On November 27, The New York Times headlined an article “Conflicting Policies on Syria and Islamic State Erode U.S. Standing in Mideast.” But this is not new. U.S. standing in the Middle East (and elsewhere) has been eroding for almost 50 years. The reality is far larger than the immediate dispute between anti-Assad forces in Syria and their supporters elsewhere on the one hand and the Obama regime in the United States on the other.
The fact is that the United States has become in the expression derived from onetime nautical practice a “loose cannon,” that is, a power whose actions are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous to itself and to others. As a result, it is trusted by almost no-one, even when many countries and political groups call upon it for assistance in specific ways in the short run.
How is it that the erstwhile unquestioned hegemonic power of the world-system, and still the strongest military power by far, has come to this sorry state? It is reviled or at least sternly reproached not only by the world left but by the world right and even such centrist forces as remain in this increasingly polarized world. The decline of the United States is not due to errors in policy but is structural – that is, not really subject to reversal.
It is perhaps useful to trace the successive moments of this erosion of effective power. The United States was at the height of its power in the period 1945-1970, when it got its way on the world scene 95% of the time on 95% of the issues, which is my definition of true hegemony. This hegemonic position was sustained by the collusion of the Soviet Union, which had a tacit deal with the United States of a division of zones of influence, not to be threatened by any military confrontation between the two. This was called the cold war, with an emphasis on the word “cold” and by their possession of nuclear weapons, guarantee of “mutual assured destruction.”
The point of the cold war was not to subdue the presumed ideological enemy but to keep a check on one’s own satellites. This cozy arrangement was first threatened by the unwillingness of movements in what was then called the “Third World” to suffer the negatives of this status quo. The Chinese Communist Party defied Stalin’s injunction to compromise with the Kuomintang and instead marched on Shanghai and proclaimed the People’s Republic. The Viet Minh defied the Geneva accords and insisted on marching on Saigon to unite the country under their rule. The Algerian Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria defied the French Communist Party’s injunction to give priority to the class struggle in France and launched its struggle for independence. And the Cuban guerillas that overthrew the Batista dictatorship forced the Soviet Union to help them defend again U.S. invasion by taking over the label of Communist Party from the group that had colluded with Batista.
The defeat of the United States in Vietnam was the result both of the war’s enormous drain on the U.S. Treasury and by the growing internal opposition to the war by middle-class youth draftees and their families, which bequeathed a permanent constraint on future U.S. military action in the so-called Vietnam syndrome.
The world-revolution of 1968 saw a worldwide rebellion not only against U.S. hegemony but against Soviet collusion with the United States. It also saw a rejection of the Old Left parties (Communist parties, Social-Democratic parties, national liberation movements) on the grounds that, despite coming to power, they had not changed the world as they had promised and had become part of the problem not part of the solution.
The United States under presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton (and including Ronald Reagan) sought to slow down U.S. decline by a triple policy. It invited its closest allies to change their status from satellite to that of partner, with the proviso that they not drift too far from U.S. policies. It shifted its focus in the world-economy from developmentalism to a demand for export-oriented production in the global South and the neoliberal injunctions of the Washington Consensus. And it sought to curb the creation of further nuclear powers beyond the five permanent members of the Security Council by imposing on all other countries an ending of their nuclear armament projects, a treaty that was not signed by and ignored by Israel, India, Pakistan, and South Africa.
These U.S. efforts were partially successful. They did slow down but not reverse U.S. decline. When in the late 1980s the Soviet Union began to collapse, the United States was in fact dismayed. The cold war was not meant to be won but to continue indefinitely. The most immediate consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Soviet Union was no longer there to restrain Iraq in the interest of U.S.-Soviet arrangements.
And while the United States won the Gulf war, it demonstrated further weakness by the fact that it could not finance its own role but was dependent for 90% of its costs on four other countries – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan. The decision by President George H.W. Bush not to march on Baghdad but content himself with the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty was no doubt a wise judgment but was seen by many in the United States as a humiliation in that Saddam Hussein remained in power.
The next turning-point was with the coming to power of President George W. Bush and the coterie of neo-con interventionists that surrounded him. This group seized upon the September 11 attack by al-Qaeda to justify an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This was seen by the interventionists as a mode of restoring waning U.S. hegemony in the world-system. Instead, it badly backfired in two ways. The United States for the very first time lost a vote in the U.N. Security Council and Iraqi resistance to U.S. presence was vaster and more persistent than anticipated. In sum, the invasion transformed a slow decline into a precipitate decline, which brings us to the efforts of the Obama regime to deal with this decline.
The reason neither President Obama nor any future U.S. president will be able to reverse this is because the United States has been unwilling to accept this new reality and adjust to it. The United States is still striving to restore its hegemonic role. Pursuing this impossible task leads it to pursue the so-called “conflicting policies” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Like a loose cannon, it constantly shifts position seeking to stabilize the world geopolitical ship. U.S. public opinion is torn between the glories of being the “leader” and the costs of trying to be the leader. Public opinion zigzags constantly.
As other countries and movements regard this spectacle, they place no trust in U.S. policies and therefore pursue each their own priorities. The problem for the world is that loose cannons result in destruction, both of the perpetrators and the rest of the world. And this increases the role that fear plays in the actions of everyone else, augmenting the dangers to world survival.