Sometimes empires just die, but often they have one last spurt before they go, and more often than not the spurt is all part of the dying. A good analogy is the Indian Summer, a period of unexpectedly warm weather that appears to turn the tide of approaching Winter. Less astute minds are sure to mistake this as proof of eternal summer and get frostbitten later. Those believing in the permanence of American hegemony are in for a similar nasty surprise, especially as in the coming years we are going to see the reassertion once again of American power.
This last hurrah won’t have the same post-9-11 naivety about turning everyone into "instant Americans" by giving them “democracy,” “freedom,” and cell phones over the craters of their bombed-out homes; even though that shrill note will probably continue to resonate through the propaganda. No, the new Neocons who will further this policy will be motivated much more by a cynical sense of realpolitik, realfinanz, and the increasingly jarring clatter of the gears of the machine that once smoothly ran the world.
It is not particularly important who wins the Presidential election today. Romney is a better fit with the dynamic of a late season assertion of American power; Obama a better fit with the economic decline powering it. Whoever is elected President, we will see a similar trajectory, whereby the hegemonic power of America will be asserted not as a burgeoning of true, broad-based power as it was in the post-WWII period, but instead as a flashy gesture disguising frailty and ultimate collapse.
The crucible for this last act of overextended power will of course be Iran, the perfect fall guy because you just know they are not going to vary their route – their route being the one that leads towards a nuclear capability to balance that of Israel. Right on schedule, just when Uncle Sam wants to remind the world of what he looked like 50 years ago with his shirt off, the Iranians can be relied on to provide a convenient casus belli, especially if you have a few experts and a pet media to help refine the evidence and airbrush the fact that Israel and Pakistan have no business owning nukes either.
There is a tendency to view the coming war with Iran too narrowly. It is typically presented as an issue of security for Israel with a side order of protecting the free flow of Gulf oil and therefore that panacea of all dreams, the global economy. The security of the cute little tyrannies that dot the southern shore of the Gulf also gets the occasional mention. The real issue however is the maintenance of US power vis-à-vis its major global rivals set against a general background of its decline.
Riddled with flaws and weaknesses that are only getting worse, America is the yesterday man of tomorrow, but at least today the country still has some killer assets – and I don’t just mean its drones (either of the media or aeronautical variety).
The growth of America’s weaknesses means that its assets can no longer be kept on the shelf to exert their silent and secret power, but must now be vigorously milked for all they are worth. This is what will determine American foreign policy in the coming years, and impel it into inevitable war.
First the weaknesses: America is not a country in the conventional sense. This means it is held together artificially and mainly through bribery. Ultimately this means imports from China and elsewhere. This weakness is enshrined in the shape of the US economy. Modern Americans are incapable of enduring a fraction of the hardship, discipline, and endurance which workers in China, Japan, or even parts of Europe are capable of. This means that America is fighting a natural tendency to decline to levels of poverty where it can develop these traits again, but such a decline would inevitably rip the country apart. So, the inevitable must not be allowed to happen, and the only way to stop this is with magic money. But magic money is like the emperor with no clothes. Sooner or later the inconvenient child is bound to point the finger, and spark off the mass perception of nudity. Already the Emperor has unfastened his top button and unzipped his fly.
Another important weakness that America has is the power of the Jewish or Zionist lobby, supplemented by the religious right. This is a problem for two reasons. First it leads to unnecessary military involvements – both Afghanistan and Iraq can be laid at the door of this unholy relationship. Secondly, the anti-US sentiments of the Islamic world threaten to undermine the status of a dollar. Recent years have seen moves to decouple oil rich economies from the petro-dollar. The existence of a viable alternative world reserve currency in the Euro makes these dangers very real. And later something even better may come along.
Now its strengths: America’s main strength has always been its position, a large secure continental landmass with unhindered access to the two largest oceans. This has made it the ideal country to carry out Alfred Mahan’s vision of world hegemony through sea power, something it has improved on by bottling up other major continental powers through its alliances with Japan and Britain, its two unsinkable aircraft carriers. Much of the Chinese anger directed at Japan recently over the issue of the insignificant Senkaku rocks is provoked by the way that US allies like Japan and Taiwan effectively serve as a fleet of blockading ships. More than this, China’s vast thirst for oil can only be quenched with supplies from the Middle East and Africa that America can easily cut off anytime it chooses. The main goal of Chinese foreign policy is to overcome this strategic weakness.
Secondly, although America is a major oil importer itself, it is relatively self-sufficient and secure in this respect compared to other major powers. Part of this is because it is now mainly a consumer economy rather than an industrial one. Also, in recent years domestic oil production has boomed to the point where the US is now tipped to overtake even Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer. A good conspiracy theorist could make much of this surprising revelation – almost as if a major Gulf war has been in the offing for the past few years of rising production.
A third strength that America has is its political and economic unity. Although the economy has major and even terminal flaws, the fact that it is united is a clear strength, especially with regard to the Eurozone, which is struggling in the no-man’s land between monetary union and deeper economic union during an economically difficult period.
A fourth strength is the US’s ability to project power. Although the campaign in Afghanistan in particular has revealed the limitations of US military power against Fourth Generation Warfare, the US is still able to control much of the world’s airspace and sea lanes. Even though it would be defeated if it entered certain of the 'houses' in the 'global village,' it still controls most of the streets between those houses.
This also gives the US the glamour of Superpower status that helps to sustain the perceived value of the dollar against inflationary economic policies, and so helps the machinery of domestic bribery on which unity and everything else depends.
These strengths, it should be noted, really come into their own when set against the weaknesses of America’s main rivals for global power, namely China and the EU, whose strengths, by the way, are equally potent when set against America’s weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses can be summarized as follows:
US weaknesses vis-à-vis its rivals
Ethnic disunity and the financial costs this brings (vs. China/ to a lesser extent the EU)
Lack of toughness and discipline of its people (vs. China/ to a lesser extent the EU)
Reliance on debt-financed spending (vs. China/ to a lesser extent the EU)
Resistance to the dollar caused by pro-Israel foreign policy (vs. the EU)
US strengths vis-à-vis its rivals
Military power projection and global positioning (vs. China/ to a lesser extent Russia)
Relative energy independence (vs. China and the EU)
Political and economic unity (vs. the EU)
Superpower status (vs. China/ to a lesser extent the EU)
There is a kind of negative complementariness between America’s strengths and those of its rivals. If Europe and China are allowed to strengthen, the US will weaken by a similar amount.
For example, if the Eurozone is allowed to recover and consolidate its monetary and economic union this will provide the basis for an alternative reserve currency that would not only be popular with Islamic countries but also China and Russia, keen to see America weakened. Also, any weakening in America’s power projection and global positioning would create a vacuum that, in the Western Pacific, would be filled by China, which is keen to protect and control the sea lanes it depends on. Such a weakening of US prestige would also undermine the power of the dollar and lead to a vicious cycle.
These factors create the machinery, which, if worked one way, leads to the collapse of American Imperial power, but if worked the other, offers the possibility of hamstringing America’s opponents and extending US power for a few more decades.
If America was capable of slow and gentle decline as pre-multicultural Britain was, it might be easy to accept the end of the American Imperium, but the ending of Empire is also likely to have an enormous economic and social cost, with the essential falsity of the present economy being revealed, a process that would effectively tear the nation apart.
The unacceptable nature of such a fate provides the impulse for America to move the other way, whoever gets elected today; which leads us back to the prospect of war with Iran.
Iran having nuclear weapons only matters to the USA because it matters to Israel, as the Iranians would be no more likely to nuke anything than Israel. But Iran’s nuclear ambitions provide a convenient casus belli that can be sold to the unwarlike, consumerist masses, and which would allow America to capitalize on its strengths relative to its main rivals.
The nature of such a war would be largely confined to the skies with some peripheral naval and land operations. The war aim would be to destroy Iran’s air force and nuclear research capabilities. The war, however, would actually be directed at other powers, with Iran serving the role of surrogate enemy.
It would interrupt oil supplies possibly for weeks or even months to a degree which the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq never did. While post-election America would suffer from the resultant spike in oil prices, it would bear up a lot better than either China or the EU. The crisis would lead to a short period of intense economic dislocation as oil prices shot up and businesses closed down, at least temporarily. This would send a sharp signal to China that America controlled its sea lanes and oil supply. It would also turn one of China's strengths – the hard-working self-reliance of its population – into a weakness with sudden unemployment possibly feeding into public unrest. Furthermore it would also turn an American weakness – its underclass-bribing welfare system – into a strength.
In the Eurozone a sudden economic crisis like this would likely create enormous strains on an already fragile and unbalanced system, causing sharp increases in government borrowing costs for some nations, and possibly seeing countries like Greece and Spain exiting the Euro, or even new countries emerging like Catalonia or Northern Italy. This picture of confusion and division would further diminish the status of the Euro as a rival world currency to the dollar. Meanwhile the “flight to safety” caused by the war would strengthen the dollar.
The Mighty Donut
While a war against Iran serves a useful local goal for America’s Middle Eastern allies, it also has clear benefits for America’s global position, on which its domestic economy depends. Peace makes the world focus on the hole in the American donut; war makes it focus instead on the doughy ring.
There is a kind of impersonal necessity at work, so forget which telegenic narcissistic autocue-reading sociopath is riding the presidential golf buggy.
Failing empires cannot afford the luxury of unutilized assets because this makes these assets effectively a punitive tax on that empire, one that its rivals do not share. America’s control of the seas and air is more than worthless in a world that is entirely peaceful; it is debilitating. It’s all hole and no donut!
To capitalize on these assets a certain amount of chaos is needed. The war against Iran and its repercussions for China and Europe, America’s real rivals, provides a nice, measured degree of this. For these reasons, limited war and a period of reassertion of American power is extremely likely.
But what will be the unintended consequences of this? In the case of Europe, further economic dislocation can only be good news for the continent’s nationalists. While for China and Russia, the exercise of US power will only impel them to strengthen their alliance and develop their ability to project power. There will also be attempts to draw Japan away.
The consequences in the Middle East will be more complex, but America’s blatant use of power for the benefit of Israel and the Gulf states will create a deep animus that may serve to unite Sunnis and Shiites against their common enemy. In other words, short-term gains in American power will be paid for through long-term losses.