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Declining U.S. Hegemony: A Brief Exchange


Here (below) is an exchange that may or may not interest this blog’s readers. It was sparked by the recent Howard Zinn interview on Tomdispatch and ZNet…..

A reader wrote as follows:

Hey Street:

Have you read Howard Zinn’s interview with Tomdispatch, “Outer Limits of Empire”,posted 9-8-05 on ZNET?

I should mention, I am always stirred by what Zinn has to say, and share his wish that the Empire fall.

But is the U.S. at the outer limits of its imperial expansion, as Zinn half speculates half wishes? Has
the Empire begun its descent? I would very much like to hear your view on this.

Here is an excerpt of Zinn’s interview for your convenience:

“I like to think that the American empire has reached its outer limits with the Middle East. I don’t believe
it has a future in Latin America. I think it’s worn out whatever power it had there and we’re seeing the
rise of governments that will not play ball with the United States. This may be one of the reasons why the
war in Iraq is so important to this administration. Beyond Iraq there’s no place to go. So, let’s put it
this way, I see withdrawal from Iraq whenever it takes place — and think of this as partly wish and partly
belief [he chuckles at himself] — as the first step in the retrenchment of the American empire. After all
we aren’t the first country in history to be forced to do this.

I’d like to say that this will be because of American domestic opposition, but I suspect mostly it will be
because the rest of the world won’t accept further American forays into places where we don’t belong. In
the future, I believe 9/11 may be seen as representing the beginning of the dissolution of the American
empire; that is, the very event that immediately crystallized popular support for war, in the long run
– and I don’t know how long that will be — may be seen as the beginning of the weakening and crumbling
of the American empire.”

Best,

Reader X

Dear Reader X:

I think Zinn is correct but its deeper than just running out of space. I’ve been meaning to write something along these lines. Another left U.S. historian to consult on this by the way is Gabriel Kolko, who has been writing about the limits of U.S. power since at least the 1970s. And don’t just consult radical historians like me and them: ask the world-systemic Marxian analysts like Immanual Wallerstein ( a sociologist), David Harvey (a geographer) and Giovanni Arrighi (political-economist). Arrighi’s last two essays in New Left Review are about what he calls the ongoing “terminal crisis of US hegemony.”

The Iraq war, he notes, is a huge and terrible failure for Uncle Sam. It’s much worse than Vietnam for U.S. power. The “Vietnam Syndrome” (the reluctance of US population to tolerate large U.S. troop casualities in imperial operations overseas) is alive and well: it was part of why they moved off the difficult mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and into “easy [air] targerts” of Iraq so quickly. The “insurgent” enemy in not-so “easy” Iraq is nothing compared to the “Viet Cong’s” revolutionary and nationalist movement (assisted by Red China and USSR) and yet the material stakes — the awesome strategic prize of Arab oil — is so much higher. Vietnam’s economic relevance was minor compared to Iraq’s today.

Remember Chomsky’s dark argument about how the U.S. actually won Vietnam; I doubt it would be possible to make the same argument about Iraq. It really is an unambiguous defeat and a serious one at that.

Unlike Vietnam, the current war is being fought against open opposition from “allied” capitalist states, who no longer feel Cold War pressure to cower under U.S. “Free World” umbrella and are yet further along the path of being co-equal economic competitors and even now superiors. The Iraq operation has created more distance and space.

The White House has had to wage this current war without Antonio Gramscian consensus: without soft and agreeable hegemony—without buy-in from its partner states in the “advanced” world. The War on Iraq has been understood by those states as a zero-sum game: something that was designed to work only for American interests and against theirs. Vietnam and the Cold War were different.

And America’s economic position has declined and is declining dramatically in terms of balance of trade, the lure of the dollar, and the gaping federal deficit, which is covered to an amazing extent by the booming Chinese state. America’s economic decline stands in especially stark contrast — and direct relation — to the relative rise of not-so Red China as a major economic power in the 21st century.

The question is will the American supremacists fade quietly and peacefully? How many will they kill? Militarism is their last ace in the hole they think. They now identify their economic agenda like never before with their preponderance of force. What have they got left but to stem their world-systemic political-economic decline by putting a military jackboot on the Arab oil spigot? (see David Harvey, The New Imperialism) As I recall, Harvey’s book (which appeared on the eve of the invasion of Iraq) suggested that Uncle Sam might buy 50 more years of hegemony with a successful campaign in Iraq; Bush has failed in the regard and is accelerating the waning of U.S power.

It’s not all a safe or happy story by any stretch. On how its not safe, see Chomsky’s last big book Hegemony or Survival, which basically argues that great imperial states value the former over the latter, and also his recent warnings (based on urgent elite policy and planning documents) about domestic nuclear terrorism resulting partly from American global overreach and arrogance. The outcomes are unclear and full of peril, which is one of the reasons I counseled to people to vote against “Messianic Militarist” (Ralph Nader’s description) Bush, even though I knew he would accelerate the unraveling of U.S. hegemony. He and his protofascist cabal and hard core supporters scared me. They still scare me.

Best,

Street

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