Or How the American Century Ends
by Tom Engelhardt
Let me rant for a moment. I don’t do it often, maybe ever. I’m not Donald Trump. Though I’m only two years older than him, I don’t even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America’s streets were essentially empty, they’ve suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that’s a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I’m an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.
In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable — before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke — and yet in some sense, all too imaginable. Think of it this way: the president who launched his candidacy by descending a Trump Tower escalator to denounce Mexican “rapists” and hype the “great, great wall” he would build, the man who, in his election campaign, promised to put a “big, fat, beautiful wall” across our southern border to keep out immigrants (“invaders!”) — my grandpa, by the way, was just such an invader — has, after nearly three and a half years, succeeded only in getting a grotesquely small wall built around the White House; in other words, he’s turned the “people’s house” into a micro-Green Zone in a Washington that, as it filled with National Guard troops and unidentified but militarized police types, was transformed into a Trumpian version of occupied Baghdad. Then he locked himself inside (except for that one block walk to a church through streets forcibly emptied of protesters). All in all, a single redolent phrase from our recent past comes to mind: mission accomplished!
From the second the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 to the spread of Covid-19, developments on this planet have been remarkably inconceivable and yet strangely predictable. Can you even remember that distant moment, almost three decades ago, when a stunned Washington political establishment (since its members had never imagined a world without the other Cold War superpower) suddenly found themselves alone on Planet Earth, freed to do their damnedest in a world lacking enemies of any sort? The globe seemed to be there for the taking, lock, stock, and barrel.
Their promised post-Cold War “peace dividend,” however, would involve arming the U.S. military to the teeth, expanding the country’s “intelligence” agencies until there were (count ’em!) 17 of them, bolstering an already vast national security state, and dispatching this country’s generals to fight “forever wars” that would unsettle the planet, while conquering nothing at all. The folly of this in such a moment on such a planet should have been obvious. And in fact, it was. In early 2003, facing only one small terrorist group and a completely concocted three-nation “axis of evil,” President George W. Bush decided to order the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Sensing what was coming, millions of people poured into the streets of cities worldwide to tell him the obvious: don’t do it! (“How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?” a typical protest sign of that moment read.) Of those millions, however, not one dreamed that, 13 years later, as a result of Bush’s decision to ignore them, this country, or at least its Electoral College, would put in the White House a president who would essentially launch the invasion of America.
What else do you need to know about our mad moment than that the president of the land that had, for so long, fought a “war on terror” would call the all-American protesters once again turning out in the streets of hundreds of cities and towns in vast numbers “terrorists”? He would then label a 75-year-old white man shoved over by two cops in Buffalo, New York, and left bleeding on the ground as they walked away an “ANTIFA provocateur.” (He’s still in the hospital.) In this fashion, with the police armed to the teeth with weaponry and equipment off the battlefields of America’s forever wars and George Floyd literally breathless thanks to one of those policemen, the war on terror would come home big time.
Think of it this way: we Americans, the greatest power in history, the ultimate unchallenged victors on this planet as the last century ended, are now living in a disease-ridden parody version of occupied Iraq and my own generation is officially responsible.
A Flattened Planet
Outside that Green Zone in Washington, an age, a system, even a planet as we’ve known it may all be ending and that shouldn’t be taken in without emotion. So many things aren’t obvious when they should be. Still, to give myself a tad of credit, in the years after the invasion of Iraq, I did at least sense that this single superpower world of ours was some kind of sham. In October 2012, for instance, I suggested that
“one thing seems obvious: a superpower military with unparalleled capabilities for one-way destruction no longer has the more basic ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet. Quite the opposite, U.S. military power has been remarkably discredited globally by the most pitiful of forces… Given the lack of enemies — a few thousand jihadis, a small set of minority insurgencies, a couple of feeble regional powers — why this is so, what exactly the force is that prevents Washington’s success, remains mysterious.”
I added, however, that “the end of the Cold War, which put an end… to several centuries of imperial or great power competition… left the sole ‘victor,’ it now seems clear, heading toward the exits wreathed in self-congratulation.”
Now, those exits are truly in sight and the self-congratulation that once filled Washington has been ceded to the walled-in occupant of the Oval Office in a country visibly in dismay and disarray. With a regime that not only has autocratic tendencies but also a remarkable urge to take the planet down environmentally (and possibly via nuclear arms as well), it’s easier to see just how disastrous the post-1991 “sole superpower’s” decisions really were.
Hopeful as the grit and determination of those Black Lives Matter protesters may be in the face of police violence and repression, not to speak of the nastiest virus in memory, we’re also at what looks increasingly like one of those moments when worlds do end and it didn’t have to be this way.
After all, in a cocoon of seemingly ultimate triumphalism, those who were running the post-1991 American global system did anything — to steal a word from journalist Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book The World Is Flat — but flatten the world they inherited (as in creating a more level playing field of any sort). In fact, the American powers-that-be promptly put their energy into creating the least level playing field imaginable. In it, a single country, the United States, would invest more money in its military than the next 10 powers combined and, by 2017, three Americans would have more wealth than the bottom half of this society. Meanwhile, the wealth of 162 global billionaires would equal that of half of humanity. It was a world in which, once the coronavirus pandemic struck causing almost unspeakable economic disaster, those billionaires would once again make a rather literal killing — another half-trillion dollars-plus.
So Friedman was right, but only if by “flat” he meant the four flat tires on the American Humvee.
Here, in fact, was the strange reality of that moment of ultimate triumph in 1991: the American political ruling class, the people who had seemingly won it all, would prove remarkably brain-dead in a way few grasped then or we wouldn’t be in Donald Trump’s America today. Back then, the one thing they couldn’t imagine in a world without the Soviet Union was an all-American world of flatness, peace, and democracy.
The only thing they could imagine was another version of the militarized style of dominance that had long characterized the American Century, to use the famous phrase Life and Time publisher Henry Luce first put into the language in 1941. Those managing the imperial system that had dotted the planet with military garrisons in a historically unprecedented fashion, while creating a global economy centered on the accumulation of staggering wealth and power, had no idea that the United States would prove to be the second superpower victim of the end of the Cold War.
Saying Goodbye to the American Century
Now, let me truly launch that rant of mine — and note that there will be no more section breaks or breathing room. After all, that’s the nature of a rant in an era in which the man in the Oval Office is quite capable of running the country (into the ground) while tweeting or retweeting 200 times in a single day. Hey, what the hell else is there to do as the president of these disunited states, except tweet, watch Fox News, and disunite them further?
So take my word for it, more or less 75 years after it began, the American Century is over. So long! Au revoir! Arrivederci! Zaijian!
Having been born on July 20, 1944, the day of the failed officers’ plot against Adolf Hitler (and not much else in history), I’ve lived through just about all of that “century” and I’m still here. And yet think of this as an autopsy because the body (of my hopes and those of my generation) now lies in the morgue and a skilled medical examiner should be able to discover just what it died of.
Who knew what I really hoped for back then? I mean, you’re talking to a guy who can still remember reading quite a range of books, but not what was in many of them. So who knows, half a century or so ago, what exactly was in me? After all, I was then the equivalent of a book that I carried around endlessly but never stopped to fully read.
We’re talking about the late 1960s and early 1970s, the years when, for the first time in my life, however briefly, I suddenly felt strangely at home (and also movingly out of place) in this American world of ours. In the late 1960s, the radical politics of that moment blew me out of graduate school where, of all things, I was studying to be a China scholar at Harvard University. Yes, the Ming and Ching dynasties (rather than the Trump dynasty) then had my attention… until, of course, they didn’t. Those were the years when I suddenly became deeply aware that the American world I’d been brought up to admire (even if, in my childhood, my parents seemed to be having an awfully tough time in it) was deeply awry. And it tells you something about this white boy that it wasn’t the Civil Rights Movement that truly brought that home to me (though it should have been, of course) but an all-American conflict and slaughter taking place thousands of miles away.
Called the Vietnam War, it was a brutal American folly in the divided Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in which millions would die and it would unsettle my mind, my life, my being. Somehow, in those years, as I’ve also written elsewhere, it came to seem as if Vietnamese were being killed right outside my window in peaceful Cambridge, Massachusetts. While I would never end up in the U.S. military — my draft files were destroyed at the time by an activist group that called itself Women Against Daddy Warbucks — I would be mobilized into an anti-military, antiwar movement filled in a fashion unimaginable today with dissenting soldiers, many of whom had fought in Vietnam.
I was swept up by the idea of a better world that I began to imagine might actually come to pass. How naïve I was!
Had you told me at that moment that everything we then dreamt of beyond the ending of that terrible set of American wars would essentially go down in flames; that the U.S. would, in the ensuing nearly half-century, fight two endless conflicts in another Asian land, Afghanistan — one in a kind of open secrecy, the second (now nearly two decades old) in plain sight even as it turns into a pandemic war; that, in this century, my country would invade not only Afghanistan but Iraq and fight a war on “terror” across much of what once would have been known as the Third World; and that all of this would happen without — except for one brief moment — anyone out in the streets protesting or paying much attention at all (except to eternally “thank” the non-conscripted soldiers fighting in those wars), I would have thought you were nuts.
If you had told me that the president of the United States, a man of my generation, would be a narcissistic, autocratic-leaning, utterly self-obsessed version of whatever anyone who mattered to him wanted him to be, a man ready, even eager, to call troops from those distant wars onto American streets to put down a sudden surge of protest amid a viral pandemic and an economic collapse similar to the Great Depression, only to find himself opposed by the very generals, each whiter than the next, who fought the disastrous forever wars that paved his way to power (and that they would be greeted as saviors in the liberal media), I would have thought you mad as a hatter.
And here’s the saddest thing of all from my perspective: if those young people now in the streets can’t perform genuine miracles — and not just when it comes to racism — if they can’t sooner or later turn their mobilized attention to the planet-destroying side of the American ruling class, then forget about it. This world will be heading into a heat hell.
That my generation, whether in the form of Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell, would be responsible for turning imperial America into an autocratic-leaning, collapsing semi-democracy, and a first-class world annihilator, I would have found hard to imagine. If you had told me that, half a century into the future, the world’s fate would rest on a presidential election between a genuine madman and something close to a dead man (that, for all we know, may not prove to be an election at all), I would have dismissed you out of hand.
And yet that, it seems, is the pandemic legacy of my generation for which we should all be ashamed, even as we watch the young, driven by the insanity and inanity of it all, turning out in our diseased streets to protest a country coming apart at the seams.
Think of Donald Trump as the American imperial establishment’s ultimate gift to humanity. Yes, they were as shocked and horrified as so many of the rest of us when he won the 2016 election, but they created the perfect America for him to do so. He couldn’t have won if they hadn’t both built a world that was desperately unflat and been so destructive in the process of unflattening it. He couldn’t have won if they hadn’t launched almost 20 years of disastrous, never-ending wars across parts of Asia, the Greater Middle East, and much of Africa under the heading of the war on terror, conflicts that did indeed bring terror to vast populations and spawn a sea of uprooted refugees who helped spark a new right-wing “populism” across Europe and here. (Remember Donald Trump’s Muslim ban!)
It should have been obvious that, in some fashion, those wars and their failed generals would all come home.
Donald Trump couldn’t have entered the White House if the Republicans, once the party of the environment, hadn’t become the party of billionaires and oil magnates. Donald Trump couldn’t have entered the White House if George W. Bush hadn’t insisted on invading Iraq. Donald Trump couldn’t have happened if Barack Obama, a president who understood climate change as well as anyone imaginable, hadn’t been willing to look the other way while the fracking revolution took place and this country briefly became Saudi America. The oceans are already hotter than they’ve ever been; storms are intensifying, sea levels rising, floods increasing in intensity; the Arctic is burning in an unprecedented fashion, as wildfires growing wilder; and a genuine pyromaniac is in the White House.
The American century is ending decisively with a first-class declinist inside Washington’s Green Zone. My small suggestion: don’t hold your breath for the Chinese century either. I doubt it’s coming.
Whatever happens tomorrow or next week, or next month, or next year, despite the rare gleam of hope those young protesters offer, we are deep in the age of disappointment on (as Donald Trump has only accentuated) an increasingly disposable planet.
So here’s something I wonder about: thirty or forty years from now, when I’m long gone, will there be a modern Edward Gibbon around to write a multi-volume classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the American Empire? And will she emerge from that movement of young people now in the streets denouncing racism? And will that movement be transformed somehow into a planetary one of people of every age determined to trump the Trumps of our world and save a planet worth saving by forever burying all those fossil fuels and the criminal companies that produce them, or will the dreams of my generation have turned into the nightmare of all times? Will this not just be the end of that foreshortened American century, but — in the deepest sense of the word — the age of disappointment?
And now, for that rant of mine…