The Ghost of Soviet Collapse haunts the West: Military Hegemony isn’t what it Used to Be

By Tom Engelhardt | ( | – –

The rise and fall of great powers and their imperial domains has been a central fact of history for centuries.  It’s been a sensible, repeatedly validated framework for thinking about the fate of the planet.  So it’s hardly surprising, when faced with a country once regularly labeled the “sole superpower,” “the last superpower,” or even the global “hyperpower” and now, curiously, called nothing whatsoever, that the “decline” question should come up.  Is the U.S. or isn’t it?  Might it or might it not now be on the downhill side of imperial greatness?

Take a slow train — that is, any train — anywhere in America, as I did recently in the northeast, and then take a high-speed train anywhere else on Earth, as I also did recently, and it’s not hard to imagine the U.S. in decline.  The greatest power in history, the “unipolar power,” can’t build a single mile of high-speed rail?  Really?  And its Congress is now mired in an argument about whether funds can even be raised to keep America’s highways more or less pothole-free.

Sometimes, I imagine myself talking to my long-dead parents because I know how such things would have astonished two people who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and a can-do post-war era in which the staggering wealth and power of this country were indisputable.  What if I could tell them how the crucial infrastructure of such a still-wealthy nation — bridges, pipelines, roads, and the like — is now grossly underfunded, in an increasing state of disrepair, and beginning to crumble?  That would definitely shock them.

And what would they think upon learning that, with the Soviet Union a quarter-century in the trash bin of history, the U.S., alone in triumph, has been incapable of applying its overwhelming military and economic power effectively?  I’m sure they would be dumbstruck to discover that, since the moment the Soviet Union imploded, the U.S. has been at war continuously with another country (three conflicts and endless strife); that I was talking about, of all places, Iraq; and that the mission there was never faintly accomplished.  How improbable is that?  And what would they think if I mentioned that the other great conflicts of the post-Cold-War era were with Afghanistan (two wars with a decade off in-between) and the relatively small groups of non-state actors we now call terrorists?  And how would they react on discovering that the results were: failure in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and the proliferation of terror groups across much of the Greater Middle East (including the establishment of an actual terror caliphate) and increasing parts of Africa?

They would, I think, conclude that the U.S. was over the hill and set on the sort of decline that, sooner or later, has been the fate of every great power. And what if I told them that, in this new century, not a single action of the military that U.S. presidents now call “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” has, in the end, been anything but a dismal failure?  Or that presidents, presidential candidates, and politicians in Washington are required to insist on something no one would have had to say in their day: that the United States is both an “exceptional” and an “indispensible” nation? Or that they would also have to endlessly thank our troops (as would the citizenry) for… well… never success, but just being there and getting maimed, physically or mentally, or dying while we went about our lives? Or that those soldiers must always be referred to as “heroes.”

In their day, when the obligation to serve in a citizens’ army was a given, none of this would have made much sense, while the endless defensive insistence on American greatness would have stood out like a sore thumb. Today, its repetitive presence marks the moment of doubt. Are we really so “exceptional”? Is this country truly “indispensible” to the rest of the planet and if so, in what way exactly? Are those troops genuinely our heroes and if so, just what was it they did that we’re so darn proud of?

Return my amazed parents to their graves, put all of this together, and you have the beginnings of a description of a uniquely great power in decline. It’s a classic vision, but one with a problem.

A God-Like Power to Destroy

Who today recalls the ads from my 1950s childhood for, if I remember correctly, drawing lessons, which always had a tagline that went something like: What’s wrong with this picture?  (You were supposed to notice the five-legged cows floating through the clouds.)  So what’s wrong with this picture of the obvious signs of decline: the greatest power in history, with hundreds of garrisons scattered across the planet, can’t seem to apply its power effectively no matter where it sends its military or bring countries like Iran or a weakened post-Soviet Russia to heel by a full range of threats, sanctions, and the like, or suppress a modestly armed terror-movement-cum-state in the Middle East?

For one thing, look around and tell me that the United States doesn’t still seem like a unipolar power.  I mean, where exactly are its rivals?  Since the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, when the first wooden ships mounted with cannons broke out of their European backwater and began to gobble up the globe, there have always been rival great powers — three, four, five, or more.  And what of today?  The other three candidates of the moment would assumedly be the European Union (EU), Russia, and China.

Economically, the EU is indeed a powerhouse, but in any other way it’s a second-rate conglomeration of states that still slavishly follow the U.S. and an entity threatening to come apart at the seams.  Russia looms ever larger in Washington these days, but remains a rickety power in search of greatness in its former imperial borderlands.  It’s a country almost as dependent on its energy industry as Saudi Arabia and nothing like a potential future superpower.  As for China, it’s obviously the rising power of the moment and now officially has the number one economy on Planet Earth.  Still, it remains in many ways a poor country whose leaders fear any kind of future economic implosion (which could happen).  Like the Russians, like any aspiring great power, it wants to make its weight felt in its neighborhood — at the moment the East and South China Seas.  And like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Chinese leadership is indeed upgrading its military.  But the urge in both cases is to emerge as a regional power to contend with, not a superpower or a genuine rival of the U.S.

Whatever may be happening to American power, there really are no potential rivals to shoulder the blame.  Yet, uniquely unrivaled, the U.S. has proven curiously incapable of translating its unipolar power and a military that, on paper, trumps every other one on the planet into its desires.  This was not the normal experience of past reigning great powers.  Or put another way, whether or not the U.S. is in decline, the rise-and-fall narrative seems, half-a-millennium later, to have reached some kind of largely uncommented upon and unexamined dead end.

In looking for an explanation, consider a related narrative involving military power.  Why, in this new century, does the U.S. seem so incapable of achieving victory or transforming crucial regions into places that can at least be controlled?  Military power is by definition destructive, but in the past such force often cleared the ground for the building of local, regional, or even global structures, however grim or oppressive they might have been.  If force always was meant to break things, it sometimes achieved other ends as well.  Now, it seems as if breaking is all it can do, or how to explain the fact that, in this century, the planet’s sole superpower has specialized — see Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — in fracturing, not building nations.

Empires may have risen and fallen in those 500 years, but weaponry only rose. Over those centuries in which so many rivals engaged each other, carved out their imperial domains, fought their wars, and sooner or later fell, the destructive power of the weaponry they were wielding only ratcheted up exponentially: from the crossbow to the musket, the cannon, the Colt revolver, the repeating rifle, the Gatling gun, the machine gun, the dreadnaught, modern artillery, the tank, poison gas, the zeppelin, the plane, the bomb, the aircraft carrier, the missile, and at the end of the line, the “victory weapon” of World War II, the nuclear bomb that would turn the rulers of the greatest powers, and later even lesser powers, into the equivalent of gods.

For the first time, representatives of humanity had in their hands the power to destroy anything on the planet in a fashion once imagined possible only by some deity or set of deities.  It was now possible to create our own end times.  And yet here was the odd thing: the weaponry that brought the power of the gods down to Earth somehow offered no practical power at all to national leaders.  In the post-Hiroshima-Nagasaki world, those nuclear weapons would prove unusable.  Once they were loosed on the planet, there would be no more rises, no more falls.  (Today, we know that even a limited nuclear exchange among lesser powers could, thanks to the nuclear-winter effect, devastate the planet.)

Weapons Development in an Era of Limited War

In a sense, World War II could be considered the ultimate moment for both the narratives of empire and the weapon.  It would be the last “great” war in which major powers could bring all the weaponry available to them to bear in search of ultimate victory and the ultimate shaping of the globe.  It resulted in unprecedented destruction across vast swathes of the planet, the killing of tens of millions, the turning of great cities into rubble and of countless people into refugees, the creation of an industrial structure for genocide, and finally the building of those weapons of ultimate destruction and of the first missiles that would someday be their crucial delivery systems.  And out of that war came the final rivals of the modern age — and then there were two — the “superpowers.”

That very word, superpower, had much of the end of the story embedded in it.  Think of it as a marker for a new age, for the fact that the world of the “great powers” had been left for something almost inexpressible.  Everyone sensed it.  We were now in the realm of “great” squared or force raised in some exponential fashion, of “super” (as in, say, “superhuman”) power.  What made those powers truly super was obvious enough: the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union — their potential ability, that is, to destroy in a fashion that had no precedent and from which there might be no coming back.  It wasn’t a happenstance that the scientists creating the H-bomb sometimes referred to it in awestruck terms as a “super bomb,” or simply “the super.”

The unimaginable had happened.  It turned out that there was such a thing as too much power.  What in World War II came to be called “total war,” the full application of the power of a great state to the destruction of others, was no longer conceivable.  The Cold War gained its name for a reason.  A hot war between the U.S. and the USSR could not be fought, nor could another global war, a reality driven home by the Cuban missile crisis.  Their power could only be expressed “in the shadows” or in localized conflicts on the “peripheries.”  Power now found itself unexpectedly bound hand and foot.

This would soon be reflected in the terminology of American warfare.  In the wake of the frustrating stalemate that was Korea (1950-1953), a war in which the U.S. found itself unable to use its greatest weapon, Washington took a new language into Vietnam. The conflict there was to be a “limited war.”  And that meant one thing: nuclear power would be taken off the table.

For the first time, it seemed, the world was facing some kind of power glut.  It’s at least reasonable to assume that, in the years after the Cold War standoff ended, that reality somehow seeped from the nuclear arena into the rest of warfare.  In the process, great power war would be limited in new ways, while somehow being reduced only to its destructive aspect and nothing more.  It suddenly seemed to hold no other possibilities within it — or so the evidence of the sole superpower in these years suggests.

War and conflict are hardly at an end in the twenty-first century, but something has removed war’s normal efficacy.  Weapons development has hardly ceased either, but the newest highest-tech weapons of our age are proving strangely ineffective as well.  In this context, the urge in our time to produce “precision weaponry” — no longer the carpet-bombing of the B-52, but the “surgical” strike capacity of a joint direct attack munition, or JDAM — should be thought of as the arrival of “limited war” in the world of weapons development.

The drone, one of those precision weapons, is a striking example.  Despite its penchant for producing “collateral damage,” it is not a World War II-style weapon of indiscriminate slaughter.  It has, in fact, been used relatively effectively to play whack-a-mole with the leadership of terrorist groups, killing off one leader or lieutenant after another.  And yet all of the movements it has been directed against have only proliferated, gaining strength (and brutality) in these same years.  It has, in other words, proven an effective weapon of bloodlust and revenge, but not of policy.  If war is, in fact, politics by other means (as Carl von Clausewitz claimed), revenge is not.  No one should then be surprised that the drone has produced not an effective war on terror, but a war that seems to promote terror.

One other factor should be added in here: that global power glut has grown exponentially in another fashion as well.  In these years, the destructive power of the gods has descended on humanity a second time as well — via the seemingly most peaceable of activities, the burning of fossil fuels.  Climate change now promises a slow-motion version of nuclear Armageddon, increasing both the pressure on and the fragmentation of societies, while introducing a new form of destruction to our lives.

Can I make sense of all this?  Hardly.  I’m just doing my best to report on the obvious: that military power no longer seems to act as it once did on Planet Earth.  Under distinctly apocalyptic pressures, something seems to be breaking down, something seems to be fragmenting, and with that the familiar stories, familiar frameworks, for thinking about how our world works are losing their efficacy.

Decline may be in the American future, but on a planet pushed to extremes, don’t count on it taking place within the usual tale of the rise and fall of great powers or even superpowers. Something else is happening on Planet Earth. Be prepared.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Aljazeera America: U.S. drone strike kills AQAP leader in Yemen

6 Responses

  1. I’d like to see what others have to say about this article, but I would point out that “policy” is action directed towards someone else. In our time that someone else has been nation-states or rebels against nation-states.

    Nation-states matter as an organizing principle, the basic legal unit of the human race since the destruction of autonomous tribes, nomadic hordes, etc. But they have not always been the format in which sovereignty is expressed. Meaning, that entity which most people are willing to kill for.

    We have had the age of monarchy, but within that was also the age of multi-ethnic dynastic empires, and the age of great religious movements under which many princes pledged to limit warfare with each other and unite if holy wars against rival faiths were necessary.

    We even have the spectacle of the Catholics and Protestants of 17th century at each other’s throats in a Thirty Years’ War, only for their descendants 150 years latter form completely different divisions over feudal monarchy versus republics and the Napoleonic system. What changed is what was sovereign.

    If the age of the nation-state is ending, I fear that the Age of Reason is also ending. We have no progressive organizing principle to replace the nation-state. Instead, the old monsters of religion and aristocracy are maneuvering to be the only options for ordinary people to return to. Every day it seems that extremist minorities and the oligarchs who finance them from Arabia to Arkansas are abrogating democracy and the social contract while citizens are sidelined by doubt, fear, and apathy.

    That is why “policy” doesn’t work. It needs citizens to work against. Few questioned in 1945 holding the people of Germany collectively guilty for the acts of their nation-state even if not all of them ever voted for Hitler. If people stop believing in citizenship as a legal (vs racial or religious) responsibility, then they will freely give their loyalties and capacity for violence to anything that comes along, falling under the command of those fellow humans whose wills are as strong as their consciences are weak. At that point, there’s no one to negotiate with because there’s no list of relevant representatives. Warlords come and go, and if you don’t know who controls a particular piece of land for the foreseeable future you can’t sign a treaty about what happens there.

  2. I think it is pretty easy to see why China is content to being a regional power – perhaps even a regional hegemon – and not seek to position itself as a global superpower rival to the USA.

    It has to do with those rickety ol’ trains, and those pothole-ridden roads.

    They look, and they can see that even a country as rich and as powerful as the USA is driving itself into the ground trying to pay for its “global” ambitions, and they conclude that It Can’t Be Done, and trying to do it simply results in…. potholed roads and trains that scarcely go at all.

    And who needs that?

    • Remember that China’s culture has 5000 years of experience. They have already made (and mostly learned from ) all the mistakes Americans insist on making.

      Americans have some MAJOR cultural flaws that cause major social problems:

      – Failure to invest in the future because that decreases the money to have fun with today.

      – Nothing gets done until the need is super-critical and only the minimum needed to do a quick patch is done.

      – Too much “me, me” and not enough what can we do for “us.”

      Americans short-term thinking and excessive “rugged individualism” is reflected across society.

  3. Since WWII we have seen a worldwide decline in the prestige of the military and naval forces of the world’s superpowers despite their nuclear capabilities with non-state guerrilla and terror organizations being deployed as counter-measures.

    Dienbienphu in 1954 saw a vastly better armed and trained French force defeated by the Vietminh. Twenty-one years later the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army captured Saigon. Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of young American servicemen’s lives were wasted fighting a futile political war against an opponent they could not understand.

    In 1979, the Soviet Union fought a war in Afghanistan that cost thousands of its soldiers their lives and resulted in victory for fundamentalist Islamic guerilla fighters.

    Israel’s Operation Galilee in 1982 to dislodge the P.L.O in south Lebanon gave rise to the radical Shi’ite fundamentalism embodied by Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Despite over 1,000 IDF soldiers killed in action, Israel was forced to declare its withdrawal from Lebanon under PM Ehud Barak in 1999 and allowed Hezbollah to proliferate into the seventh largest military force in the world, possessing between 40,000 and 100,000 missiles currently and having effectively a “state-within-a-state” in southern Lebanon. Without Israeli occupation in that region, Hezbollah would not likely have been created. The best that can be said of Hezbollah is that they have availed themselves of the political processes in Lebanon and parlayed their popularity into seats in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet.

    Today Israel finds itself in ongoing armed conflict with terror organizations in Gaza and the West Bank that are in a direct result of their illegal and oppressive occupation of those areas. The Israel Chamber of Commerce estimates the Second Intifada alone from 2000 to 2006 cost Israelis between 25 and 35 billion dollars until Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and released 700 Arab prisoners to the West Bank.

    The U.S. and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 has resulted in ongoing futility due to insurgent forces that have prevented a stable government from taking root in Baghdad.

    Much of the guerrilla and terror activities that have been ongoing in the Middle East and other parts of the Third World since WWII have been a direct result of unpopular foreign occupations.

    It also simply cannot be denied that the extrajudicial assassinations and drone strikes being carried out by the U.S. and Israeli military and intelligence communities did not result in a greater cohesiveness of members of radical terror groups and increased recruitment of new members. This phenomenon has been observed especially in Gaza, Afghanistan, and Yemen – where extreme poverty exists.

    • All military organizations on the earth have reached the limits of their power.

      Basically, every military has similar weapons and similar leadership ability.

      This is because of :

      – Global trade – The entire earth is a single weapons market with all the weapons makers competing heavily. When many suppliers compete, product designs rapidly become optimal. This is how we got the AK-47, the most versatile personal killing tool.

      – Global communication – Thanks to the Internet, now every human on earth can have access to all the knowledge of mankind. Now, when a fighter in Iraq figures out a better way to kill heavily armored humans, that knowledge is rapidly spread over the entire globe. Basically there are no secrets – every human can know everything.

      – Cheap technology – All weapons are based on existing technology and now, not only is technology ubiquitous (every human has the same technology), but also very, very inexpensive. Because of things like Raspberry-pi computers (a US$35, 32-bit ARM multi-core CPU system with gigs of memory), clones of GPS chips (with safe guards removed) and lots of free, high quality software (Linux and more), it is possible to make a “good enough” missile guidance system for less than US$1000.

      – Basic Physics and Chemistry limits – There are no “magic” weapons quite simply because over the last 5000 years, all weapons have been optimized (cheap technology and global information sharing, strike again). Even the knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon is well documented. Once weapons are optimized there is no way to go beyond what is physically possible. And once all weapons are optimized and everyone has similar weapons, winning is essentially a coin toss.

      The bottom line is, today, all that war can accomplish is to kill lots of humans very efficiently and waste lots of wealth that would be better used to improve lives. Sure, some line drawn on a map may move a little, but it is just as likely that within a few years that line will move back.

      The ancient urge to be the dominant monkey has run up against the brick wall of equal ability to fight. That is, none of the monkeys can be dominant any longer and they all have to get along.

  4. Very simple: follow the money.
    After World War II, the US owned 73 cents out of every dollar worth of goods and services created in the world. Today that figure has shrank to 23 cents of that dollar. So, roughly, US power is one third of what it was half a century ago.

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