|Illustration: Liu Rui/GT|
The histories of empires are as different as the cultural, economic, material and political conditions they inherited, reshaped, and passed on.
The US began in anti-imperial revolt and defined itself as a republic devoid of imperial ambitions. Since 1945 the US insisted that it was a great power of an original kind. Its domination of geopolitical space beyond its borders rested, in its official and unofficial view, on the "consent of the governed." Other nations and peoples were supposedly eager to accept US supremacy.
In fact, much of the world resisted. The bloc organized by the former Soviet Union and the early PRC refused US suzerainty. Jawaharlal Nehru's India led a non-aligned coalition. Just 90 miles from the US, Cuba rejected its reign. Independent regimes in Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Iran were terminated. Vietnam resisted and won, paying a terrible price. Nominally obedient allies ventured on new courses.
The US power did not depend only on its armed might and covert activity. Its economic productivity, widespread prosperity and consensual social model were convincing. Art, film, music, novel, sport and theater were admired. However, the US capacity to impose itself abroad began to diminish as the domestic economy began to fail to provide a rising standard of living, full employment and expanding social services.
Some of the nation's thinkers and political leaders publicly worried about this. The late senator George McGovern campaigned for the presidency in 1972. "Come home, America." he argued, to domestic reconstruction. The public identified McGovern with the student revolt and Afro-American demands, accepted the unmatched cynicism of Richard Nixon until the entrenched imperial elite could no longer use him.
Nixon perfected techniques of dissimulation, falsehood, and murder. After the US defeat in Vietnam, the entire American elite became Nixonian, in that it increasingly concealed its aims and methods. It reinforced the two strongest characteristics of the US public mind, ignorance and self righteousness. As the nation's social fabric weakened, its elite's incapacity to make serious repairs reduced much of US politics to opportunism and entertainment.
The exception was the seriousness of the foreign policy and military apparatus, which acquired ever new weaponry, new issues, in an unending march from crisis to crisis.
The ending of the Cold War was followed by new interventions in the Middle East, and a permanent confrontation with militant Islam. The threat of communism ended in 1989, but was replaced just 12 years later by the threat of terror. The US elite is very competent in creating enemies, even if it cannot seem to hold onto its friends.
The success of the US foreign policy elite in consolidating its domestic influence is in stark contrast with its unmitigated record of failures abroad. Iraq, conquered, has become an Iranian ally. The US sponsorship of Israel is an obstacle to enduring influence with the Muslim peoples. Client states like Turkey have become disobedient. The only thing that unites the warring fragments of the Egyptian nation is disdain for the US. Cuba is no longer isolated, and Latin America no longer a US backyard.
The surveillance project has alienated large segments of European opinion, already disenchanted by Guantanamo, drone attacks and targeted assassinations.
More fundamentally, there is no longer a successful American social model. Loudly divided on the past, present and future of the US, Americans, despite enormous successes in the recent past, such as civic rights for Afro-Americans and equality for women, have almost nothing to say to other peoples about a common future.
The world has escaped US control and whether led by an internationalist like Barack Obama or a unilateralist like his predecessor George W. Bush, the nation no longer is astride the world like a colossus. Rather, it wanders errantly in historical space.
In Asia, for instance, it would be unwise to suppose that it could restrain a very large recrudescence of Japanese nationalism. On this and everything else, the US foreign policy elite is united only by its shared fears of the future. Not the least of its fears is that it will suffer, in the eyes of the citizenry, a loss of legitimacy. That is beginning to happen, but there are no new ideas and leaders to take its place.