When 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.
America didn't forego its ally Mubarak and its interests in Egypt because of a moral decision to support what could have been fantasies of democracy and freedom of people in the streets, America had less ability than it had decades ago to control the temperature of affairs inside countries. Mubarak's reign had become too expensive for the US -- not financially, but politically -- in a world that increasingly doubted America's ability to achieve its objectives, to deliver on the values it often talked about.
President Obama and his White House National Security Council team said that in the case of Egypt, there was a "great opportunity to align values and interests." The real answer is that "interests" were recalculated because the US commitments are overextended and the mystique of American power was now being challenged by thousands of pin-prick tests around the world.
The decision by President Obama to join Great Britain and France in a humanitarian intervention in Libya exhibits the trap into which a diminished superpower with the memory of a globally dominant ego used to large ambitions can fall . Before the intervention, the US Department of Defense warned Obama that a "limited conflict" was dangerous -- that the resources for a larger conflict were not easily available and that a limited approach could lead to a long-term, costly stalemate with Moammer Qaddafi; and that even if the NATO intervention succeeded in destabilizing the Libyan dictator, the successor government could easily be ripped apart by internal tensions and either tribal or political/religious civil war.
America's resource constraints -- as well as the limited military and financial capacities of US allies in Europe -- have produced a half-effort in Libya yielding exactly the stalemate thus far, that many national security experts feared. And with this stalemate, the US action -- which in the eyes of the world is a "defining action" -- creates a benchmark of US power and prestige that appears impotent.
The Assad regime in Syria is engaged in full-scale, random assaults throughout the country on its own people -- detaining many thousands and wounding and killing many unarmed protesters and innocent, non-political bystanders. And yet the US and the West have virtually no influence on the internal dynamics at play in Syria. The Gulf Cooperation Council is issuing statements of concern -- but taking no serious action. The Arab League has said nothing. China and Russia -- while concerned about what is happening in Syria and encouraging "restraint" -- are not allowing the US to proceed with any UN Security Council measures.
The world is paralyzed trying to respond to the horrific violence inside Syria, thus exposing the weakness of the United States in shaping Syria's incentives and disincentives in the world. The US has little with which to bribe, or seduce, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- and little with which to compel him.
In the eyes of the Arab region, if Obama cannot prevail over the Israeli Prime Minister in hard fought political differences -- as over the continued expansion of Israeli settlements -- then to many of these leaders, Obama's power looks paper thin and ignorable.
This is a tough spot for the United States to be in as it means that every challenge is harder, every burden heavier.
Power, like an equity in the stock markets, is ultimately a function of future expectations -- and today the reality is that America's stock has fallen dramatically and will only rise again with visionary statecraft revolutionary, new global deal-making that might restore the impression that America once again matters.
Image is from Waving Goodbye to Hegemony by Parag Khanna in the New York Times Magazine. Image by Kevin Van Aeist. Reprinted with permission.
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