity, such an empowered transnational body might then exercise executive authority over areas appropriate for shared governance, including civil defense, environmental disaster, economic growth, and labor flows. And should such a union prove effective, it could be expanded, much as the EU has been, until it incorporates the entire Western Hemisphere, supplanting or revitalizing the now comatose OAS.

By taking the necessary steps beyond CAFTA, NAFTA, and NORAD, Washington could help lead its North American neighbors, roiled by the ravages of climate change, toward a more perfect union. In the process, this entire hemisphere would ultimately become a far safer haven for its share of humanity in the troubled decades to come.

How to go from a win-win to a lose-lose world

Alfred McCoy, How to Go from a Win-Win to a Lose-Lose World

Governor Ron DeSantis — you know, the guy who sent those plane loads of immigrants flying from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, with Florida tax dollars — caught something of the spirit of our moment in the wake of the recent catastrophic landfall of Hurricane Ian. He called it “basically a 500-year flood event.” And it’s true enough, if you’re talking about the last 500 years. If, however, you’re talking about the future, the next decade or two, consider one thing guaranteed: Ian and potentially far worse — imagine the American equivalent of what recently happened in Pakistan where one-third of the country was flooded by record monsoon rains and glacial melt — is undoubtedly in the cards. You won’t have to wait another half a millennium for the next Ian to hit our shores.

It’s obvious that all too few Americans want to face this reality: that we’re truly in a new world in the worst sense imaginable when it comes to climate change. To me at least, the most striking thing about the days-on-end coverage of Ian and its path of destruction was how little the overheating of this planet was focused on. Yes, you could indeed now find individual stories in the mainstream media that dealt with the climate-change-intensified nature of such a storm. But for those of you who watched the TV news as I did, there was little sense that we are functionally in a new world.

Worse yet, if things go badly here this November — as they just did in Latin America’s biggest country, Brazil, where the climate-change-denying party of President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Trump, won the largest bloc of seats in both chambers of that country’s Congress — and again in November 2024, you might as well kiss this planet goodbye. Or put another way, in the context of the latest piece by TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, while the United States may be in a new Cold War in Eurasia, we, like the rest of humanity, are also in an increasingly hot war right here at home — and if you doubt that, just check out the megadrought-ridden American West. Tom

The New Cold War Heats Up Asia: China and the U.S. Face an Unprecedented Crisis

If the world is indeed entering a new Cold War, it bears little resemblance to the final years of that global conflict with its frequent summits between smiling leaders and its arms agreements aimed at de-escalating nuclear tensions. Instead, the world today seems more like the perilous first decade of that old Cold War, marked by bloody regional conflicts, threats of nuclear strikes, and the constant risk of superpower confrontation.

While world leaders debate the Ukraine crisis at the United Nations and news flashes from that battle zone become a part of our daily lives, the most dramatic and dangerous changes may be occurring at the other end of Eurasia, from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. There, Beijing and Washington are forming rival coalitions as they maneuver over a possible war focused on the island of Taiwan and for dominance over a vast region that’s home to more than half of humanity.

And yet, despite the obvious dangers of another war, the crises there are little more than a distraction from a far more serious challenge facing humanity. With so many mesmerized by the conflict in Ukraine and the possibility of another over Taiwan, world leaders largely ignore the rising threat of climate change. It seems to matter little that, in recent months, we’ve been given unnerving previews of what’s to come. “Geopolitical divides are undermining… all forms of international cooperation,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told world leaders at the General Assembly last month. “We cannot go on like this. Trust is crumbling, inequalities are exploding, our planet is burning.”

To take in the full import of such an undiplomatic warning from the planet’s senior diplomat, think of geopolitical conflict and climate change as two storm fronts — one a fast-moving thunderstorm, the other a slower tropical depression — whose convergence might well produce a cataclysm of unprecedented destructive power.

The Geopolitics of the Old Cold War

Although the rival power blocs in this new Cold War across Eurasia resemble those of the 1950s, there are subtle differences that make the current balance of powerless stable and potentially more prone to armed conflict.

Right after China’s communists captured Beijing in October 1949, their leader Mao Zedong forged a close alliance with the boss of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, that shook the world. With those two communist states dominating much of the vast Eurasian land mass, the Cold War was suddenly transformed from a regional into a global conflict.

In 1950, when that new communist alliance launched a meat-grinder war against the West on the Korean peninsula, Washington scrambled for a strategy to contain the spread of communist influence beyond an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across Eurasia. In January 1951, the National Security Council (NSC) compiled a top-secret report warning that “the United States is now in a war of survival,” which it was in danger of losing. Were actual combat to erupt in Europe, the 10 active U.S. army divisions there could be crushed by the Soviet Union’s 175 divisions. So, the NSC recommended that Washington increase its reliance on “strategic air power” to deliver its expanding “atomic stockpile.” In addition, it suggested Washington should match its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commitment by building a “position of strength in the Far East, thus obtaining an active strategic base against Russia in the event of general war with the Soviets.”

With surprising speed, American diplomats implemented that strategy, signing treaties and mutual-defense pacts meant to encircle Eurasia with rings of steel, especially in the form of new air bases. After transforming the just-formed NATO into an expressly military alliance, Washington quickly negotiated five bilateral defense pacts along the edge of Asia with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia. To bolster that continent’s long southern flank, the Western alliance then forged two mutual-defense pacts: METO (the Middle East Treaty Organization) and SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization). To complete its 360° encirclement of Eurasia, the U.S. formed NORAD (the North American Aerospace Command) with Canada, deploying a massive armada of missiles, bombers, and early-warning radar to check any future Soviet attacks across the Arctic.

Within a decade, the U.S. had constructed an aerial empire, subsuming the sovereignty of the dozens of allied nations and allowing U.S. Air Force jet fighters to fly their skies as if they were their own. This imperium of the clouds would be tethered to the earth by hundreds of U.S. air bases, home to 580 behemoth B-52 bombers, 4,500 jet fighters, and an armada of missiles that, by 1960, allowed the Air Force to claim nearly half the Pentagon’s swelling budget.

Although this defense architecture rested on the threat of thermonuclear war, it introduced a surprising element of geopolitical stability to the superpower confrontation of that era. As a start, it stretched Soviet defenses thin along a 12,000-mile frontier and so, strangely enough, reduced the threat that a single, concentrated point of confrontation could escalate into an atomic war. Indeed, during the 45 years of the Cold War, there would be just four moments when nuclear war threatened, all quickly defused: the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958, the Berlin crisis of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the Able Archer NATO exercise of 1983. With the Soviets effectively confined, Washington could inflict a maximum cost at a minimum price whenever its rival tried to break out of its geopolitical isolation, first with moderate success in Cuba and Angola and then with devastating effect in Afghanistan, precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. and China Face Off

Some 30 years after that Cold War ended, however, strategic gaps have appeared in Washington’s encirclement of Eurasia, particularly along the continent’s southern flank. Among other things, its strong Cold War-era position in the Middle East has weakened considerably. Once subordinated allies have become increasingly independent of Washington’s writ — notably, Turkey (forming an “axis of good” with Russia and Iran), Egypt (purchasing $2 billion in Russian jet fighters), and even Saudi Arabia (doing major oil deals with Moscow). Meanwhile, despite a trillion-dollar, decade-plus U.S. intervention there, Iraq is collapsing into failed-state status, while moving ever closer to Iran.

The most significant gap was, however, opened by Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from its disastrous 20-year war in Afghanistan, which critics quickly branded “Biden’s Afghan Blunder.” Yet that decision was more strategic than it first appeared. China had already been consolidating its dominance in Central Asia through multibillion-dollar development deals with nations around Afghanistan, like Pakistan, and even before that collapse in Kabul, geopolitical strangulation had forced the U.S. military to send any air support for its ground forces there on a 2,000-mile round-trip flight from the Persian Gulf. Now, a full year later, with the U.S. military facing serious challenges in both Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait, that once-controversial withdrawal seems almost strategically prescient.

At the western end of Eurasia, President Biden’s calibrated response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only repaired the damage done to NATO by Donald Trump’s attacks on the alliance but fostered a trans-Atlantic solidarity not seen since the coldest days of the Cold War. Apart from the joint effort to arm and train Ukraine’s military, there has been a fundamental, long-term shift in Europe’s energy imports with profound geopolitical implications. After the European Union (EU) reacted to Vladimir Putin’s invasion by banning imports of Russian coal and oil, while Moscow cut critical natural gas from its pipelines, the U.S. helped fill the breach by shipping 60% of its swelling natural gas exports to Europe.

To handle those fast-rising imports, the EU is spending countless billions on a crash program to build costly terminals for Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). To replace the 118 million tons of natural gas imported from Russia annually before the war, the EU is scrambling to double its current array of two-dozen LNG terminals, while simultaneously negotiating long-term contracts with producers in America, Australia, and Qatar to construct costly liquefication plants (like the $25-billion Driftwood project now underway in Louisiana). With stunning speed, such massive investments at both ends of the energy supply chain are ensuring that Europe’s economic ties to Russia will never again be as significant.

At the eastern end of Eurasia, on the other hand, an ongoing dangerous stand-off with China over Taiwan is complicating Washington’s efforts to rebuild its Cold War strategic bastion in the Pacific. Last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted that the “historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled,” while, in May, President Biden announced his intention “to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan.” During her controversial August visit to that island, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated, “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan… remains ironclad.” As China’s jets flood that island’s airspace and American warships steam defiantly through the Taiwan Strait, both powers have launched pell-mell naval construction programs. The U.S. Navy is aiming to have at least 321 manned vessels, while China, with the world’s largest shipbuilding capacity, plans a battle force of 425 ships by 2030.

In recent years, China has relentlessly expanded across Asia economically, while building the world’s largest trading bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. In the future, Beijing may even have the means to slowly draw some of America’s allies into its sphere of influence. While Japan still sees the U.S. commitment to Taiwan as part of its own defense and South Korea has shed its usual ambiguity to issue a joint statement about “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” other Asian allies like Australia and the Philippines have taken a more ambiguous position.

Should China launch an invasion of Taiwan — which, warns that island’s foreign minister, might well happen next year — the price of involvement for the U.S. could prove prohibitive. In a series of war game scenarios proposed by a Washington think tank last August, intervention to save Taiwan could cost the U.S. Navy at least 79% of its forces, meaning something like two aircraft carriers, dozens of surface ships, and hundreds of aircraft.

The increasing unreliability of some of Washington’s allies is amply evident along Eurasia’s southern tier. As part of its ongoing strategic realignment, in 2017 Washington ended its 50-year alliance with Pakistan via a Trump tweet condemning Islamabad’s “lies and deceit.” Following Tokyo’s lead, Washington then forged a naval-oriented entente called the “Quad” with three other Asia-Pacific democracies — Australia, India, and Japan.

India is clearly the keystone in this loose alliance by virtue of its strategic position and its growing navy of 150 warships, including nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier now under construction. Yet New Delhi’s ad hoc alliance with those kindred democracies is proving ambiguous at best. It has indeed hosted most of the Quad’s annual joint naval maneuvers aimed at checking China in the Indian Ocean. However, it has also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a key instrument for advancing Beijing’s Eurasian ambitions. Indeed, it was at that organization’s meeting in Uzbekistan last month that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly rebuked Vladimir Putin over his Ukraine invasion.

Countering the American array of alliances, China is — through its naval expansion and economic development initiatives — challenging Washington’s once-dominant position in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Through its trillion-dollar infrastructure investments, Beijing is laying a steel grid of rails, roads, and pipelines across the breadth of Eurasia, matched by a string of 40 commercial ports it’s built or bought that now ring the coasts of Africa and Europe.

Already possessing the world’s largest (if not most powerful) navy, Beijing’s busy dockyards are constantly launching new warships and nuclear submarines. It also recently built its first major aircraft carrier. Moreover, it already has the second largest space network with more than 500 orbital satellites, while achieving a breakthrough in quantum cryptography by sending unhackable “entangled photon” messages more than 1,200 kilometers.

Reflecting its sharpening technological edge, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, China has developed sophisticated cyber and anti-satellite tactics to “counter a U.S. intervention during a regional military conflict.” And in July 2021, it conducted the world’s first “fractional orbital launch” of a hypersonic missile✎ EditSign that circled the globe at an unstoppable speed of 3,800 miles per hour before striking within 24 miles of its target — ample accuracy for the nuclear payload it could someday carry. In short, the only certainty in any future U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan would be unparalleled destruction as well as an unimaginable disruption of the global economy that would make the fighting in Ukraine seem like a border skirmish.

Environmental Cataclysm

And yet, stunningly enough, that’s not the worst news for Asia or the rest of the planet. The fast-building climate crisis poses a far greater threat. Last February, when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, Secretary-General António Guterres called it “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

In just a decade or two, when global warming reaches 1.5° Celsius, storms and drought will ravage farmlands in even more devastating ways than at present, while reefs that protect coasts will decline by up to 90%, and the population exposed to coastal flooding will increase by at least 20%. The cumulative changes are, in fact, mounting so rapidly, the U.N. warned, that they could soon overwhelm the capacity of humanity and nature to adapt, potentially yielding a planet that might, sooner or later, prove relatively uninhabitable.

In the six months following the release of that doomsday report, weather disasters erupting in Asia would give frightening weight to those dire words. In Pakistan, annual monsoon rains, turbocharged by warming seas, unleashed unprecedented floods that covered an unparalleled one-third of the country, displacing 33 million people and killing 1,700. Those waters ravaging its agricultural heartland are not even expected to fully recede for another six months.

While Pakistan is drowning, neighboring Afghanistan is suffering a prolonged drought that has brought six million people to the brink of famine, while scorching the country’s eastern provinces with wildfires. Similarly, in India, temperatures this summer averaged 109° to 115° Fahrenheit in 15 provinces and remained at that intolerable level in some cities for a record 27 days.

This summer, China similarly experienced staggering weather extremes, as the country’s worst recorded drought turned stretches of the great Yangtze River into mudflats, hydropower failures shuttered factories, and temperatures hit record highs. In other parts of the country, however, heavy floods unleashed lethal landslides and rivers ran so high that they changed course. By 2050, the north China plain, now home to 400 million people, is expected to experience killer heatwaves and, by century’s end, could suffer weather extremes that would make it uninhabitable.

With world leaders now absorbed in military rivalries at both ends of Eurasia, once-promising international cooperation over climate change has virtually ceased. Only recently, in fact, China “suspended” all climate talks with the U.S. even though, as of 2020, those two powers were responsible for 44% of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Last November, just four months before the Ukraine war started, the two countries issued an historic declaration at the U.N.’s Glasgow Climate Change Conference recognizing the “urgency of the climate crisis” and stating that they were “committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s…to avoid catastrophic impacts.” To honor that commitment, China agreed to “phase down” (but not “phase out”) its reliance on coal starting in 2025, just as the U.S. promised “to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035″ — neither exactly a dream response to the crisis. Now, with no climate communication at all, things look grim indeed.

Not surprisingly, the collision of those geopolitical and environmental tempests represents a mindboggling threat to the planet’s future, giving the very idea of a cold war turning into a hot war new meaning. Even if Beijing and Washington were to somehow avert armed conflict over Taiwan, the chill in their diplomatic relations is crippling the world’s already weak capacity to meet the challenge of climate change. Instead of the “win-win” that was the basis for effective U.S.-China relations for nearly 30 years, the world is faced with circumstances that can only be called “lose-lose” — or worse.

What difference does a war make? Playing with fire in Ukraine

Alfred McCoy, Playing with Fire in Ukraine

As Alfred McCoy suggests today, we’re now in the latest version of a “cold war” when it comes to Russia and China. Let’s take a minute, though, to think about that grim term, which, until relatively recently, seemed to be a relic of history. During the original Cold War, it had a meaning that’s seldom grasped now. Keep in mind that, in those years, there were all-too-many actual “hot” wars — the major ones being the Korean and Vietnam wars for the United States and the Afghan War for the Soviet Union. All three were bloody disasters of the first order.

As it happens, however, the cold war had a very specific, if seldom articulated, meaning. It wouldn’t have existed without nuclear weapons. They were what threatened to provide the devastating “heat,” had the two superpowers of that moment ever directly fought a global war of any sort. Once you take nukes into account, the very term “hot” seems, if anything, all too mild, since the potential nuclear destruction of the planet was at stake or, at least, in the nuclear winter that would have followed just about any version of such a war, the starvation of possibly billions of people.

Fortunately, the two superpowers of that era did indeed remain in a cold-war state until the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 because an actual war between them remained essentially inconceivable. Yes, as McCoy points out today, the Soviets dispatched troops from China (then a country without nukes) into the Korean War and quietly helped arm and aid the Vietnamese in their battle against the Americans in the 1960s. In return, Washington acted similarly, with devastating effect, in Russia’s disastrous Afghan War of the 1980s, but thanks to those atomic weapons neither power could truly face off in battle against the other, which was why there never was a World War III.

In fact, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while ending one nightmarish global conflict, almost instantly created a genuinely apocalyptic version of future war that promised the kind of Armageddon once left to the gods. Only recently, Vladimir Putin reminded us of that fact by functionally threatening a nuclear encounter as he invaded Ukraine.

So, keeping the nature of “cold” and “hot” in such confrontations in mind, let TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author most recently of To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, take you to a planet where things are only getting hotter in so many ways, not just nuclear. It’s a world where, for the first time since the original Cold War, nuclear arsenals are evidently about to grow larger once again, while the U.S. is planning to “invest” up to $2 trillion in “modernizing” its own nukes in the decades to come. Tom

What Difference Does a War Make? The Geopolitics of the New Cold War

From his first days in office, Joe Biden and his national security advisers seemed determined to revive America’s fading global leadership via the strategy they knew best — challenging the “revisionist powers” Russia and China with a Cold War-style aggressiveness. When it came to Beijing, the president combined the policy initiatives of his predecessors, pursuing Barack Obama’s “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, while continuing Donald Trump’s trade war with China. In the process, Biden revived the kind of bipartisan foreign policy not seen in Washington since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Writing in the December 2021 Foreign Affairs, a group of famously disputatious diplomatic historians agreed on one thing: “Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war.” Just weeks later, the present mimed the past in ways that went well beyond even that pessimistic assessment as Russia began massing 190,000 troops on the border of Ukraine. Soon, Russian President Vladimir Putin would join China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing where they would demand that the West “abandon the ideologized approaches of the Cold War” by curtailing both NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and similar security pacts in the Pacific.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine loomed in late February, the New York Times reported that Putin was trying “to revise the outcome of the original Cold War, even if it is at the cost of deepening a new one.” And days later, as Russian tanks began entering Ukraine, the New York Times published an editorial headlined, “Mr. Putin Launches a Sequel to the Cold War.” The Wall Street Journal seconded that view, concluding that recent “developments reflect a new cold war that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have initiated against the West.”

Instead of simply accepting that mainstream consensus, it couldn’t be more important right now to explore that Cold War analogy and gain a fuller understanding of how that tragic past does (and doesn’t) resonate with our embattled present.

The Geopolitics of Cold Wars

There are indeed a number of parallels between our Cold Wars, old and new. Some 70 years ago, in January 1950, Mao Zedong, the head of a Chinese People’s Republic ravaged by long years of war and revolution, met Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Moscow as a supplicant. He was seeking a treaty of alliance and friendship that would provide much-needed aid for his fledgling communist state.

Within months, Stalin played upon this brand-new alliance by persuading Mao to send troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War, where China soon began hemorrhaging money and manpower. Until his death in 1953, Stalin kept the U.S. military bogged down in Korea, as he sought “an advantage in the global balance of power.” With Washington focused on war in Asia, Stalin consolidated his grip on seven “satellite states” in Eastern Europe — but at a cost. In those years, a newly created NATO would be transformed into a genuine military alliance, as 16 nations dispatched troops to Korea.

Last February, in a reversal of Cold War roles, Putin arrived at that Beijing summit as a supplicant, desperately seeking Chinese President Xi Jinping’s diplomatic support for his Ukrainian gambit. Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” the two leaders asserted that their entente had “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Soon after, the Russian president would invade Ukraine, while ominously putting his nuclear forces on high alert, a warning to the West not to meddle in his war. In a clear parallel to the old Cold War, nuclear weapons are far too dangerous for a direct superpower conflict to break out, so the U.S. and its NATO allies chose surrogate warfare in Ukraine. Just as the Soviet Union once armed North Vietnam with surface-to-air missiles and tanks to bloody the U.S. military, so Washington now began supplying Kyiv with high-tech weaponry to damage the Russian army.

As Ukrainian defenders armed with U.S.- and NATO-supplied shoulder-fired missiles destroyed 2,500 of its armored vehicles, Russia would be forced to pull back from its bid to capture the Ukrainian capital and shift to a months-long slog to seize the Russian-speaking Donbas region near its own border. This effort has, in turn, sparked an artillery duel now fast approaching the sort of strategic stalemate not seen since the Korean War (a conflict that remains unresolved nearly 70 years later).

Beneath such surface similarities between the two eras, however, lies a crucial if elusive difference: geopolitics. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe, this is essentially a method for the management of empire. At the high tide of the British Empire in 1904, English geographer Halford Mackinder published an influential article arguing that Europe, Asia, and Africa weren’t, in fact, three separate continents but a unitary landmass he dubbed “the World-Island,” whose strategic pivot lay in the “heartland” of central Eurasia. Mackinder later boiled his thinking down to a memorable maxim: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Apply Mackinder’s principles to the old Cold War and you can indeed see an underlying geopolitics that lends coherence to an otherwise disparate conflict spread across four decades and five continents. In the 500 years since European exploration first brought the continents into continuous contact, the rise of every major world power has required one thing above all: dominance over Eurasia, now home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. Those five centuries of imperial rivalry could be summarized, thanks to Mackinder, in a succinct geopolitical axiom: “The exercise of global hegemony requires control over Eurasia, and contestation over that vast continent thus determines the fate of empires and their world orders.”

By the time the Cold War ended in 1991, Washington had translated that axiom into a three-part geopolitical strategy to defeat the Soviet Union. First, it encircled Eurasia with military bases and mutual-defense pacts to contain Beijing and Moscow behind an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across that vast land mass. Second, the U.S. intervened, using either conventional force or CIA covert operations whenever the communists threatened to expand their power beyond that “curtain” — whether in Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, Washington aggressively defended its own hemisphere from communist influence of any sort, however homegrown — whether in Cuba, Central America, or Chile.

In a magisterial sweep through a millennium of Eurasian history, Oxford scholar John Darwin found that, after World War II, Washington achieved its “colossal imperium… on an unprecedented scale” by becoming the first power ever to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia.” Initially, Washington defended Eurasia’s western axis through the NATO defense pact signed with a dozen allies in April 1949, making the Cold War, at its outset, little more than a regional conflict over Eastern Europe.

In October 1949, however, communists surprised the world by capturing China. Moscow then forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that suddenly threatened to become the dominant force on the Eurasian land mass. In response, Washington moved quickly to counter that geopolitical challenge by forging four bilateral defense pacts, thereby developing a 5,000-mile chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral from Japan and South Korea all the way to Australia. By serving as the frontier for the defense of one continent (North America) and a springboard for its dominance of another (Eurasia), the Pacific littoral would become Washington’s key geopolitical fulcrum.

In the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet alliance would suddenly collapse into a bitter rivalry — a lucky break for Washington that left Moscow without a major ally anywhere in Eurasia. Reeling from their breach with Beijing, the Soviet leaders would spend several decades trying, unsuccessfully, to break out of their geopolitical isolation by expanding into Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, southern Africa, and, fatally, Afghanistan, catalyzing a succession of local conflicts that led to the deaths of some 20 million people between 1945 and 1990.

A New Geopolitical Balance

At the close of the Cold War, when the U.S. seemed to stand astride the globe like a Titan of Greek legend, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and a devotee of Mackinder’s geopolitical theory, warned that Washington should take care to avoid three pitfalls that could erode its global power. It must, he warned, preserve its strategic “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia through NATO; it must prevent “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along the Pacific littoral; and it must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” in the “middle space” of that vast landmass.

Now, skip three decades and, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries have worked with surprising unanimity to slap sanctions on Moscow, ship advanced weaponry to Kyiv, and even take in previously neutral Sweden and Finland as possible members. In this way, Washington seems to have forged a trans-Atlantic solidarity not seen since the Cold War and preserved, at least for now, Washington’s strategic “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia.

By his surprisingly blunt statement last month that the U.S. would “get involved militarily to defend Taiwan” (a key driver of the global economy through its mass production of sophisticated computer chips) and his warning that a possible Chinese attack there would be “similar to what happened in Ukraine,” President Biden has been trying to assert an ever stronger American military presence in the Pacific. China has, however, also been moving in that region, militarily, politically, and diplomatically, potentially winning over islands that were once an American preserve.

Whatever Washington has done to strengthen its “strategic perch” in Europe by rallying NATO and allies in the Pacific as well, it has clearly failed to meet Brzezinski’s critical third criteria for the preservation of its global power. Indeed, the rise of China as “an assertive single entity” in the pivotal “middle space” of Eurasia could potentially prove a fatal geopolitical blow to Washington’s global ambitions, the equivalent of the impact the Sino-Soviet split had on Moscow during the old Cold War.

As its foreign reserves reached an extraordinary $4 trillion in 2014, Beijing announced a trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meant to build an economic bloc encompassing the whole of Mackinder’s tri-continental world island. To overcome Eurasia’s vast distances, China quickly began constructing a steel grid of rails, roads, and gas pipelines that, when integrated with Russia’s networks, would reach across the continent. Within just five years, a World Bank study found that BRI transportation projects were boosting trade among 70 nations by up to 9.7% and lifting 32 million people out of poverty. By 2027, Beijing is expected to commit $1.3 trillion to this project, which would make it the largest investment in history — more than 10 times the foreign aid Washington allocated to its famed Marshall Plan that rebuilt a ravaged Europe after World War II.

To strengthen its regional influence and weaken the U.S. grip on the Pacific littoral, China has also used the BRI to court allies in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2020, in fact, it formed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest trade pact with 15 Asia-Pacific nations representing 30% of global trade.

Taking a leaf out of Stalin’s geopolitical playbook, President Xi has much to gain from Vladimir Putin’s headstrong plunge into Ukraine. In the short term, Washington’s focus on Europe slows any serious strategic “pivot” to the Pacific, allowing Beijing to further consolidate its burgeoning commercial dominance there. By allying with Russia and so meeting its own food and energy needs, while maintaining ties to Europe through formal neutrality in the Ukraine war, Beijing could emerge, like Moscow after the Vietnam War, with its global influence markedly enhanced and the U.S. geopolitical position significantly weakened.

The Limits of Historical Analogy

However strong the geopolitical continuities between the two eras may be, history also spins skeins of discontinuity, making the past, at best, an imperfect guide to the present. During the 30 years after the Cold War ended, relentless economic globalization has incorporated China as the world’s industrial workshop and Russia as a key provider of energy, minerals, and grains into the world economy.

As a result, despite recent sanctions, geopolitical “containment” of the sort once used against the old Soviet Union’s feeble command economy is no longer feasible. With the war already causing what the World Bank calls an “enormous humanitarian crisis,” pressures are building for some way to reintegrate Russia into a global economy that is suffering badly from the ostracism of a country that ranks first in world wheat and fertilizer exports, second in gas production, and third in oil output.

By blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and advancing toward its main one, Odesa, Putin has disrupted grain exports from both Russia and Ukraine, which together provide almost one-third of the world’s wheat and barley and so are critical to feeding the Middle East, as well as much of Africa. With the specter of mass starvation looming for some 270 million people and, as the U.N. recently warned, political instability growing in those volatile regions, the West will, sooner or later, have to reach some understanding with Russia.

Similarly, Europe’s escalating embargo of Russia’s natural gas and oil exports is proving profoundly disruptive to global energy markets, stoking inflation in the United States and sending fuel prices soaring on the continent. Already, Putin has successfully shifted much of his country’s oil and gas exports from Europe to China and India. Within months, the European Union’s embargo will likely hit a wall as Germany finds its premature closure of nuclear power plants has created an irresolvable dependence on Russian natural gas imports.

As the conflict in Ukraine becomes a protracted military stalemate, there are signs that both sides are reaching their war-making limit and may yet be forced to seek a diplomatic resolution. Even if the flow of heavy weapons from the West continues, Ukraine’s battered army can, at best, push Russia back to the territory it held before the start of current hostilities, perhaps leaving Moscow in control of Ukraine’s southeast, much or all of the Donbas region, and Crimea.

In contrast to the Pentagon’s triumphalist rhetoric about using the war to render Russia’s military permanently “weakened,” French President Emmanuel Macron has made the sober suggestion that “we must not humiliate Russia so… we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.” Although controversial, that view may yet prevail. If so, there might well be a diplomatic agreement in which Ukraine swaps bits of territory for the acceptance of a neutral status akin to Austria’s, allowing it to join the European Union, but not NATO.

By attacking Ukraine and alienating Europe, Putin has suffered a serious but not necessarily fatal geopolitical blow. Blocked from expanding westward, he is now accelerating Russia’s “pivot to the East” and rapidly integrating its economy with China’s. In doing so, he’s likely to consolidate Beijing’s geopolitical dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, the epicenter of global power, while the United States, wallowing in domestic chaos, suffers a distinctly non-Cold War-ish decline.

In this century as in the last one, the geopolitical struggle over Eurasia has proven to be a relentless affair, one that, in the years to come, will likely contribute both to Beijing’s rise and to the ongoing erosion of Washington’s once formidable global hegemony.

Give peace a chance: how to end the war in Ukraine – a solution beyond sanctions

Alfred McCoy, Give Peace a Chance?

At some level, it seems so obvious. At the very least, there should be a steep price to pay for invading another country and fighting a war of aggression there. The question that Alfred McCoy, TomDispatch regular and most recently author of To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, focuses on today is how to make sure that actually happens. He has a clever idea for how to make Vladimir Putin pay (in the most literal sense possible) for the nightmare he’s perpetrating on Ukrainians. See if you don’t agree.

Sadly, the United States in this century isn’t exactly a good example when it comes to paying for wars of aggression. The Vlad has, of course, given officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington the perfect opportunity to be all too righteous about the horrors — and they are indeed horrors — another power is committing. Unfortunately, Washington has nothing to brag about on that score. Its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the second of them based on a set of concocted lies about that country’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, were disasters for which this country paid all too little. Only recently, in fact, Joe Biden literally stole billions of dollars that should have been spent on desperate Afghans in the name of paying back the families of the victims of 9/11. After all, after 20 years of disastrous war-making there, the U.S. military departed all-too-chaotically, leaving that country in the hands of the Taliban and in a state of utter disaster. The brutal aftermath of our war there is ongoing in a country lacking jobs, suffering the worst drought in decades, and too many of whose children are now dying of starvation. Under the circumstances, the money Joe Biden didn’t deliver to them should be considered a first-class horror all its own.

Or, as we watch Vladimir Putin’s forces leveling Ukrainian cities, just think for a moment of what U.S. airpower and artillery did to Iraq’s historic Old City of Mosul — it was our Mariupol — or the Syrian provincial city of Raqqa in the battle against ISIS (itself a creation of the American invasion of Iraq). No, we were never up there with the Vlad when it comes to urban destruction, but we did commit our own crimes, no payment needed. Sadly, as the Ukrainians face the next round of horror, unless something like McCoy’s suggestion is taken up, the ruins we now see in Ukrainian cities could be not just a present reality, but that country’s future for untold years to come. Tom

How to End the War in Ukraine – A Solution Beyond Sanctions

As the war in Ukraine heads for its third month amid a rising toll of death and destruction, Washington and its European allies are scrambling, so far unsuccessfully, to end that devastating, globally disruptive conflict. Spurred by troubling images of executed Ukrainian civilians scattered in the streets of Bucha and ruined cities like Mariupol, they are already trying to use many tools in their diplomatic pouches to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to desist. These range from economic sanctions and trade embargoes to the confiscation of the assets of some of his oligarch cronies and the increasingly massive shipment of arms to Ukraine. Yet none of it seems to be working.

Even after Ukraine’s surprisingly strong defense forced a Russian retreat from the northern suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, Putin only appears to be doubling down with plans for new offensives in Ukraine’s south and east. Instead of engaging in serious negotiations, he’s been redeploying his battered troops for a second round of massive attacks led by General Alexander Dvonikov, “the butcher of Syria,” whose merciless air campaigns in that country flattened cities like Aleppo and Homs.

So while the world waits for the other combat boot to drop hard, it’s already worth considering where the West went wrong in its efforts to end this war, while exploring whether anything potentially effective is still available to slow the carnage.

Playing the China Card

In January 2021, only weeks after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Moscow began threatening to attack Ukraine unless Washington and its European allies agreed that Kyiv could never join NATO. That April, Putin only added force to his demand by dispatching 120,000 troops to Ukraine’s border to stage military maneuvers that Washington even then branded a “war threat.” In response, taking a leaf from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s tattered Cold War playbook, the Biden administration initially tried to play Beijing off against Moscow.

After a face-to-face summit with Putin in Geneva that June, President Biden affirmed Washington’s “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” In a pointed warning to the Russian president, he said,

You got a multi-thousand-mile border with China… China is… seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world. You’re in a situation where your economy is struggling… I don’t think [you should be] looking for a Cold War with the United States.

As Russian armored units began massing for war near the Ukrainian border that November, U.S. intelligence officials all-too-accurately leaked warnings that “the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive… involving up to 175,000 troops.” In response, over the next three months, administration officials scrambled to avert war by meeting a half-dozen times with Beijing’s top diplomats and beseeching “the Chinese to tell Russia not to invade.”

In a video conference on December 7th, Biden told Putin of his “deep concerns… about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine,” warning that “the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation.”

In a more amicable video conference just a week later, however, Putin assured China’s President Xi Jinping that he would defy any human-rights boycott by Western leaders and come to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Calling him his “old friend,” Xi replied that he appreciated this unwavering support and “firmly opposed attempts to drive a wedge into our two countries.” Indeed, during the February Olympics opening ceremony, the two of them publicly proclaimed a de facto alliance that had “no limits,” even as Beijing evidently made it clear that Russia should not spoil China’s glittering Olympic moment on the international stage with an invasion right then.

In retrospect, it’s hard to overstate the price Putin paid for China’s backing. So desperate was he to preserve their new alliance that he sacrificed his only chance for a quick victory over Ukraine. By the time Putin landed in Beijing on February 4th, 130,000 Russian troops had already amassed on the Ukrainian border. Delaying an invasion until the Olympics ended left most of them huddled in unheated canvas tents for three more weeks. When the invasion finally began, idling vehicles had burned through much of their fuel, truck tires sitting without rotation were primed for blow-outs, and the rations and morale of many of those soldiers were exhausted.

In early February, the ground in Ukraine was still frozen, making it possible for Russia’s tanks to swarm overland, potentially encircling the capital, Kyiv, for a quick victory. Because the Olympics didn’t end until February 20th, Russia’s invasion, which began four days later, was ever closer to March, Ukraine’s mud month when average temperatures around Kyiv rise rapidly. Adding to Moscow’s difficulties, at 51 tons, its T-90 tanks were almost twice as heavy as the classic go-anywhere Soviet T-34s which won World War II. When those modern steel-clad behemoths did try to leave the roads near Kyiv, they often sank deep and fast in the mud, becoming sitting ducks for Ukrainian missiles.

Instead of surging across the countryside to envelop Kyiv, Russia’s tanks found themselves stuck in a 40-mile traffic jam on a paved highway where Ukrainian defenders armed with shoulder-fired missiles could destroy them with relative ease. Being enveloped by the enemy instead of enveloping them cost the Russian army most of its losses to date — estimated recently at 40,000 troops killed, wounded, or captured, along with 2,540 armored vehicles and 440 rocket and artillery systems destroyed. As those crippling losses mounted, Russia’s army was forced to abandon its five-week campaign to capture the capital. On April 2nd, the retreat began, leaving behind a dismal trail of burned vehicles, dead soldiers, and slaughtered civilians.

In the end, Vladimir Putin paid a high price indeed for China’s support.

President Xi’s foreknowledge of the plans to invade Ukraine and his seemingly steadfast support even after so many weeks of lackluster military performance raise some revealing parallels with the alliance between Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, and China’s Mao Zedong in the early days of the Cold War. After Stalin’s pressure on Western Europe was blocked by the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949 and the formation of NATO in April 1950, the Soviet boss made a deft geopolitical pivot to Asia. He played upon his brand-new alliance with a headstrong Mao by getting him to send Chinese troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War. For three years, until his death in 1953 allowed an armistice to be reached, Stalin kept the U.S. military bogged down and bloodied in Korea, freeing him to consolidate his control over Eastern Europe.

Following this same geopolitical strategy, President Xi has much to gain from Putin’s headstrong plunge into Ukraine. In the short term, Washington’s focus on Europe postpones a promised (and long-delayed) U.S. “pivot” to the Pacific, allowing Beijing to further consolidate its position in Asia. Meanwhile, as Putin’s military flattens cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol, making Russia an outlaw state, a mendicant Moscow is likely to become a cut-rate source of much-needed Chinese fuel and food imports. Not only does Beijing need Russia’s gas to wean its economy from coal but, as the world’s largest consumer of wheat, it could achieve food security with a lock on Russia’s massive grain exports. Just as Stalin capitalized on Mao’s stalemate in Korea, so the elusive dynamics of Eurasian geopolitics could well transform Putin’s losses into Xi’s gains.

For all these reasons, Washington’s initial strategy had little chance of restraining Russia’s invasion. As retired CIA analyst Raymond McGovern argued, drawing on his 27 years studying the Soviet Union for the agency, “Rapprochement between Russia and China has grown to entente.” In his view, the sooner Biden’s foreign-policy team “get it through their ivy-mantled brains that driving a wedge between Russia and China is not going to happen, the better the chances the world can survive the fallout (figurative and literal) from the war in Ukraine.”

Sanctions

Since the Russian invasion began, the Western alliance has been ramping up an array of sanctions to punish Putin’s cronies and cripple Russia’s economic capacity to continue the war. In addition, Washington has already committed $2.4 billion for arms shipments to Ukraine, including lethal antitank weapons like the shoulder-fired Javelin missile.

On April 6th, the White House announced that the U.S. and its allies had imposed “the most impactful, coordinated, and wide-ranging economic restrictions in history,” banning new investments in Russia and hampering the operations of its major banks and state enterprises. The Biden administration expects the sanctions to shrink Russia’s gross domestic product by 15% as inflation surges, supply chains collapse, and 600 foreign companies exit the country, leaving it in “economic, financial, and technological isolation.” With near-unanimous bipartisan support, Congress has also voted to void U.S. trade relations with Moscow and ban its oil imports (measures with minimal impact since Russia only supplies 2% of American petroleum use).

Although the Kremlin’s invasion threatened European security, Brussels moved far more cautiously, since Russia supplies 40% of the European Union’s gas and 25% of its oil — worth $108 billion in payments to Moscow in 2021. For decades, Germany has built massive pipelines to handle Russia’s gas exports, culminating in the 2011 opening of Nordstream I, the world’s longest undersea pipeline, which Chancellor Angela Merkel then hailed as a “milestone in energy cooperation” and the “basis of a reliable partnership” between Europe and Russia.

With its critical energy infrastructure bound to Russia by pipe, rail, and ship, Germany, the continent’s economic giant, is dependent on Moscow for 32% of its natural gas, 34% of its oil, and 53% of its hard coal. After a month of foot-dragging, it did go along with the European decision to punish Putin by cutting off Russian coal shipments, but drew the line at tampering with its gas imports, which heat half its homes and power much of its industry.

To reduce its dependence on Russian gas, Berlin has launched multiple long-term projects to diversify its energy sources, while canceling the opening of the new $11 billion Nordstream II gas pipeline from Russia. It has also asserted control over its own energy reserves, held inside massive underground caverns, suspending their management by the Russian state firm Gazprom. (As Berlin’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck put it, “We won’t leave energy infrastructure subject to arbitrary decisions by the Kremlin").

Right after the Ukraine invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a crash program to construct the country’s first Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals on its north coast to unload supplies from American ships and those of various Middle Eastern countries. Simultaneously, German officials flew off to the Persian Gulf to negotiate more long-term deliveries of LNG. Still, the construction of such a multibillion-dollar terminal typically takes about four years, and Germany’s vice-chancellor has made it clear that, until then, massive imports of Russian gas will continue in order to preserve the country’s “social peace.” The European Union is considering plans to cut off Russian oil imports completely, but its proposal to slash Russian natural-gas imports by two-thirds by year’s end has already met stiff opposition from Germany’s finance ministry and its influential labor unions, worried about losses of “hundreds of thousands” of jobs.

Given all the exemptions, sanctions have so far failed to fatally cripple Russia’s economy or curtail its invasion of Ukraine. At first, the U.S. and EU restrictions did spark a crash in Russia’s currency, the ruble, which President Biden mockingly called “the rubble,” but its value has since bounced back to pre-invasion levels, while broader economic damage has, so far, proved limited. “As long as Russia can continue to sell oil and gas,” observed Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson International Economics Institute, “the Russian government’s financial situation is actually pretty strong.” And he concluded, “This is the big escape clause of the sanctions.”

In short, the West has seized a few yachts from Putin’s cronies, stopped serving Big Macs in Red Square, and slapped sanctions on everything except the one thing that really matters. With Russia supplying 40% of its gas and collecting an estimated $850 million daily, Europe is, in effect, funding its own invasion.

Reparations

Following the failure of both Washington’s pressure on China and Western sanctions against Russia to stop the war, the international courts have become the sole peaceful means left to still the conflict. While the law often remains an effective means to mediate conflict domestically, the critical question of enforcing judgments has long robbed the international courts of their promise for promoting peace — a problem painfully evident in Ukraine today.

Even as the fighting rages, two major international courts have already ruled against Russia’s invasion, issuing orders for Moscow to cease and desist its military operations. On March 16th, the U.N.’s highest tribunal, the International Court of Justice, ordered Russia to immediately suspend all military operations in Ukraine, a judgment Putin has simply ignored. Theoretically, that high court could now require Moscow to pay reparations, but Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could simply veto that decision.

With surprising speed, on day five of the invasion, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) at Strasbourg ruled

✎ EditSign in the case of Ukraine v. Russia (X), ordering the Kremlin “to refrain from military attacks against civilians and civilian objects, including residential premises, emergency vehicles and… schools and hospitals” — a clear directive that Moscow’s military continues to defy with its devastating rocket and artillery strikes. To enforce the decision, the court notified the Council of Europe, which, two weeks later, took the most extreme step its statutes allow, expelling Russia after 26 years of membership. With that not-terribly-painful step, the European Court seems to have exhausted its powers of enforcement.

But matters need not end there. The Court is also responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights, which reads in part: “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.” Under that provision, the ECHR could order Russia to pay Ukraine compensation for the war damage it’s causing. Unfortunately, as Ivan Lishchyna, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice, points out: “There is no international police or international military force that can support any international court judgment.”

As it happens, though, there is a blindingly obvious path to payment. Just as a U.S. municipal court can garnish the wages of a deadbeat dad who won’t pay child support, so the European Court of Human Rights could garnish the gas income of the world’s ultimate deadbeat dad, Vladimir Putin. In its first five weeks, Putin’s war of choice inflicted an estimated $68 billion dollars of damage on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure (its homes, airports, hospitals, and schools), along with other losses worth about $600 billion or three times that country’s total gross domestic product.

But how would Ukraine collect such a sum from Russia? Any Ukrainian party that has suffered damage — whether individuals, cities, or the entire nation — could petition the European Court of Human Rights to enforce its judgment in Ukraine v. Russia (X) by awarding damages. The Court could then instruct the Council of Europe to direct all European corporations buying gas from Gazprom, the Russian state monopoly, to deduct, say, 20% from their regular payments for a Ukraine compensation fund. Since Europe is now paying Gazprom about $850 million daily, such a court-ordered deduction would allow Putin to pay off his initial $600 billion war-damage debt over the next eight years. As long as his invasion continued, however, those sums would only increase in a potentially crippling fashion.

Though Putin would undoubtedly froth and fulminate, in the end, he would have little choice but to accept such deductions or watch the Russian economy collapse from the lack of gas, oil, or coal revenues. Last month, when he rammed legislation through his parliament requiring Europe’s gas payments in rubles, not euros, Germany refused, despite the threat of a gas embargo. Faced with the loss of such critical revenues sustaining his economy, a chastened Putin called Chancellor Scholz to capitulate.

With billions invested in pipelines leading one-way to Europe, Russia’s petro-dependent economy would have to absorb that war-damage deduction of 20% — possibly more, if the devastation worsened — or face certain economic collapse from the complete loss of those critical energy exports. That might, sooner or later, force the Russian president to end his war in Ukraine. From a pragmatic perspective, that 20% deduction would be a four-way win. It would punish Putin, rebuild Ukraine, avoid a European recession caused by banning Russian gas, and prevent environmental damage from firing up Germany’s coal-fueled power plants.

Paying for Peace

Back in the day of anti-Vietnam War rallies in the United States and nuclear-freeze marches in Europe, crowds of young protesters would sing John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s hope-filled refrain, even though they were aware of just how hopeless it was even as the words left their lips: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” But now, after weeks of trial and error over Ukraine, the world just might have a chance to make the aggressor in a terrible war at least begin to pay a price for bringing such devastating conflict back to Europe.

Perhaps it’s time to finally deliver a bill to Vladimir Putin for a foreign policy that has involved little more than flattening one hapless city after another — from Aleppo and Homs in Syria to Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and undoubtedly more to come in Ukraine. Once the world’s courts establish such a precedent in Ukraine v. Russia (X), would-be strongmen might have to think twice before invading another country, knowing that wars of choice now come with a prohibitive price tag.

Professor explains how Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is rewriting the 'very nature of geopolitics'

Welcome to an ever more dangerous world. By the way, while you’re reading this, if you happen to be at your desk, you might consider diving under it to practice one of those duck-and-cover drills of my childhood (just in case). After all, it wasn’t enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin to send 150,000 or more troops, as well as planes, tanks, artillery, missiles, and god knows what else into the bravely resistant, ever more devastated neighboring country of Ukraine. He also had to declare the Russian nuclear arsenal on “high alert,” while personally and all-too-publicly overseeing the testing of a hypersonic ballistic missile. Then he made sure that his military captured first the wrecked Chernobyl nuclear plant — a 1986 disaster that spread radiation over significant parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Europe — and next the largest active nuclear power plant on that continent, which those troops set partially on fire. Consider that apt indeed on a planet that’s already displaying far too much wear without an incipient nuclear crisis added in.

Keep in mind that there are three more nuclear power plants in Ukraine still potentially to be fought over, any one of which could, under the right (i.e., wrong) circumstances, be turned into the next Chernobyl. This is, sadly, the hair-raising world that Vladimir Putin has decided to usher us into — and, in the months (not to say years) before it happened, no less sadly, the U.S. and NATO showed no give or urge to bargain at all when it came to Ukraine’s future or the possibility, which so disturbs the Russian president, that it could end up in a military alliance against his own land. Face it, it’s a tough imperial planet we’re living on and who should know better than historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, whose latest book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, focuses on the last 400 years of hair-raising imperial politics in Eurasia and the 50 years to come. Tom

The Geopolitics of the Ukraine War

Just as the relentless grinding of the earth’s tectonic plates produces earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so the endless superpower struggle for dominance over Eurasia is fraught with tensions and armed conflict. Beneath the visible outbreak of war in Ukraine and the U.S.-Chinese naval standoff in the South China Sea, there is now an underlying shift in geopolitical power in process across the vast Eurasian landmass — the epicenter of global power on a fast-changing, overheating planet. Take a moment to step back with me to try to understand what’s now happening on this increasingly embattled globe of ours.

If geology explains the earth’s eruptions, geopolitics is the tool we need to grasp the deeper meaning of the devastating war in Ukraine and the events that led to this crisis. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, geopolitics is essentially a method for the management of empire through the use of geography (air, land, and sea) to maximize military and economic advantage. Unlike conventional nations, whose peoples can be readily mobilized for self-defense, empires are, by dint of their extraterritorial reach and the perils inherent in any foreign military deployment, a surprisingly fragile form of government. To give an empire a fighting chance of survival against formidable odds requires a resilient geopolitical architecture.

For nearly 100 years, the geopolitical theories of an obscure Victorian geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, have had a profound influence on a succession of leaders who sought to build or break empires in Eurasia — including Adolf Hitler, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, most recently, Vladimir Putin. In an academic essay published in 1904, when the Trans-Siberian Railway was completing its 5,700-mile crawl from Moscow to Vladivostok, Mackinder argued that future rails would knit Eurasia into a unitary landmass that, along with Africa, he dubbed the tri-continental “world island.” When that day came, Russia, in alliance with another land power like Germany — and, in our time, we might add China — could expand across Eurasia’s endless central “heartland,” allowing, he predicted, “the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.”

As the Versailles Peace Conference opened in 1919 at the end of World War I, Mackinder turned that seminal essay into a memorable maxim about the relationship between East European regions like Ukraine, the Central Asian heartland, and global power. “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,” he wrote. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

At the core of recent conflicts at both ends of Eurasia is an entente between China and Russia that the world hasn’t seen since the Sino-Soviet alliance at the start of the Cold War. To grasp the import of this development, let’s freeze-frame two key moments in world history — Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s Moscow meeting with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in December 1949 and Vladimir Putin’s summit in Beijing with Xi Jinping just last month.

To avoid facile comparisons, the historical context for each of those meetings must be kept in mind. When Mao came to Moscow just weeks after proclaiming the People’s Republic in October 1949, China had been ravaged by a nine-year war against Japan that killed 20 million people and a five-year civil war that left seven million more dead.

In contrast, having defeated Hitler, seized an empire in eastern Europe, rebuilt his socialist economy, and tested an atomic bomb, making the Soviet Union a superpower, Stalin was at the peak of his strength. In contrast to China’s army of ill-equipped infantry, the Soviet Union had a modern military with the world’s best tanks, jet fighters, and missiles. As the globe’s top communist, Stalin was “the boss” and Mao came to Moscow as essentially a supplicant.

When Mao Met Stalin

During his two-month trip to Moscow starting in December 1949, Mao sought desperately needed economic aid to rebuild his ravaged land and military support for the liberation of the island of Taiwan. In a seemingly euphoric telegram sent to his comrades in Beijing, Mao wrote:

Arrived in Moscow on the 16th and met with Stalin for two hours at 10 p.m. His attitude was really sincere. The questions involved included the possibility of peace, the treaty, loan, Taiwan, and the publication of my selected works.

But Stalin surprised Mao by refusing to give up the territorial concessions in northern China that Moscow had won at the 1945 Yalta conference, saying the issue couldn’t even be discussed until their subsequent meeting. For the next 17 days, Mao literally cooled his heels waiting during a freezing Moscow winter inside a drafty dacha where, as he later recalled, “I got so angry that I once pounded the table.”

Finally, on January 2, 1950, Mao cabled the communist leadership in Beijing:

Our work here has achieved an important breakthrough in the past two days. Comrade Stalin has finally agreed to… sign a new Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.

With Russia giving up its territorial claims in exchange for assurances about demilitarizing the long border between the two countries, its leaders signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in February 1950. It, in turn, sparked a sudden flow of Soviet aid to China whose new constitution hailed its “indestructible friendship” with the Soviet Union.

But Stalin had already planted the seeds for the Sino-Soviet split to come, embittering Mao, who later said Russians “have never had faith in the Chinese people and Stalin was among the worst.”

At first, the China alliance proved a major Cold War asset for Moscow. After all, it now had a useful Asian surrogate capable of dragging the U.S. into a costly conflict in Korea without the Soviets suffering any casualties at all. In October 1950, Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into a Korean maelstrom that would drag on for three years and cost China 208,000 dead troops as well as 40% of its budget.

Following Stalin’s death in May 1953 and the Korean armistice two months later, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to repair relations by presiding over a massive, yet distinctly inequitable program of economic aid to China. However, he also refused to help that country build an atomic bomb. It would be a “huge waste,” he said, since China was safe under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. At the same time, he demanded the joint development of uranium mines Soviet scientists had discovered in southwest China.

Over the next four years, those initial nuclear tensions grew into an open Sino-Soviet split. In September 1959, Khrushchev visited Beijing for a disastrous seven-hour meeting with Mao. In 1962, Mao finally ended diplomatic relations entirely, blaming Moscow for failing to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. during that year’s Cuban missile crisis.

In October 1964, China’s successful test of a 22-kiloton nuclear bomb marked its arrival as a major player on the world stage. That bomb not only made it an independent world power but transformed the Sino-Soviet split from a war of words into a massive military confrontation. By 1968, the Soviet Union had 16 divisions, 1,200 jet aircraft, and 120 medium-range missiles arrayed along the Sino-Soviet border. Meanwhile, China was planning for a Soviet attack by building a nuclear-hardened “underground city” that spread for 30 square miles beneath Beijing.

Washington’s Cold War Strategy

More than any other event since World War II, the short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance changed the course of world history, transforming the Cold War from a regional power struggle over Eastern Europe into a volatile global conflict. Not only was China the world’s largest nation with 550 million people, or 20% of all humanity, but its new communist government was determined to reverse a half-century of imperialist exploitation and internal chaos that had crippled its international influence.

The rise of China and the conflict in Korea forced Washington to radically revise its strategy for fighting the Cold War. Instead of focusing on NATO and Europe to contain the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain, Washington now forged mutual defense pacts from Japan to Australia to secure the offshore Pacific littoral. For the past 70 years, that fortified island rim has been the fulcrum of Washington’s global power, allowing it to defend one continent (North America) while dominating another (Eurasia).

To tie those two axial ends of Eurasia into a strategic perimeter, Cold War Washington ringed the Eurasian continent’s southern rim with chains of steel -– including three navy fleets, hundreds of combat aircraft, and a string of mutual-defense pacts stretching from NATO in Europe to ANZUS in the South Pacific. It took a decade, but once Washington accepted that the Sino-Soviet split was the real thing, it belatedly began to cultivate an entente with Beijing that would leave the Soviet Union ever more geopolitically isolated, contributing to its ultimate implosion and the end of the Cold War in 1991.

That left the U.S. as the world’s dominant power. Nonetheless, even without a near-peer rival on the planet, Washington refused to cash in its “peace dividend.” Instead, it maintained its chains of steel ringing Eurasia — including those three naval fleets and hundreds of military bases while making multiple military forays into the Middle East (some disastrous) and even recently forming a new Quadrilateral alliance with Australia, India, and Japan in the Indian Ocean. For 15 years following Beijing’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001, a de facto economic alliance with China also allowed the U.S. sustained economic growth.

When Putin Met Xi

Last month, when Vladimir Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing at the start of the Winter Olympics, it proved a stunning reversal of the Stalin-Mao moment 70 years earlier. While Russia’s post-Soviet economy remains smaller than Canada’s and overly dependent on petroleum exports, China has become the planet’s industrial powerhouse with the world’s largest economy (as measured in purchasing power) and 10 times the population of Russia. Moscow’s heavy-metal military still relies on Soviet-style tanks and its nuclear arsenal. China, on the other hand, has built the world’s largest navy, its most secure global satellite system, and its most agile missile armada, capped by cutting-edge hypersonic missiles whose 4,000 miles-per-hour speed can defeat any defense.

This time, therefore, it was the Russian leader who came to China’s capital as the supplicant. With Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s borders and U.S. economic sanctions looming, Putin desperately needed Beijing’s diplomatic backing. After years of cultivating China by offering shared petroleum and natural-gas pipelines and joint military maneuvers in the Pacific, Putin was now cashing in his political chips.

At their February 4th meeting, Putin and Xi drew on 37 prior encounters to proclaim nothing less than an ad-hoc alliance meant to shake the world. As the foundation for their new “global governance system,” they promised to “enhance transport infrastructure connectivity to keep logistics on the Eurasian continent smooth and… make steady progress on major oil and gas cooperation projects.” These words gained weight with the announcement that Russia would spend another $118 billion on new oil and gas pipelines to China. (Four hundred billion dollars had already been invested in 2014 when Russia faced European sanctions over its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.) The result: an integrated Sino-Russian oil-and-gas infrastructure is being built from the North Sea to the South China Sea.

In a landmark 5,300-word statement, Xi and Putin proclaimed the “world is going through momentous changes,” creating a “redistribution of power” and “a growing demand for… leadership” (which Beijing and Moscow clearly intended to provide). After denouncing Washington’s ill-concealed “attempts at hegemony,” the two sides agreed to “oppose the… interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights.”

To build an alternative system for global economic growth in Eurasia, the leaders planned to merge Putin’s projected “Eurasian Economic Union” with Xi’s already ongoing trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to promote “greater interconnectedness between the Asia Pacific and Eurasian regions.” Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” an oblique reference to the tense Mao-Stalin relationship, the two leaders asserted that their entente has “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” On strategic issues, the two parties were adamantly opposed to the expansion of NATO, any move toward independence for Taiwan, and “color revolutions” such as the one that had ousted Moscow’s Ukrainian client in 2014.

Given the Ukraine invasion just three weeks later, Putin got what he so desperately needed. In exchange for feeding China’s voracious appetite for energy (on a planet already in a climate crisis of the first order), Putin got a condemnation of U.S. interference in “his” sphere. In addition, he won Beijing’s diplomatic support — however hesitant China’s leadership might actually be about events in Ukraine — once the invasion started. Although China has been Ukraine’s main trading partner since 2019, Beijing set aside those ties and its own advocacy of inviolable sovereignty to avoid calling Putin’s intervention an “invasion.”

A Planet Mackinder Would Hardly Recognize

In fact, even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China were pursuing a strategy of ratcheting up slow, relentless pressure at both ends of Eurasia, hoping the U.S. chains of steel ringing that vast continent would sooner or later snap. Think of it as a strategy of push-push-punch.

For the past 15 years, Putin has been responding to NATO in just that manner. First, through surveillance and economic leverage, Moscow has tried to keep client states in its orbit, something Putin learned from his four years as a KGB agent working with East Germany’s Stasi secret police in the late 1980s. Next, if a favored autocrat is challenged by pro-democracy demonstrators or a regional rival, a few thousand Russian special forces are sent in to stabilize the situation. Should a client state try to escape Moscow’s orbit, however, Putin promptly moves to massive military intervention and the expropriation of buffer enclaves, as he did first in Georgia and now in Ukraine. Through this strategy, he may be well on his way to reclaiming significant parts of the old Soviet sphere of influence in East Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Due south of Moscow in the ever-volatile Caucasus Mountains, Putin crushed NATO’s brief flirtation with Georgia in 2008, thanks to a massive invasion and the expropriation of the provinces of North Ossetia and Abkhazia. After decades of fighting between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia recently sent in thousands of “peace-keeping” forces to resolve the conflict in favor of the loyal, pro-Moscow regime in Azerbaijan. Further east, when democratic protesters challenged Moscow’s local ally in Kazakhstan in January, thousands of Russian troops — under the rubric of Moscow’s version of NATO — flew into the former capital, Almaty, where they helped crush the protests, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

In the Middle East where Washington backed the ill-fated Arab spring rebels who tried to topple Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, Moscow operates a massive airbase at Latakia in that country’s northwest from which it has bombed rebel cities like Aleppo to rubble while serving as a strategic counterweight to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf.

But Moscow’s main push has been in Eastern Europe. There, Putin backed Belarus’s strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, in crushing the democratic opposition after he had rigged the 2020 elections, and so making Minsk a virtual client state. Meanwhile, he’s been pressing relentlessly against Ukraine since his loyal client there was ousted in the 2014 Maidan “color revolution.” First, he seized Crimea in 2014, and then he armed separatist rebels in that country’s eastern region adjacent to Russia. Last month, after proclaiming that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia,” Putin recognized the “independence” of those two separatist enclaves, much as he had done years before in Georgia.

On February 24th, the Russian president sent nearly 200,000 troops across Ukraine’s borders to seize much of the country and its capital, Kyiv, as well as replace its feisty president with a pliable puppet. As international sanctions mounted and Europe considered providing Ukraine with jet fighters, Putin ominously put his nuclear forces on high alert to make it clear he would brook no interference with his invasion.

Meanwhile, at the eastern end of Eurasia, China has pursued a somewhat similar, if more subtle push-push strategy, with the punch yet to come. Starting in 2014, Beijing began dredging a half-dozen military bases from atolls in the South China Sea, slowly ramping up their role from fishing ports to full-fledged military bases that now challenge any passing U.S. naval patrol. Then came swarming fighter squadrons over the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea, followed, last October, by a joint Chinese-Russian fleet of 10 ships that steamed provocatively around Japan in what had previously been considered unchallenged U.S. waters.

If Xi follows Putin’s playbook, then all that push/push could indeed lead to a punch — possibly an invasion of Taiwan to reclaim lands Beijing sees as an integral part of China, much as Putin sees Ukraine as a former Russian imperial province that should never have been given away.

Should Beijing attack Taiwan, Washington might find itself hamstrung to do anything militarily except express admiration for the island’s heroic yet futile resistance. Should Washington send its aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits, they would be sunk within hours by China’s formidable DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles or its unstoppable hypersonic ones. And once Taiwan was gone, Washington’s position on the Pacific littoral could be effectively broken and a retreat to the mid-Pacific preordained.

All of this looks possible on paper. However, in the grim reality of actual invasions and military clashes, amid the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and on a planet that’s seen better days, the very nature of geopolitics is likely to be up for grabs. Yes, it’s possible that, if Washington is whipsawed between the eastern and western edges of Eurasia with periodic eruptions of armed combat from the Xi-Putin entente, its chains of steel could strain and finally snap, effectively evicting it from that strategic landmass.

As it happens, though, given a Sino-Russian alliance so heavily based on the trade in fossil fuels, even if Vladimir Putin doesn’t himself go down thanks to his potentially disastrous invasion of Ukraine, both Beijing and Moscow may find themselves whipsawed in the years to come by a troubled energy transition and climate change. The ghost of Sir Halford Mackinder might then point out to us not just that U.S. power will fade with the loss of Eurasia, but that so much other power may fade as well on an ever hotter, ever more endangered planet he couldn’t in his lifetime have truly imagined.

Historian details how China is 'digging its own grave and ours as well'

Consider us at the edge of the sort of epochal change not seen for centuries, even millennia. By the middle of this century, we will be living under such radically altered circumstances that the present decade, the 2020s, will undoubtedly seem like another era entirely, akin perhaps to the Middle Ages. And I’m not talking about the future development of flying cars, cryogenics, or even as-yet-unimaginable versions of space travel.

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

After leading the world for the past 75 years, the United States is ever so fitfully losing its grip on global hegemony. As Washington’s power begins to fade, the liberal international system it created by founding the United Nations in 1945 is facing potentially fatal challenges.

After more than 180 years of Western global dominion, leadership is beginning to move from West to East, where Beijing is likely to become the epicenter of a new world order that could indeed rupture longstanding Western traditions of law and human rights.

More crucially, however, after two centuries of propelling the world economy to unprecedented prosperity, the use of fossil fuels — especially coal and oil — will undoubtedly fade away within the next couple of decades. Meanwhile, for the first time since the last Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago, thanks to the greenhouse gases those fossil fuels are emitting into the atmosphere, the world’s climate is changing in ways that will, by the middle of this century, start to render significant parts of the planet uninhabitable for a quarter, even possibly half, of humanity.

For the first time in 800,000 years, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has blown past earlier highs of 280 parts per million to reach 410 parts. That, in turn, is unleashing climate feedback loops that, by century’s end, if not well before, will aridify the globe’s middle latitudes, partly melt the polar ice caps, and raise sea levels drastically. (Don’t even think about a future Miami or Shanghai!)

In trying to imagine how such changes will affect an evolving world order, is it possible to chart the future with something better than mere guesswork? My own field, history, generally performs poorly when trying to track the past into the future, while social sciences like economics and political science are loath to project much beyond medium-term trends (say, the next recession or election). Uniquely among the disciplines, however, environmental science has developed diverse analytical tools for predicting the effects of climate change all the way to this century’s end.

Those predictions have become so sophisticated that world leaders in finance, politics, and science are now beginning to think about how to reorganize whole societies and their economies to accommodate the projected disastrous upheavals to come. Yet surprisingly few of us have started to think about the likely impact of climate change upon global power. By combining political projections with already carefully plotted trajectories for climate change, it may, however, be possible to see something of the likely course of governance for the next half century or so.

To begin with the most immediate changes, social-science analysis has long predicted the end of U.S. global power. Using economic projections, the U.S. National Intelligence Council, for instance, stated that, by 2030, “Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power,” while “China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.” Using similar methods, the accounting firm PwC calculated that China’s economy would become 60% larger than that of the United States by 2030.

If climate science proves accurate, however, the hegemony Beijing could achieve by perhaps 2030 will last, at best, only a couple of decades or less before unchecked global warming ensures that the very concept of world dominance, as we’ve known it historically since the sixteenth century, may be relegated to a past age like so much else in our world.

Considering that likelihood as we peer dimly into the decades between 2030 and 2050 and beyond, the international community will surely have good reason to forge a new kind of world order — one made for a planet truly in danger and unlike any that has come before.

The Rise of Chinese Global Hegemony

China’s rise to world power could be considered not just the result of its own initiative but also of American inattention. While Washington was mired in endless wars in the Greater Middle East in the decade following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Beijing began using a trillion dollars of its swelling dollar reserves to build a tricontinental economic infrastructure it called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that would shake the foundations of Washington’s world order. Not only has this scheme already gone a long way toward incorporating much of Africa and Asia into Beijing’s version of the world economy, but it has simultaneously lifted many millions out of poverty.

During the early years of the Cold War, Washington funded the reconstruction of a ravaged Europe and the development of 100 new nations emerging from colonial rule. But as the Cold War ended in 1991, more than a third of humanity was still living in extreme poverty, abandoned by Washington’s then-reigning neo-liberal ideology that consigned social change to the whims of the free market. By 2018, nearly half the world’s population, or about 3.4 billion people, were simply struggling to survive on the equivalent of five dollars a day, creating a vast global constituency for Beijing’s economic leadership.

For China, social change began at home. Starting in the 1980s, the Communist Party presided over the transformation of an impoverished agricultural society into an urban industrial powerhouse. Propelled by the greatest mass migration in history, as millions moved from country to city, its economy grew nearly 10% annually for 40 years and lifted 800 million people out of poverty — the fastest sustained rate ever recorded by any country. Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2016 alone, its industrial output increased from $1.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion, leaving the U.S. in the dust at $2.2 trillion and making China the workshop of the world.

By the time Washington awoke to China’s challenge and tried to respond with what President Barack Obama called a “strategic pivot” to Asia, it was too late. With foreign reserves already at $4 trillion in 2014, Beijing launched its Belt and Road Initiative, while establishing an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with 56 member nations and an impressive $100 billion in capital. When a Belt and Road Forum of 29 world leaders convened in Beijing in May 2017, President Xi Jinping hailed the initiative as the “project of the century,” aimed both at promoting growth and improving “people’s well-being” through “poverty alleviation.” Indeed, two years later a World Bank study found that BRI transportation projects had already increased the gross domestic product in 55 recipient nations by a solid 3.4%.

Amid this flurry of flying dirt and flowing concrete, Beijing seems to have an underlying design for transcending the vast distances that have historically separated Asia from Europe. Its goal: to forge a unitary market that will soon cover the vast Eurasian land mass. This scheme will consolidate China’s control over a continent that is home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. In the end, it could also break the U.S. geopolitical grip over a region that has long been the core of, and key to, its global power. The foundation for such an ambitious transnational scheme is a monumental construction effort that, in just two decades, has already covered China and much of Central Asia with a massive triad of energy pipelines, high-speed rail lines, and highways.

To break that down, start with this: Beijing is building a transcontinental network of natural gas and oil pipelines that will, in alliance with Russia, extend for 6,000 miles from the North Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea.

For the second arm in that triad, Beijing has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, with more than 15,000 miles already operational in 2018 and plans for a network of nearly 24,000 miles by 2025. All this, in turn, is just a partial step toward what’s expected to be a full-scale transcontinental rail system that started with the “Eurasian Land Bridge” track running from China through Kazakhstan to Europe. In addition to its transcontinental trunk lines, Beijing plans branch-lines heading due south toward Singapore, southwest through Pakistan, and then from Pakistan through Iran to Turkey.

To complete its transport triad, China has also constructed an impressive set of highways, representing (like those pipelines) a problematic continuation of Washington’s current petrol-powered world order. In 1990, that country lacked a single expressway. By 2017, it had built 87,000 miles of highways, nearly double the size of the U.S. interstate system. Even that breathtaking number can’t begin to capture the extraordinary engineering feats necessary — the tunneling through steep mountains, the spanning of wide rivers, the crossing of deep gorges on towering pillars, and the spinning of concrete webs around massive cities.

Simultaneously, China was also becoming the world’s largest auto manufacturer as the number of vehicles on its roads soared to 340 million in 2019, exceeding America’s 276 million. However, all of this impressive news is depressing news as well. After all, by clinging to coal production on a major scale, while reaching for a bigger slice of the world’s oil imports for its transportation triad, China’s greenhouse-gas emissions doubled from just 14% of the world’s total in 2000 to 30% in 2019, far surpassing that of the United States, previously the planet’s leading emitter. With only 150 vehicles per thousand people, compared to 850 in America, its auto industry still has ample growth potential — good news for its economy, but terrible news for the global climate (even if China remains in the forefront of the development and use of electric cars).

To power such headlong development, China has, in fact, raised its domestic coal production more than a thousand-fold, from just 32 million metric tons in 1949 to a mind-boggling record of 4.1 billion tons by 2021. Even if you take into account those massive natural-gas pipelines it is building, its enormous hydropower dams, and its world leadership in wind power, as of 2020 China still depended on coal for a startling 57% of its total energy use, even as its share of total global coal-fired power climbed relentlessly to a record 53%. In other words, nothing, it seems, can break that country’s leadership of its insatiable hunger for the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

On the global stage, Beijing has been similarly obsessed with economic growth above all else. Despite its promises to curb greenhouse-gas emissions at recent U.N. climate conferences, China is still promoting coal-fired power at home and abroad. In 2020, the Institute of International Finance reported that 85% of all projects under Beijing’s BRI entailed high greenhouse-gas emissions, particularly the 63 coal-fired electrical plants the project was financing worldwide.

When the 2019 U.N. climate conference opened, China itself was actively constructing new coal-fueled electrical plants with a combined capacity of 121 gigawatts — substantially more than the 105 gigawatts being built by the rest of the world combined. By 2019, China was the largest single source of pollution on the planet, accounting for nearly one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was warning that such emissions were “putting billions of people at immediate risk.” With an impassioned urgency, he demanded “a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet” by banning all new coal-fired power plants and phasing them out of developed nations by 2030.

Together, the planet’s two great imperial powers, China and the United States, accounted for 44% of total CO2 emissions in 2019 and so far both have made painfully slow progress toward renewable energy. In a joint declaration at the November 2021 Glasgow climate conference, the U.S. agreed “to reach 100% carbon-pollution-free electricity by 2035,” while China promised to “phase down” (but note, not “phase out”) coal starting with its “15th Five-Year Plan.”

The U.S. commitment soon died a quiet death in Congress, where President Biden’s own party killed his green-energy initiative. Amid all the applause at Glasgow, nobody paid much attention to the fact that China’s next five-year plan doesn’t even start until 2026, just as President Xi Jinping’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 is a perfect formula for not averting the climate disaster that awaits us all.

In its hell-bent drive for development, in other words, China is digging its own grave (and ours as well).

Climate Catastrophe Circa 2050

Even if China were to become the preeminent world power around 2030, the accelerating pace of climate change will likely curtail its hegemony within decades. As global warming batters the country by mid-century, Beijing will be forced to retreat from its projection of global power to address urgent domestic concerns.

In 2017, scientists at the nonprofit group Climate Central calculated, for instance, that rising seas and storm surges could, by 2060 or 2070, flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide, with Shanghai deemed “the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding.” In that sprawling metropolis, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced 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 2019 report on rising sea levels in Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be submerged by 2050 and Shanghai was, once again, found to be facing serious risk. There, rising waters “threaten to consume the heart” of the metropolis and its surrounding cities, crippling one of China’s main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp since the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came in the next three decades.

Simultaneously, soaring temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain between Beijing and Shanghai, one of that country’s prime agricultural regions currently inhabited by 400 million people, nearly a third of that country’s population. It could, in fact, potentially become one of the most lethal places on the planet.

“This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future,” said Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a climate specialist at MIT who published his findings in the journal Nature Communications. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of “extreme danger” and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° Wet Bulb Temperature (where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the sweat that cools the human body). After just six hours under such conditions, a healthy person at rest will die.

Rather than sudden and catastrophic, the impact of climate change in North China is likely to be incremental and cumulative, escalating relentlessly with each passing decade. If the “Chinese century” does indeed start around 2030, it’s unlikely to last long once its main financial center at Shanghai is flooded out and its agricultural heartland is baking in insufferable heat.

A Democratic World Order

After 2050, the international community will face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the two foundational principles of the current world 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 200 million to 1.2 billion climate-change refugees expected to be created by 2050, both within their own borders and beyond. Faced with such extreme disorder, it is just possible that the nations of this planet might agree to cede some small portion of their sovereignty to a global government set up to cope with the climate crisis.

To meet the extraordinary mid-century challenges to come, a supranational body like the U.N. would need sovereign authority over at least three significant priorities — emission controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. First, a reformed U.N. would need the power to compel nations to end their emissions if the transition to renewable energy is still not complete by, at the latest, 2050. Second, an empowered U.N. high commissioner for refugees would have to be authorized to supersede national sovereignty by requiring temperate northern countries to deal with the tidal flows of humanity from the tropical and subtropical regions most impacted and made least inhabitable by climate change. Finally, the voluntary transfer of funds like the $100 billion promised poor nations at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference would have to become mandatory to keep afflicted communities, and especially the world’s poor, relatively safe.

In the crisis to come, such initiatives would by their very nature change the idea of what constitutes a world order from the amorphous imperial ethos of the past five centuries to a new form of global governance. To exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons, the U.N. would have to enact some long overdue reforms, notably by creating an elective Security Council without either permanent members or the present great-power prerogative of unilaterally vetoing measures. Instead of superpower strength serving as the ultimate guarantor for U.N. decisions, a democratized Security Council could reach climate decisions by majority vote and enforce them through the moral authority, as well as the self-interest, of a more representative international body.

If a U.N. of this sort were indeed in existence by at least 2050, such a framework of democratic world governance could well be complemented by a globally decentralized system of energy. For five centuries now, energy and imperial hegemony have been deeply intertwined. In the transition to alternative energy, however, households will, sooner or later, be able to control their own solar power everywhere the sun shines, while communities will be able to supplement that variable source with a mix of wind turbines, biomass, hydro, and mini-reactors.

Just as the demands of petroleum production shaped the steep hierarchy of Washington’s world order, so decentralized access to energy could foster a more inclusive global governance. After five centuries of Iberian, British, American, and Chinese hegemony, it’s at least possible that humanity, even under the increasingly stressful conditions of climate change, could finally experience a more democratic world order.

The question, of course, is: How do we get from here to there? As in ages past, civil society will be critical to such changes. For the past five centuries, social reformers have struggled against powerful empires to advance the principle of human rights. In the sixteenth century, Dominican friars, then the embodiment of civil society, pressed the Spanish empire to recognize the humanity of Amerindians and end their enslavement. Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century activists lobbied diplomats drafting the U.N. charter to change it from a closed imperial club into the far more open organization we have today.

Just as reformers moderated the harshness of Spanish, British, and U.S. imperial hegemony, so, on a climate-pressured planet of an almost unimaginable sort, civil society will certainly play an essential role in finally putting in place the sort of limitations on national sovereignty (and imperial ambitions) that the U.N. will need to cope with our endangered world. Perhaps the key force in this change will be a growing environmental movement that, in the future, will expand its agenda from capping and radically reducing emissions to pressuring powers, including an increasingly devastated China, to reform the very structure of world governance.

A planet ever more battered by climate change, one in which neither an American nor a Chinese “century” will have any meaning, will certainly need a newly empowered world order that can supersede national sovereignty to protect the most fundamental and transcendent of all human rights: survival. The environmental changes in the offing are so profound that anything less than a new form of democratic global governance will mean not just incessant conflicts but, in all likelihood, disaster of an almost-unimaginable kind. And no surprise there, since we’ll be dealing with a planet all too literally on the brink.

Eurasia's ring of fire presages the epochal decline of American global power

Throughout 2021, Americans were absorbed in arguments over mask mandates, school closings, and the meaning of the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Meanwhile, geopolitical hot spots were erupting across Eurasia, forming a veritable ring of fire around that vast landmass.

Let’s circle that continent to visit just a few of those flashpoints, each one suffused with significance for the future of U.S. global power.

On the border with Ukraine, 100,000 Russian troops were massing with tanks and rocket launchers, ready for a possible invasion. Meanwhile, Beijing signed a $400 billion agreement with Tehran to swap infrastructure-building for Iranian oil. Such an exchange might help make that country the future rail hub of Central Asia, while projecting China’s military power into the Persian Gulf. Just across the Iranian border in Afghanistan, Taliban guerrillas swept into Kabul ending a 20-year American occupation in a frantic flurry of shuttle flights for more than 100,000 defeated Afghan allies.

Farther east, high in the Himalayas, Indian Army engineers were digging tunnels and positioning artillery to fend off future clashes with China. In the Bay of Bengal, a dozen ships from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, led by the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, were conducting live gunnery drills, practice for a possible future war with China.

Meanwhile, a succession of American naval vessels continually passed through the South China Sea, skirting Chinese island bases there and announcing that no protests from Beijing “will deter us.” Just to the north, U.S. destroyers, denounced by China, regularly sailed through the Strait of Taiwan; while some 80 Chinese jet fighters swarmed into that disputed island’s air security zone, a development Washington condemned as “provocative military activity.”

Around the coast of Japan, a flotilla of 10 Chinese and Russian warships steamed aggressively across waters once virtually owned by the U.S. Seventh Fleet. And in frigid Arctic oceans way to the north, thanks to the radical warming of the planet and receding sea ice, an expanding fleet of Chinese icebreakers maneuvered with their Russian counterparts to open a “polar silk road,” thereby possibly taking possession of the roof of the world.

While you could have read about almost all of this in the American media, sometimes in great detail, nobody here has tried to connect such transcontinental dots to uncover their deeper significance. Our nation’s leaders have visibly not done much better and there’s a reason for this. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe, both liberal and conservative political elites in the New York–Washington corridor of power have been on top of the world for so long that they can’t remember how they got there.

During the late 1940s, following a catastrophic world war that left some 70 million dead, Washington built a potent apparatus for global power, thanks significantly to its encirclement of Eurasia via both military bases and global trade. The U.S. also formed a new system of global governance, exemplified by the United Nations, that would not only assure its hegemony but also — or so the hope was then — foster an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.

Three generations later, however, as populism, nationalism, and anti-globalism roiled public discourse, surprisingly few in Washington bothered to defend their world order in a meaningful way. And fewer of them still had any real grasp of the geopolitics — that slippery mix of armaments, occupied lands, subordinated rulers, and logistics — that has been every imperial leader’s essential toolkit for the effective exercise of global power.

So, let’s do what our country’s foreign policy experts, in and out of government, haven’t and examine the latest developments in Eurasia through the prism of geopolitics and history. Do that and you’ll grasp just how they, and the deeper forces they represent, are harbingers of an epochal decline in American global power.

Eurasia as the Epicenter of Power on Planet Earth

In the 500 years since European exploration first brought the continents into continuous contact, the rise of every global hegemon has required one thing above all: dominance over Eurasia. Similarly, their decline has invariably been accompanied by a loss of control over that vast landmass. During the sixteenth century, the Iberian powers, Portugal and Spain, waged a joint struggle to control Eurasia’s maritime commerce by battling the powerful Ottoman empire, whose leader was then the caliph of Islam. In 1509, off the coast of northeast India, skilled Portuguese gunners destroyed a Muslim fleet with lethal broadsides, establishing that country’s century-long dominance over the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the Spanish used the silver they had extracted from their new colonies in the Americas for a costly campaign to check Muslim expansion in the Mediterranean Sea. Its culmination: the destruction in 1571 of an Ottoman fleet of 278 ships at the epic Battle of Lepanto.

Next in line, Great Britain’s dominion over the oceans began with an historic naval triumph over a combined French-Spanish fleet off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar in 1805 and only ended when, in 1942, a British garrison of 80,000 men surrendered their seemingly impregnable naval bastion at Singapore to the Japanese — a defeat Winston Churchill called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

Like all past imperial hegemons, U.S. global power has similarly rested on geopolitical dominance over Eurasia, now home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. After the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan failed to conquer that vast land mass, the Allied victory in World War II allowed Washington, as historian John Darwin put it, to build its “colossal imperium… on an unprecedented scale,” becoming the first power in history to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia.”

In the early 1950s, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that threatened to dominate the continent. Washington, however, countered with a deft geopolitical gambit that, for the next 40 years, succeeded in “containing” those two powers behind an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across the vast Eurasian land mass.

As a critical first step, the U.S. formed the NATO alliance in 1949, establishing major military installations in Germany and naval bases in Italy to ensure control of the western side of Eurasia. After its defeat of Japan, as the new overlord of the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, Washington dictated the terms of four key mutual-defense pacts in the region with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia and so acquired a vast range of military bases along the Pacific littoral that would secure the eastern end of Eurasia. To tie the two axial ends of that vast land mass into a strategic perimeter, Washington ringed the continent’s southern rim with successive chains of steel, including three navy fleets, hundreds of combat aircraft, and most recently, a string of 60 drone bases stretching from Sicily to the Pacific island of Guam.

With the communist bloc bottled up behind the Iron Curtain, Washington then sat back and waited for its Cold War enemies to self-destruct — which they did. First, the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s shattered their hold on the Eurasian heartland. Then, the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s ravaged the Red Army and precipitated the break-up of the Soviet Union.

After those oh-so-strategic initial steps to capture the axial ends of Eurasia, however, Washington itself essentially stumbled through much of the rest of the Cold War with blunders like the Bay of Pigs catastrophe in Cuba and the disastrous Vietnam War in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, by the Cold War’s end in 1991, the U.S. military had become a global behemoth with 800 overseas bases, an air force of 1,763 jet fighters, more than a thousand ballistic missiles, and a navy of nearly 600 ships, including 15 nuclear carrier battle groups — all linked by the world’s only global system of communications satellites. For the next 20 years, Washington would enjoy what Trump-era Defense Secretary James Mattis called “uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain. We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, operate how we wanted.”

The Three Pillars of U.S. Global Power

In the late 1990s, at the absolute apex of U.S. global hegemony, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, far more astute as an armchair analyst than an actual practitioner of geopolitics, issued a stern warning about the three pillars of power necessary to preserve Washington’s global control. First, the U.S. must avoid the loss of its strategic European “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia. Next, it must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” across the continent’s massive “middle space” of Central Asia. And finally, it must prevent “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along the Pacific littoral.

Drunk on the heady elixir of limitless global power following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington’s foreign-policy elites made increasingly dubious decisions that led to a rapid decline in their country’s dominance. In an act of supreme imperial hubris, born of the belief that they were triumphantly at the all-American “end of history,” Republican neoconservatives in President George W. Bush’s administration invaded and occupied first Afghanistan and then Iraq, convinced that they could remake the entire Greater Middle East, the cradle of Islamic civilization, in America’s secular, free-market image (with oil as their repayment). After an expenditure of nearly $2 trillion on operations in Iraq alone and nearly 4,598 American military deaths, all Washington left behind was the rubble of ruined cities, more than 200,000 Iraqi dead, and a government in Baghdad beholden to Iran. The official U.S. Army history of that war concluded that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”

Meanwhile, China spent those same decades building industries that would make it the workshop of the world. In a major strategic miscalculation, Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, bizarrely confident that a compliant China, home to nearly 20% of humanity and historically the world’s most powerful nation, would somehow join the global economy without changing the balance of power. “Across the ideological spectrum,” as two former Obama administration officials later wrote, “we in the U.S. foreign policy community shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.” A bit more bluntly, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster concluded 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.”

During the 15 years after it joined the WTO, Beijing’s exports to the U.S. grew nearly fivefold to $462 billion while, by 2014, its foreign currency reserves surged from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion, a vast treasure it used to launch its trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), aimed at uniting Eurasia economically through newly built infrastructure. In the process, Beijing began a systematic demolition of Brzezinski’s three pillars of U.S. geopolitical power.

The First Pillar — Europe

Beijing has scored its most surprising success so far in Europe, long a key bastion of American global power. As part of a chain of 40 commercial ports it’s been building or rebuilding around Eurasia and Africa, Beijing has purchased major port facilities in Europe, including outright ownership of the Greek port of Piraeus and significant shares in those of Zeebrugge in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Hamburg, Germany.

After a state visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019, Italy became the first G-7 member to officially join the BRI agreement, subsequently signing over a portion of its ports at Genoa and Trieste. Despite Washington’s strenuous objections, in 2020, the European Union and China also concluded a draft financial services agreement that, when finalized in 2023, will more fully integrate their banking systems.

While China is building ports, rails, roads, and powerplants across the continent, its Russian ally continues to dominate Europe’s energy market and is now just months away from opening its controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea, guaranteed to increase Moscow’s economic influence. As the massive pipeline project moved to completion last December, Russian President Putin intensified pressures on NATO with a roster of “extravagant” demands, including a formal guarantee that Ukraine not be admitted to the alliance, removal of all the military infrastructure installed in Eastern Europe since 1997, and a prohibition against future military activity in Central Asia.

In a power play not seen since Stalin and Mao joined forces in the 1950s, the alliance between Putin’s raw military force and Xi’s relentless economic pressure may indeed slowly be pulling Europe away from America. Complicating the U.S. position, Britain’s exit from the European Union cost Washington its most forceful advocate inside Brussels’ labyrinthine corridors of power.

And as Brussels and Washington grow apart, Beijing and Moscow only come closer. Through joint energy ventures, military maneuvers, and periodic summits, Putin and Xi are reprising the Stalin-Mao alliance, a strategic partnership at the heart of Eurasia that could, in the end, break Washington’s steel chains that have long stretched from Eastern Europe to the Pacific.

The Second Pillar — Central Asia

Under its bold BRI scheme to fuse Europe and Asia into a unitary Eurasian economic bloc, Beijing has crisscrossed Central Asia with a steel-ribbed cat’s cradle of railroads and oil pipelines, effectively toppling Brzezinski’s second pillar of geopolitical power — that the U.S. must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” in the continent’s vast “middle space.” When President Xi first announced the Belt and Road Initiative at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University in September 2013, he spoke expansively about “connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea,” while building “the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.”

In the decade since, Beijing has put in place a bold design for transcending the vast distances that historically separated Asia and Europe. Starting in 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation collaborated with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch a Central Asia-China gas pipeline that will eventually extend more than 4,000 miles. By 2025, in fact, there should be an integrated inland energy network, including Russia’s extensive grid of gas pipelines, reaching 6,000 miles from the Baltic to the Pacific.

The only real barrier to China’s bid to capture Eurasia’s vast “middle space” was the now-ended U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. To join Central Asia’s gas fields to the energy-hungry markets of South Asia, the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline was announced in 2018, but progress though the critical Afghan sector was slowed by the war there. In the months before it captured Kabul, however, Taliban diplomats turned up in Turkmenistan and China to offer assurances about the project’s future. Since then, the scheme has been revived, opening the way for Chinese investment that could complete its capture of Central Asia.

The Third Pillar — the Pacific Littoral

The most volatile flashpoint In Beijing’s grand strategy for breaking Washington’s geopolitical grip over Eurasia lies in the contested waters between China’s coast and the Pacific littoral, which the Chinese call “the first island chain.” By building a half-dozen island bases of its own in the South China Sea since 2014, swarming Taiwan and the East China Sea with repeated fighter plane forays, and staging joint maneuvers with Russia’s navy, Beijing has been conducting a relentless campaign to begin what Brzezinski called “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along that Pacific littoral.

As China’s economy grows larger and its naval forces do, too, the end of Washington’s decades-long dominion over that vast ocean expanse may be just over the horizon. For one thing, China may at some point achieve supremacy in certain critical military technologies, including super-secure “quantum entanglement” satellite communications and hypersonic missiles. Last October, the chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, called China’s recent launch of a hypersonic missile “very close” to “a Sputnik moment.” While U.S. tests of such weapons, which can fly faster than 4,000 m.p.h., have repeatedly failed, China successfully orbited a prototype whose speed and stealth trajectory suddenly make U.S. aircraft carriers significantly more difficult to defend.

But China’s clear advantage in any struggle over that first Pacific island chain is simply distance. A battle fleet of two U.S. supercarriers operating 5,000 miles from Pearl Harbor could deploy, at best, 150 jet fighters. In any conflict within 200 miles of China’s coast, Beijing could use up to 2,200 combat aircraft as well as DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles whose 900-mile range makes them, according to U.S. Navy sources, “a severe threat to the operations of U.S. and allied navies in the western Pacific.”

The tyranny of distance, in other words, means that the U.S. loss of that first island chain, along with its axial anchor on Eurasia’s Pacific littoral, should only be a matter of time.

In the years to come, as more such incidents erupt around Eurasia’s ring of fire, readers can insert them into their own geopolitical model — a useful, even essential, means for understanding a fast-changing world. And as you do that, just remember that history has never ended, while the U.S. position in it is being remade before our eyes.

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.

A climate crisis at the top of the world

When midnight strikes on New Year’s Day of 2050, there will be little cause for celebration. There will, of course, be the usual toasts with fine wines in the climate-controlled compounds of the wealthy few. But for most of humanity, it’ll just be another day of adversity bordering on misery — a desperate struggle to find food, water, shelter, and safety.

In the previous decades, storm surges will have swept away coastal barriers erected at enormous cost and rising seas will have flooded the downtowns of major cities that once housed more than 100 million people. Relentless waves will pound shorelines around the world, putting villages, towns, and cities at risk.

As several hundred million climate-change refugees in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia fill leaky boats or trudge overland in a desperate search for food and shelter, affluent nations worldwide will be trying to shut their borders even tighter, pushing crowds back with tear gas and gunfire. Yet those reluctant host countries, including the United States, won’t faintly be immune from the pain. Every summer, in fact, ever more powerful hurricanes, propelled by climate change, will pummel the East and Gulf Coasts of this country, possibly even forcing the federal government to abandon Miami and New Orleans to the rising tides. Meanwhile, wildfires, already growing in size in 2021, will devastate vast stretches of the West, destroying thousands upon thousands of homes every summer and fall in an ever-expanding fire season.

And keep in mind that I can write all this now because such future widespread suffering won’t be caused by some unforeseen disaster to come but by an all-too-obvious, painfully predictable imbalance in the basic elements that sustain human life — air, earth, fire, and water. As average world temperatures rise by as much as 2.3° Celsius (4.2° Farenheit) by mid-century, climate change will degrade the quality of life in every country on Earth.

Climate Change in the Twenty-First Century

This dismal vision of life circa 2050 comes not from some flight of literary fantasy, but from published environmental science. Indeed, we can all see the troubling signs of global warming around us right now — worsening wildfires, ever more severe ocean storms, and increased coastal flooding.

While the world is focused on the fiery spectacle of wildfires destroying swaths of Australia, Brazil,California, and Canada, a far more serious threat is developing, only half-attended to, in the planet’s remote polar regions. Not only are the icecaps melting with frightening speed, already raising sea levels worldwide, but the vast Arctic permafrost is fast receding, releasing enormous stores of lethal greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

At that frozen frontier far beyond our ken or consciousness, ecological changes, brewing largely invisibly deep beneath the Arctic tundra, will accelerate global warming in ways sure to inflict untold future misery on all of us. More than any other place or problem, the thawing of the Arctic’s frozen earth, which covers vast parts of the roof of the world, will shape humanity’s fate for the rest of this century — destroying cities, devastating nations, and rupturing the current global order.

If, as I’ve suggested in my new book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, Washington’s world system is likely to fade by 2030, thanks to a mix of domestic decline and international rivalry, Beijing’s hypernationalist hegemony will, at best, have just a couple of decades of dominance before it, too, suffers the calamitous consequences of unchecked global warming. By 2050, as the seas submerge some of its major cities and heat begins to ravage its agricultural heartland, China will have no choice but to abandon whatever sort of global system it might have constructed. And so, as we peer dimly into the potentially catastrophic decades beyond 2050, the international community will have good reason to forge a new kind of world order unlike any that has come before.

The Impact of Global Warming at Midcentury

In assessing the likely course of climate change by 2050, one question is paramount: How quickly will we feel its impact?

For decades, scientists thought that climate change would arrive at what science writer Eugene Linden called a “stately pace.” In 1975, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences still felt that it would “take centuries for the climate to change in a meaningful way.” As late as 1990, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the Arctic permafrost, which stores both staggering amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, an even more dangerous greenhouse gas, was not yet melting and that the Antarctic ice sheets remained stable. In 1993, however, scientists began studying ice cores extracted from Greenland’s ice cap and found that there had been 25 “rapid climate change events” in the last glacial period thousands of years ago, showing that the “climate could change massively within a decade or two.”

Driven by a growing scientific consensus about the dangers facing humanity, representatives of 196 states met in 2015 in Paris, where they agreed to commit themselves to a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. This, they argued, would be sufficient to avoid the disastrous impacts sure to come at 2.0°C degrees or higher.

However, the bright hopes of that Paris conference faded quickly. Within three years, the scientific community realized that the cascading effects of global warming reaching 1.5°C above preindustrial levels would be evident not in the distant future of 2100, but perhaps by 2040, impacting most adults alive today.

The medium-term effects of climate change will only be amplified by the uneven way the planet is warming, with a far heavier impact in the Arctic. According to a Washington Postanalysis, by 2018 the world already had “hot spots” that had recorded an average rise of 2.0°C above the preindustrial norm. As the sun strikes tropical latitudes, huge columns of warm air rise and then are pushed toward the poles by greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere, until they drop down to earth at higher latitudes, creating spots with faster-rising temperatures in the Middle East, Western Europe, and, above all, the Arctic.

In a 2018 IPCC “doomsday report,” its scientists warned that even at just 1.5°C, temperature increases would be unevenly distributed globally and could possibly reach a devastating 4.5°C in the Arctic’s high altitudes, with profound consequences for the entire planet.

Climate-Change Cataclysm

Recent scientific research has found that, by 2050, the key drivers of major climate change will be feedback loops at both ends of the temperature spectrum. At the hotter end, in Africa, Australia, and the Amazon, warmer temperatures will spark ever more devastating forest fires, reducing tree cover, and releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. This, in turn (as is already happening), will fuel yet more fires and so create a monstrous self-reinforcing feedback loop that could decimate the great tropical rainforests of this planet.

The even more serious and uncontrollable driver, however, will be in the planet’s polar regions. There, an Arctic feedback loop is already gaining a self-sustaining momentum that could soon move beyond humanity’s capacity to control it. By midcentury (or before), as ice sheets continue to melt disastrously in Greenland and Antarctica, rising oceans will make extreme sea-level events, like once-in-a-century storm surges and flooding, annual occurrences in many areas. If global warming grows beyond the maximum 2°C target set by the Paris Agreement, depending on what happens to Antarctica’s ice sheets, ocean levels could increase by a staggering 43 inches as this century ends.

In fact, a “worst-case scenario” by the National Academies of Sciences projects a sea-level rise of as much as 20 inches by 2050 and 78 inches in 2100, with a “catastrophic” loss of 690,000 square miles of land, an expanse four times the size of California, displacing about 2.5% of the world’s population and inundating major cities like New York. Adding to such concerns, a recent study in Naturepredicted that, by 2060, rain rather than snow could dominate parts of the Arctic, further accelerating ice loss and raising sea levels significantly. Moving that doomsday ever closer, recent satellite imagery reveals that the ice shelf holding back Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier could “shatter within three to five years,” quickly breaking that Florida-sized frozen mass into hundreds of icebergs and eventually resulting “in several feet of sea level rise” on its own.

Think of it this way: in the Arctic, ice is drama, but permafrost is death. The spectacle of melting polar ice sheets cascading into ocean waters is dramatic indeed. True mass death, however, lies in the murky, mysterious permafrost. That sloppy stew of decayed matter and frozen water from ice ages past covers 730,000 square miles of the Northern Hemisphere, can reach 2,300 feet below ground, and holds enough potentially releasable carbon and methane to melt the poles and inundate densely populated coastal plains worldwide. In turn, such emissions would only raise Arctic temperatures further, melt more permafrost (and ice), and so on, year after year after year. We’re talking, in other words, about a potentially devastating feedback loop that could increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere beyond the planet’s capacity to compensate.

According to a 2019 report in Nature, the vast zone of frozen earth that covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere is a sprawling storehouse for about 1.6 trillion metric tons of carbon — twice the amount already in the atmosphere. Current models “assume that permafrost thaws gradually from the surface downwards,” slowly releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But frozen soil also “physically holds the landscape together” and so its thawing can rip the surface open erratically, exposing ever-larger areas to the sun.

Around the Arctic Circle, there is already dramatic physical evidence of rapid change. Amid the vast permafrost that covers nearly two-thirds of Russia, one small Siberian town had temperatures that reached a historic 100 degrees Farenheit in June 2020, the highest ever recorded above the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, several peninsulas on the Arctic Sea have experienced methane eruptions that have produced craters up to 100 feet deep. Since rapid thawing releases more methane than gradual melting does and methane has 25 times more heating power than CO2, the “impacts of thawing permafrost on Earth’s climate,” suggests that 2019 report in Nature, “could be twice that expected from current models.”

To add a dangerous wild card to such an already staggering panorama of potential destruction, about 700,000 square miles of Siberia also contain a form of methane-rich permafrost called yedoma, which forms a layer of ice 30 to 260 feet deep. As rising temperatures melt that icy permafrost, expanding lakes (which now cover 30% of Siberia) will serve as even greater conduits for the release of such methane, which will bubble up from their melting bottoms to escape into the atmosphere.

New World Order?

Given the clear failure of the current world system to cope with climate change, the international community will, by mid-century, need to find new forms of collaboration to contain the damage. After all, the countries at the recent U.N. climate summit at Glasgow couldn’t even agree to “phase out” coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Instead, in their final “outcome document,” they opted for the phrase “phase down” — capitulating to China, which has no plans to even start reducing its coal combustion until 2025, and India, which recently postponed its goal of achieving net-carbon neutrality until an almost unimaginably distant 2070. Since those two countries account for 37% of all greenhouse gases now being released into the atmosphere, their procrastination courts climate disaster for humanity.

Who knows what new forms of global governance and cooperation will come into being in the years ahead, but simply to focus on an old one, here’s a possibility: to exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons, perhaps a genuinely reinforced United Nations could reform itself in major ways, including making the Security Council an elective body with no permanent members and ending the great-power prerogative of unilateral vetoes. Such a reformed and potentially more powerful organization could then agree to cede sovereignty over a few narrow yet critical areas of governance to protect the most fundamental of all human rights: survival.

Just as the Security Council can (at least theoretically) now punish a nation that crosses international borders with armed force, so a future U.N. could sanction in potentially meaningful ways a state that continued to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or refused to receive climate-change refugees. To save that human tide, estimated at between 200 million and 1.2 billion people by mid-century, some U.N. high commissioner would need the authority to enforce the mandatory resettlement of at least some of them. Moreover, the current voluntary transfer of climate reconstruction funds from the prosperous temperate zone to the poor tropics would need to become mandatory as well.

No one can predict with any certainty whether reforms like these and the power to change national behavior that would come with them will arrive in time to cap emissions and slow climate change, or too late (if at all) to do anything but manage a series of increasingly uncontrollable feedback loops. Yet without such change, the current world order will almost certainly collapse into catastrophic global disorder with dire consequences for all of us.

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.

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 TheBirth 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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How the U.S. Uses Surveillance and Scandal to Advance Its Global Control

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