Published on Tuesday, February 14, 2012 by TomDispatch
Hegemony and Its Dilemmas
“Losing” the World: American Decline in Perspective, Part 1
by Noam Chomsky
Significant anniversaries are solemnly commemorated --
At the moment, we are failing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s decision to launch the most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-World War II period: the invasion of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, leaving millions dead and four countries devastated, with casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover and food crops.
The prime target was
When the invasion was launched 50 years ago, concern was so slight that there were few efforts at justification, hardly more than the president’s impassioned plea that “we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence” and if the conspiracy achieves its ends in Laos and Vietnam, “the gates will be opened wide.”
Elsewhere, he warned further that “the complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history [and] only the strong... can possibly survive,” in this case reflecting on the failure of
By the time protest began to mount half a dozen years later, the respected Vietnam specialist and military historian Bernard Fall, no dove, forecast that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity… is threatened with extinction...[as]...the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.” He was again referring to
When the war ended eight horrendous years later, mainstream opinion was divided between those who described the war as a “noble cause” that could have been won with more dedication, and at the opposite extreme, the critics, to whom it was “a mistake” that proved too costly. By 1977, President Carter aroused little notice when he explained that we owe
There are important lessons in all this for today, even apart from another reminder that only the weak and defeated are called to account for their crimes. One lesson is that to understand what is happening we should attend not only to critical events of the real world, often dismissed from history, but also to what leaders and elite opinion believe, however tinged with fantasy. Another lesson is that alongside the flights of fancy concocted to terrify and mobilize the public (and perhaps believed by some who are trapped in their own rhetoric), there is also geostrategic planning based on principles that are rational and stable over long periods because they are rooted in stable institutions and their concerns. That is true in the case of
Later, as the scale of the
Gauging American Decline
With such lessons in mind, it is useful to look at what is highlighted in the major journals of policy and opinion today. Let us keep to the most prestigious of the establishment journals, Foreign Affairs. The headline blaring on the cover of the December 2011 issue reads in bold face: “Is America Over?”
The title article calls for “retrenchment” in the “humanitarian missions” abroad that are consuming the country’s wealth, so as to arrest the American decline that is a major theme of international affairs discourse, usually accompanied by the corollary that power is shifting to the East, to
The lead articles are on Israel-Palestine. The first, by two high Israeli officials, is entitled “The Problem is Palestinian Rejection”: the conflict cannot be resolved because Palestinians refuse to recognize
The opposing position, defended by an American professor, is entitled “The Problem Is the Occupation.” The subtitle reads “How the Occupation is Destroying the Nation.” Which nation?
The January 2012 issue features yet another call to bomb Iran now, before it is too late. Warning of “the dangers of deterrence,” the author suggests that “skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed
Others argue that the costs would be too high, and at the extremes some even point out that an attack would violate international law -- as does the stand of the moderates, who regularly deliver threats of violence, in violation of the U.N. Charter.
Let us review these dominant concerns in turn.
American decline is real, though the apocalyptic vision reflects the familiar ruling class perception that anything short of total control amounts to total disaster. Despite the piteous laments, the
But the problems
Demography is only one of many serious problems ahead. For
Not all prominent voices foresee American decline. Among international media, there is none more serious and responsible than the
At about the same time, the International Energy Agency reported that, with rapidly increasing carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, the limit of safety will be reached by 2017 if the world continues on its present course. “The door is closing,” the IEA chief economist said, and very soon it “will be closed forever.”
Shortly before the U.S. Department of Energy reported the most recent carbon dioxide emissions figures, which “jumped by the biggest amount on record” to a level higher than the worst-case scenario anticipated by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That came as no surprise to many scientists, including the MIT program on climate change, which for years has warned that the IPCC predictions are too conservative.
Such critics of the IPCC predictions receive virtually no public attention, unlike the fringe of denialists who are supported by the corporate sector, along with huge propaganda campaigns that have driven Americans off the international spectrum in dismissal of the threats. Business support also translates directly to political power. Denialism is part of the catechism that must be intoned by Republican candidates in the farcical election campaign now in progress, and in Congress they are powerful enough to abort even efforts to inquire into the effects of global warming, let alone do anything serious about it.
In brief, American decline can perhaps be stemmed if we abandon hope for decent survival, prospects that are all too real given the balance of forces in the world.
Putting such unpleasant thoughts aside, a close look at American decline shows that
The basic viewpoint was outlined with admirable frankness in a major state paper of 1948 (PPS 23). The author was one of the architects of the
Kennan was referring specifically to
The plans that Kennan helped formulate and implement took for granted that the U.S. would control the Western Hemisphere, the Far East, the former British empire (including the incomparable energy resources of the Middle East), and as much of Eurasia as possible, crucially its commercial and industrial centers. These were not unrealistic objectives, given the distribution of power. But decline set in at once.
The “loss of
In the case of
The way to deal with such a problem is clear: destroy the virus and “inoculate” those who might be infected. In the
The most important victory of the Indochina wars was in 1965, when a U.S.-backed military coup in
It was “a gleam of light in
Years after the great events of 1965, Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reflected that it would have been wise to end the Vietnam war at that time, with the “virus” virtually destroyed and the primary domino solidly in place, buttressed by other U.S.-backed dictatorships throughout the region.
Similar procedures have been routinely followed elsewhere. Kissinger was referring specifically to the threat of socialist democracy in
The Concentration of Wealth and American Decline
Despite such victories, American decline continued. By 1970,
At about that time, American decline entered a new phase: conscious self-inflicted decline. From the 1970s, there has been a significant change in the
Meanwhile, for the majority, real wages largely stagnated, and people were able to get by only by sharply increased workloads (far beyond Europe), unsustainable debt, and repeated bubbles since the Reagan years, creating paper wealth that inevitably disappeared when they burst (and the perpetrators were bailed out by the taxpayer). In parallel, the political system has been increasingly shredded as both parties are driven deeper into corporate pockets with the escalating cost of elections, the Republicans to the level of farce, the Democrats (now largely the former “moderate Republicans”) not far behind.
A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, which has been the major source of reputable data on these developments for years, is entitled Failure by Design. The phrase “by design” is accurate. Other choices were certainly possible. And as the study points out, the “failure” is class-based. There is no failure for the designers. Far from it. Rather, the policies are a failure for the large majority, the 99% in the imagery of the Occupy movements -- and for the country, which has declined and will continue to do so under these policies.
One factor is the offshoring of manufacturing. As the solar panel example mentioned earlier illustrates, manufacturing capacity provides the basis and stimulus for innovation leading to higher stages of sophistication in production, design, and invention. That, too, is being outsourced, not a problem for the “money mandarins” who increasingly design policy, but a serious problem for working people and the middle classes, and a real disaster for the most oppressed, African Americans, who have never escaped the legacy of slavery and its ugly aftermath, and whose meager wealth virtually disappeared after the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008, setting off the most recent financial crisis, the worst so far.
[Note: Part 2 of Noam Chomsky’s discussion of American decline, “The Imperial Way,” will be posted at TomDispatch tomorrow.]
Copyright 2012 Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements. His most recent books include: 9-11: 10th Anniversary Edition, Failed States, What We Say Goes (with David Barsamian), Hegemony or Survival, and the Essential Chomsky.
Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/02/14-6
Donations can be sent to the
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs