The Decline and Fall of the United States?

Sometimes when we think of the United States, we need to think of the Soviet Union. In the U.S., of course, most of us are quite unaccustomed to thinking of the U.S. in those terms. Our history is largely a story of “manifest destiny,” a blessing of the Christian god to expand our territory, as we expanded westward, as we came eventually to be a world hegemon; and of “a shining light upon a hill,” the notion that the U.S. political and economic system is a model for others—such a presumption is fundamental to rationalizing the conquest and colonization of others, as we insist we are bringing improvement to their lives[1]—as we are in Afghanistan, in part, we say, to uphold women’s rights,[2] as we were in Iraq, in part, we say, to bring democracy.[3]

It is such a legacy that President Obama barely began to confront recently in a speech before the United Nations. I no longer trust anything this man says. Too often he has said fine things, only to retreat from them, usually within a couple weeks. More often—and this is what muddles his rhetoric and impairs his public speaking—he has sought to tell everyone what they want to hear. The U.N. speech was of the latter type. On one hand, he claimed that the U.S. was ending a “decade” of war.[4] Which decade, one might ask. War has been a seeming inevitability for the U.S. since even before its founding, as I have found only sixteen calendar years in U.S. history in which the U.S. did not have military forces deployed somewhere, somehow, on a killing expedition.[5] And Obama cited a hegemon’s dilemma when he said “the United States is chastised for meddling in the region [the greater Middle East], accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy; at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations.” He went on to reassure neoconservatives and other warmongers that “[t]he United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.”[6]

A few weeks ago, Gary Younge wrote a fine column for the Guardian in which he suggested that the U.S. was losing credibility not so much because of Obama’s erratic policy on Syria but because “its record of asserting its military power stands squarely at odds with its pretensions of moral authority” and because of its support for Israel. It is inconsistent, Younge argued, to complain about Syrian chemical weapons after using depleted uranium weapons in Iraq.[7] And, he argued,

Its chief ally in the region, Israel, holds the record for ignoring UN resolutions, and the US is not a participant in the international criminal court – which is charged with bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice – because it refuses to allow its own citizens to be charged. On the very day Obama lectured the world on international norms he launched a drone strike in Yemen that killed six people.[8]

Such words I hear too rarely. But it has not only been this. TomDispatch, a persistent voice for peace, has been chronicling the futility of U.S. military adventurism, a futility in stark contrast to the claims of progress,[9] a futility reminiscent of the Vietnam war, during which similar claims were made.[10] At some point, it must be, that the world catches on. Yes, the U.S. may spend outrageous sums on its military,[11] accepting a Keynesian approach to government spending for its military and only its military.[12] And yes, we have in so many ways indoctrinated ourselves in martial ways of thinking.[13] But it is all for naught.[14]

Perhaps it is this, this paradox of unfathomable power to destroy coupled with an abject powerlessness to accomplish, that has led our elites to assert their power all the more viciously and all the more pervasively, all in the name of “national security,” of course, in ways that are so over the top. So much has happened recently and so much has been revealed lately that has been so over the top,[15] that I think that even in the U.S., doubts are surfacing about its position in the world.

Now, of course, there is the government shutdown, perhaps soon to be combined with a default on U.S. debt, because a small group of right wing legislators has hijacked the House of Representatives and refuses to allow votes to go forward which, once upon a time, were routine. This has led to divisions in the Republican Party and a crisis in government, all of which have yet to play out.[16] Writing for the New York Times, Simon Johnson, a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, throws a quick jab:

Now really stupid fiscal policy threatens to bring the United States down. The primary cause of any public finance crisis is not the ability of people to pay their taxes, it’s their willingness to pay their taxes — or, as in the current situation in the United States, the willingness of their elected representatives to finance the government. And this willingness is always tied closely to the legitimacy of the government. Does enough of the population think that the people with political power won it in a fair manner and, consequently, are they willing to accept policies with which they do not necessarily agree?[17]

Johnson doesn’t pursue this breathtaking point that the U.S. government may be facing a crisis of legitimacy. He is astonished, rather, by “[t]he silence of much of the business and financial elite on the debt ceiling — as well as on the sequester and the government shutdown.” He concludes that “[i]f the business elite cannot speak truth to the Republican Party — and persuade its leadership and enough members of Congress to return to a more moderate stand — there is not much hope for the United States in today’s global economy.”[18]

This, however, is not so surprising. Disinvestment in the mainstream U.S. economy, as manufacturing and jobs have moved overseas, has proceeded apace since the 1970s—about the same time that neoliberal policies were adopted;[19] so the business elite increasingly don’t care what happens to the U.S. economy. This also points to a problem with structural unemployment, at least as I understand the term. Paul Krugman disagrees, focusing on a mismatch between skills and jobs,[20] which is, at most, only one aspect of the problem. Ezra Klein is a little more nuanced in acknowledging that technology may have obsoleted some skills, but essentially shares Krugman’s view.[21] Peter Orszag, by contrast, thinks that the discrepancy between job openings advertised and people being hired might be because “companies are often filling openings from within.”[22] But it is Zachary Karabell who comes closest to my point:

The landscape of jobs in the United States is in the midst of a multidecade transition, which the mid-2000s housing bubble helped obscure with easy credit and construction- and housing-related jobs. The move away from manufacturing and associated jobs has been going on for decades, and gathering steam in this new millennium. Even as manufacturing output rebounds, it remains an employment shadow of its former self because of robotics and technology and just-in-time, flexible floor plants that require highly skilled workers. Those workers are not in ample supply, and that is why the only substantial job creation has been in less-well-paid service jobs ranging from orderlies to waitresses.[23]

The issue all these writers overlook is that of so-called “free trade,” which is free only for the wealthy, who can rapidly move their money anywhere in the world, and build sweatshops and ruin the environment where ever governments will allow them.[24] This has been a bad deal for U.S. workers, who have lost jobs and seen their incomes stagnate or decline,[25] meaning inevitably that a consumption-based (and unsustainable) economy is in trouble.[26]

And as the U.S. economy has suffered, controversial Federal Reserve policies meant to ameliorate a weak recovery from the financial crisis of 2007 without excessively frightening those who fear inflation[27] have stimulated new discussion of replacing the U.S. Dollar as the world’s “reserve currency” with a basket of currencies. The argument is that the Federal Reserve has been able to export inflation to developing countries while borrowing heavily from abroad to finance the U.S. debt. The expressed desire is for a “fairer” system.[28] Whatever the merits of this plan, it is another sign that the U.S. is catastrophically losing influence in the world.

A couple years ago, I wrote:

Anyone born in the U.S. since World War II grew up with hegemony and some, born since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have lived their entire lives with the U.S. as the “sole remaining superpower.” It must be hard for many of these people, who unquestioningly recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day when they were growing up, whose education not only did not prepare them for but actively suppressed an alternative, less virtuous view of U.S. power—in which the U.S. is not a shining beacon upon a hill, but rather a heavily-armed horde of dictatorship-supporting capitalists bent on world domination.[29] I am worried about already unhinged premillennial dispensationalists in the U.S. military with access to nuclear weapons, further unhinged by the dissonance first of what Gates sees as an unimaginable decline of U.S. power and second of an ascendant international view that is much less sympathetic to the oligarchical values that U.S. dominance sustained in the name of so-called “capitalist democracy.”[30]

It may or may not come to that. But a lot of pieces are beginning to add up. In a few years, the United States will certainly no longer be the country that nearly everyone who has grown up here takes for granted. Some might indeed decide that Armageddon is upon us. Some might indeed manage to unleash tremendously destructive weapons. But it also might simply be the crisis of U.S. government legitimacy, the point that Simon Johnson so quickly dropped,[31] and given what we’ve seen with this government’s enthusiasm for overwhelming force to suppress dissent,[32] that’s entirely frightening enough.

This is why I think of the Soviet Union. The contest between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. then was the threat to human (and non-human) survival that climate change is now, but with a fear that at any moment, someone might push a button, and a nuclear war would ensue,[33] with weapons many thought sufficient to destroy the world many, many times over. Some on the U.S. side even advocated such a war, gambling that a few would survive, free from the purported terror of Soviet tyranny.[34] And then it all began to crumble. There was the Solidarity labor union in Poland, Glasnost, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. And then it was the Soviet Union itself, with Boris Yeltsin memorably astride a tank asserting that now it would be Russia and that the Soviet Union was finished. The unimaginable had happened.

It would be a blessing if the U.S. is headed for the same fate, but one which will be wasted if, in the anti-intellectual stance that pervades the country, we fail to consider what comes next.

  1. [1]Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2003); Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994).
  2. [2]Dan Roberts and Emma Graham-Harrison, “US to join direct peace talks in Qatar with Taliban over Afghanistan’s future,” Guardian, June 18, 2013,; Alissa J. Rubin, “For Afghan Woman, Justice Runs Into Unforgiving Wall of Custom,” New York Times, December 1, 2011,; Matthew Rosenberg and Alissa J. Rubin, “Taliban Step Toward Afghan Peace Talks Is Hailed by U.S.,” New York Times, June 18, 2013,; Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Military Goes Online to Rebut Extremists’ Messages,” New York Times, November 17, 2011,
  3. [3]Tom Engelhardt, “All the World’s a Stage (for Us),” TomDispatch, March 25, 2010,,_all_the_world%27s_a_stage_(for_us)/; Ralph Z. Hallow, “Newt Gingrich sees major Mideast mistakes, rethinks his neocon views on intervention,” Washington Times, August 4, 2013,; Raed Jarrar and Antonia Juhasz, “Oil Grab in Iraq,” Foreign Policy In Focus, February 22, 2007,
  4. [4]Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly,” White House, September 24, 2013,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “United States history of war,” February 18, 2013,
  6. [6]Obama, “Remarks.”
  7. [7]Gary Younge, “The US has little credibility left: Syria won’t change that,” Guardian, September 8, 2013,
  8. [8]Younge, “The US has little credibility left.”
  9. [9]see, for examples, Ira Chernus, Who Lost the World? The Curious Case of How Libya Became an Election Issue, TomDispatch, October 30, 2012,; Tom Engelhardt, “Overwrought Empire: The Discrediting of U.S. Military Power,” TomDispatch, October 7, 2012,; Tom Engelhardt, “And Then There Was One: Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower,” TomDispatch, September 3, 2013,
  10. [10]David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000).
  11. [11]Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer, “War Pay: The Nearly $1 Trillion National Security Budget,” TomDispatch, May 22, 2012,
  12. [12]Paul Krugman, “Kick That Can,” New York Times, February 7, 2013,
  13. [13]Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Permanent Militarization of America,” New York Times, November 4, 2012,
  14. [14]Tom Engelhardt, “Debacle! How Two Wars in the Greater Middle East Revealed the Weakness of the Global Superpower,”TomDispatch, January 3, 2012,; Dilip Hiro, “A World in Which No One Is Listening to the Planet’s Sole Superpower: The Greater Middle East’s Greatest Rebuff to Uncle Sam,” TomDispatch, September 29, 2013,
  15. [15]David Benfell, “Why you should be scared shitless,” June 11, 2013,; David Benfell, “Moral bankruptcy,” July 4, 2013,; David Benfell, “Time to leave the airport,” July 10, 2013,; David Benfell, “Big Brother wants you to be afraid,” August 19, 2013,; David Benfell, “The horse has left the barn,” September 1, 2013,; David Benfell, “Imperialism has its costs,” September 6, 2013,; David Benfell, “My disillusionment,” September 28, 2013,
  16. [16]Matt Fuller, “Republican Centrists Plot Revolt to End Government Shutdown,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, October 2, 2013,; John B. Judis, “The Shutdown Standoff Is One of the Worst Crises in American History: Welcome to Weimar America,” New Republic, October 2, 2013,; Dominic Rushe, “Obama meets bank chiefs as economists warn of ‘deep and dark recession’,” Guardian, October 2, 2013,; Jonathan Weisman and Ashley Parker, “Staunch Group of Republicans Outflanks House Leaders,” New York Times, October 1, 2013,
  17. [17]Simon Johnson, “The Loss of U.S. Pre-eminence,” New York Times, October 4, 2013,
  18. [18]Johnson, “The Loss of U.S. Pre-eminence.”
  19. [19]Richard J. Barnet and John Cavanagh, “Mass Production in Postmodern Times,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 112-120; Michael W. Clune, “What Was Neoliberalism?” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 26, 2013,; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Maxine Baca Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen, “Economic Restructuring and Systems of Inequality,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 16-19.
  20. [20]Paul Krugman, “The Structural Obsession,” New York Times, June 8, 2012,; Paul Krugman, “Bill Clinton and Structural Unemployment,” New York Times, September 6, 2012,
  21. [21]Ezra Klein, “The politicians-are-failing theory of unemployment,” Washington Post, September 11, 2012,
  22. [22]Peter R. Orszag, “Why is There So Little Hiring With So Many Open Jobs?” Bloomberg, August 13, 2013,
  23. [23]Zachary Karabell, “Monthly Jobs Numbers Don’t Matter,” Daily Beast, May 4, 2012,
  24. [24]Arundhati Roy, “How Deep Shall We Dig,” in Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009).
  25. [25]Barnet and Cavanagh, “Mass Production in Postmodern Times;” Roger Bybee, “Obama’s Double Game on Outsourcing,” Dollars and Sense, September 12, 2012,; Roger Bybee, “Yes He Did: Obama Plugged Trans-Pacific Partnership While Touting ‘Middle Class’ Growth,” In These Times, February 12, 2013,; Murray Dobbin, “The Crisis of Extreme Capitalism,” Tyee, July 15, 2013,; Frank Levy, “A Half Century of Incomes,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 19-22; Jay MacLeod, “Social Immobility in the Land of Opportunity,” Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 22-26.
  26. [26]Dobbin, “The Crisis of Extreme Capitalism;” James Livingston, “Why Saving for a Rainy Day is Pointless — For the Economy,” Public Broadcasting System, April 5, 2013,; Anup Shah, “Creating the Consumer,” Global Issues, May 14, 2003,; Anup Shah, “Consumption and Consumerism,” Global Issues, March 6, 2011,
  27. [27]David Beckworth, “Christina Romer: We Need A Regime Change at the Fed,” Macro Market Musings, February 20, 2012,; Paul Krugman, “No Exit,” New York Times, November 25, 2009,; Paul Krugman, “Earth to Ben Bernanke,” New York Times, April 24, 2012,; Roger Lowenstein, “The Villain,” April, 2012,; Matthew O’Brien, “Save Us, Ben Bernanke, You’re Our Only Hope,” Atlantic, June 5, 2012,; Washingtons Blog, “81.5% of QE Money Is Not Helping the Economy,” Big Picture, July 1, 2013,
  28. [28]Valentin Mândrăşescu, “Russia’s Plan For The BRICS To Dismantle The Dollar System,” Naked Capitalism, May 14, 2013,
  29. [29]Donaldo Macedo, Literacies of Power: What Americans are not allowed to know, expanded edition (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2006).
  30. [30]David Benfell, “How reckless is too reckless?” June 22, 2011,
  31. [31]Johnson, “The Loss of U.S. Pre-eminence.”
  32. [32]Benfell, “Big Brother wants you to be afraid.”
  33. [33]Li-mei Hoang, “Archived papers reveal UK queen’s ‘World War Three’ speech,” Reuters, July 31, 2013,; Edward Wilson, “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war,” Guardian, October 27, 2012,
  34. [34]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).

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