Back in 2001, when George W. Bush came to power, he and the neocons could see nothing standing in their way. There was a weakened and impoverished Russia (still with its nuclear arsenal more or less intact). There was a Communist-gone-capitalist China focused on its own growth and little else. And there were a set of other potential enemies, “rogue powers” as they were dubbed, so pathetic that not one of them could, under any circumstances, be called “great.”
In 2002, in fact, three of them — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — had to be cobbled together into an “axis of evil” to create an adequate enemy, and to offer an excuse for the Bush administration to act preemptively. It seemed obvious then that all three of them would go down before the military and economic power of the US (even if, as it happened, two of them didn’t).
It seemed as if the United States was the single, unrivaled world power, even after the terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The National Security Strategy of that year was expressed as follows: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” Anywhere on the planet, ever, In February 2001, Charles Krauthammer, a neocon, wrote in the Washington Post, “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”. ( Tomgram 14 Feb 2019).
This was all a delusion. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that military power alone doesn’t do the job against dedicated and ideological insurgencies – diplomacy is the other indispensable activity, and the US government has done its diplomacy ineffectively. Since then any number of bush fires (forgive the pun) have meant that US forces have had to be deployed to “keep the peace” in multiple countries, and no one is even pretending there has been a victory – anywhere. It is clear now that China is catching up technologically, showing, unfortunately, what can be achieved by an intelligent autocrat. China could be the dominant world power within 25 years. Untold amounts of money, lavished on the Pentagon, have not given us peace .
Epicurus , I believe, surveying this dismal scene, would point out that empires or hegemonies often collapse because they run out of money conducting useless wars, cutting “domestic programs” to pay for them . The US used to be greatly admired throughout the world, but no longer has the “big idea” that is almost universally admired. From outside, the US has given up on democracy and any pretense at economic fairness and is (metaphorically) thrashing around, bashing its head militarily against brick walls, while pandering to the rich. This no longer works. As we confront China, stop the bashing! Concentrate on putting our own democracy in order (it isn’t in order at the moment), then think about the uses of “soft power”: generosity, human rights, fair voting for all, and generosity and humane behavior at home and abroad.