We cannot rely on catastrophe to save us.
Published in the March 2011 issue of the New Internationalist.
Sometimes I think we want our crises to look like Hollywood explosions. Whether it’s the end of empire or the collapse of global capitalism, things feel more satisfying when they are sudden and cataclysmic.
It’s no longer bold to posit that the US is in decline – at least relative to other global contenders. In fact, it would be far more radical to maintain that the US will remain an unrivalled superpower for the rest of the century.
Futurists on the political Left tend to foresee a swift and steep fall. Historian Alfred McCoy imagines one possible scenario:
“‘After years of swelling deficits fed by incessant warfare in distant lands, in 2020, as long expected, the US dollar finally loses its special status as the world’s reserve currency. Suddenly, the cost of imports soars. Unable to pay for swelling deficits by selling now-devalued Treasury notes abroad, Washington is finally forced to slash its bloated military budget. Under pressure… Washington slowly pulls US forces back from hundreds of overseas bases… By now, however, it is far too late.’”
Similarly, Pulitzer Prize-winner and former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges stated to a reporter for The Raw Story that the US military and economic empire could crumble at any time. He used as a metaphor the Berlin Wall, which stood imposingly for decades, but then, ‘within a few hours… didn’t exist’.
There are two problems with this type of prognostication. First, reality often ends up being less dramatic than a Die Hard movie. Second, just as the global economic downturn – the type of crisis some presumed would bring an end to rapacious and unrestricted capitalism – has yet to produce many positive changes, there is no guarantee that an upheaval in current geopolitics will result in something better.
Futurism, like running a casino, can be a low-risk way to make a living with gambling. If your vision of events proves true, you can point to your prescience with pride. If you’re wrong, few people are going to dig decades into archives for the evidence – showing, for example, that you were among those who confidently claimed in the 1980s that Japan, by the new millennium, would control 40 per cent of the world and 60 per cent of New York City real estate.
Moreover, futurism is often full of fatalism. Scenarios for sweeping change in the global system involve too few political actors, too few social movements. They suggest there’s nothing for us to do except sit back and watch the show.
In reality, we need more than short-term political spectators. We need advocates ready for a long haul. Today, there is broad consensus that a ‘multipolar’ order will emerge in coming decades, in which the US will have to compete for alpha-dog status within different regions with rivals such as China, India, Russia and Brazil. Even the CIA admits as much. Whether this new arrangement will be considered an improvement by those struggling for a more just, humane and peaceful world is open to question.
From an anti-imperial perspective, a decline in US interventionism and more equitable power-sharing between nations are good things. But other states are amply able to perpetrate their own injustices. And multipolarity cannot even ensure that the US, which will continue possessing an imposing arsenal, will forgo reckless military adventures on the grounds that they are too expensive or too antagonistic to the rest of the world. The lack of foresight into these drawbacks is what makes such adventures reckless to begin with. And it makes vigilance against imperial arrogance a lasting necessity.
The US may well be in geopolitical decline, just as the global economic system may be in profound crisis. However, those realities do not make the work ahead of us any less demanding.