Alfred McCoy

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).

A historian breaks down the 4 different scenarios that could lead to America's collapse by 2025

A soft landing for America 40 years from now? Don’t bet on it. The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines. If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.

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Here's How China Is Working to Upend the Current Global Order - With Trump's Unwitting Help

As the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency and sixth of Xi Jinping’s draws to a close, the world seems to be witnessing one of those epochal clashes that can change the contours of global power. Just as conflicts between American President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister Lloyd George produced a failed peace after World War I, competition between Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and American President Harry Truman sparked the Cold War, and the rivalry between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, so the empowered presidents of the United States and China are now pursuing bold, intensely personal visions of new global orders that could potentially reshape the trajectory of the twenty-first century -- or bring it all down.

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American Global Power Is Fading – And Here's How That Could Change the World

Month by month, tweet by tweet, the events of the past two years have made it clearer than ever that Washington’s once-formidable global might is indeed fading. As the American empire unravels with previously unimagined speed, there are many across this country’s political spectrum who will not mourn its passing. Both peace activists and military veterans have grown tired of the country’s endless wars. Trade unionists and business owners have come to rue the job losses that accompanied Washington’s free-trade policies. Anti-globalization protesters and pro-Trump populists alike cheered the president’s cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The idea of focusing on America and rebuilding the country’s tattered infrastructure has a growing bipartisan appeal.

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Donald Trump Tweets While America's International Reputation Burns

As 2017 ended with billionaires toasting their tax cuts and energy executives cheering their unfettered access to federal lands as well as coastal waters, there was one sector of the American elite that did not share in the champagne celebration: Washington’s corps of foreign policy experts. Across the political spectrum, many of them felt a deep foreboding for the country’s global future under the leadership of President Donald Trump.

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Why We're on Track to War With China by 2030

For the past 50 years, American leaders have been supremely confident that they could suffer military setbacks in places like Cuba or Vietnam without having their system of global hegemony, backed by the world’s wealthiest economy and finest military, affected. The country was, after all, the planet’s “indispensible nation,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed in 1998 (and other presidents and politicians have insisted ever since). The U.S. enjoyed a greater “disparity of power” over its would-be rivals than any empire ever, Yale historian Paul Kennedy announced in 2002. Certainly, it would remain “the sole superpower for decades to come,” Foreign Affairsmagazine assured us just last year. During the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump promised his supporters that “we’re gonna win with military... we are gonna win so much you may even get tired of winning.” In August, while announcing his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, Trump reassured the nation: “In every generation, we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed.” In this fast-changing world, only one thing was certain: when it really counted, the United States could never lose.

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The Demolition of U.S. Global Power

The superhighway to disaster is already being paved.

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A Growing Number of Countries Are Dealing with Their Own Donald Trumps - Dangerous Right-Wing Nationalism Is Spreading Across the Globe

In 2016, something extraordinary happened in the politics of diverse countries around the world. With surprising speed and simultaneity, a new generation of populist leaders emerged from the margins of nominally democratic nations to win power.  In doing so, they gave voice, often in virulent fashion, to public concerns about the social costs of globalization.

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The Geopolitics of American Global Decline 


For even the greatest of empires, geography is often destiny. You wouldn’t know it in Washington, though. America’s political, national security, and foreign policy elites continue to ignore the basics of geopolitics that have shaped the fate of world empires for the past 500 years. Consequently, they have missed the significance of the rapid global changes in Eurasia that are in the process of undermining the grand strategy for world dominion that Washington has pursued these past seven decades.

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