America Next: End of the World As We Knew It

In the case of the United States -- which has been indisputably the reigning global superpower for six decades -- there are signs -- ranging from the tumult in the Middle East to a humiliating war in Afghanistan to a downgrade of US sovereign debt -- that America is at a key inflection point in its history and that the US network of global control (aka, "empire") is disintegrating.

27world.3-450_3.jpgWhen the Berlin Wall fell in the summer of 1989, most of the world saw it as a crack so deep and fundamental in the superstructure of the Soviet Union that doubts about the USSR's solvency as a global power abounded.

In nature, when a piece of ice larger than Rhode Island breaks off of Antarctica, one sees tangibly the very different world that global warming is shaping. In the case of the United States -- which has been indisputably the reigning global superpower for six decades -- there are signs -- ranging from the tumult in the Middle East to a humiliating war in Afghanistan to a downgrade of US sovereign debt -- that America is at a key inflection point in its history and that the US network of global control (aka, "empire") is disintegrating.

Chalmers Johnson, a scholar who authored Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire before 9/11, argued in the 1990s that the US had become blind to the global push-back to American dictates. With the USSR gone and China the fastest growing market economy, the moniker of "leader of the free world" carried with it diminishing privileges and power.

Without the Soviet menace threatening the global order, the cost-benefit relationship between other nations and the US fundamentally changed. Other countries were no longer willing to pay the same political price to the US for protection that they once did, a price paid in terms of following American leadership in global institutions, respecting and relying on the US dollar as the global reserve currency, following trade and economic policies that were largely crafted by America's financial elite, and accepting the reality of the Pentagon's global sprawl.

The world today sees a diminished America -- one whose military power seems over-extended and hemorrhaging in Afghanistan; whose economic leadership was in doubt when the US exported toxic financial products to the world through the sub-prime crisis and which now is officially crippled given the first ratings downgrade of American bonds; whose moral leadership remains tied in knots as long as Guantanamo remains open and the self-confidence Americans once had in their own systems of justice and government continues to decline.

It's through this lens that the hopeful-sounding Arab Spring, the riots in London, the tumultuous financial markets, and the rise of China and a new crop of ascending powers like Brazil, India, Turkey, and South Africa need to be considered. The old order is crumbling; a new one is forming -- but between them is chaos, uncertainty and social and political friction.

When a frustrated, educated fruit peddler in Tunisia decided to end his life -- challenging his government for its corruption and ineptitude and setting himself on fire to demand dignity and respect, a spark was set in the minds of people throughout the Middle East who decided they were finished with governments that humiliated, harassed, and arbitrarily imprisoned, tortured, killed and abused their own citizens.

The scenes of millions of people rising up in Egypt, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and topping the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak shocked everyone -- powerful and powerless alike. The equation of power changed. While the protesters and democracy activists deserve the great majority of credit for change -- part of the equation of Mubarak's downfall has to include the more humbled circumstances of the United States.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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