Almost a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union disappeared, what’s remarkable is how much -- and how little -- has changed.Or perhaps, an unwillingness by a hyperpower to behave like an evil empire?
On the how-much front: Washington’s dreams of military glory ran aground with remarkable speed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, in 2007, the transcendent empire of capital came close to imploding as well, as a unipolar financial disaster spread across the planet. It led people to begin to wonder whether the globe’s greatest power might not, in fact, be too big to fail, and we were suddenly -- so everyone said -- plunged into a “multipolar world.”
Meanwhile, the Greater Middle East descended into protest, rebellion, civil war, and chaos without a Pax Americana in sight, as a Washington-controlled Cold War system in the region shuddered without (yet) collapsing. The ability of Washington to impose its will on the planet looked ever more like the wildest of fantasies, while every sign, including the hemorrhaging of national treasure into losing trillion-dollar wars, reflected not ascendancy but possible decline.
Under the circumstances, nothing could have been stranger than this: in its moment of total ascendancy, the Earth’s sole superpower with a military of staggering destructive potential and technological sophistication couldn’t win a war against minimally armed guerillas. Even more strikingly, despite having no serious opponents anywhere, it seemed not on the rise but on the decline, its infrastructure rotting out, its populace economically depressed, its wealth ever more unequally divided, its Congress seemingly beyond repair, while the great sucking sound that could be heard was money and power heading toward the national security state. Sooner or later, all empires fall, but this moment was proving curious indeed.What would the commentariat say about a hyperpower that put an end to the insurgencies in the most brutal and final way, never mind the collateral damage? And would that commentariat welcome the same sort of governmental ruthlessness, if applied to sharing the wealth or rebuilding the roads or making the trucking and airline companies pay more for their roads and airports, or imposing party discipline on the Congress?
What if, in the twenty-first century, going up means declining? What if the unipolar moment turns out to be a planetary moment in which previously distinct imperial events -- the rise and fall of empires -- fuse into a single disastrous system?On the other hand, what if the story of our times is this: centralized expertise, whether of the national security state or Big Finance or Big Business or Big Education, yields to the sovereign individual?
What if the story of our times is this: And then there was one planet, and it was going down.