What It Feels Like When a Superpower Runs Off the Tracks

Thought I would put this piece from Tom Engelhardt here. A fairly accurate analysis of America’s denial.

From time to time, the U.S. government’s “Intelligence Community“  or IC musters its collective savvy and plants its flag in the future in periodic reports that go under the generic rubric of “Global Trends.”  The last of these, Global Trends 2025, was prepared for a new administration taking office in January 2009, and it was typical.

In a field once left to utopian or dystopian thinkers, pulp-fiction writers, oddballs, visionaries, and even outright cranks, these compromise bureaucratic documents break little ground and rock no boats, nor do they predict global tsunamis.  Better to forecast what the people you brief already believe, and skip the oddballs with their strange hunches, the sorts who might actually have a knack for recognizing the shock of the future lurking in the present.

As group efforts, then, these reports tend to project the trends of the present moment relatively seamlessly and reasonably reassuringly into the future.  For example, the last time around they daringly predicted a gradual, 15-year soft landing for a modestly declining America.  (“Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, [the country’s] relative strength — even in the military realm — will decline and U.S. leverage will become more constrained.”)

Even though it was assumedly being finished amid the global meltdown of 2008, nothing in it would have kept you up at night, sleepless and fretting.  More than 15 years into the future, our IC could imagine no wheels falling off the American juggernaut, nothing that would make you wonder if this country could someday topple off the nearest cliff.  Twists, unpleasant surprises, unhappy endings?  Not for this empire, according to its corps of intelligence analysts.

And the future being what it is, if you read that document now, you’d find none of the more stunning events that have disrupted and radically altered our world since late 2008: no Arab lands boiling with revolt, no Hosni Mubarak under arrest with his sons in jail, no mass demonstrations in Syria, no economies of peripheral European countries imploding down one by one, nor a cluster of nuclear plants in Japan melting down.

You won’t find once subservient semi-client states thumbing their noses at Washington, not even in 2025.  You won’t, for example, find the Saudis in, say 2011, openly exploring deeper relations with Russia and China as a screw-you response to Washington’s belated decision that Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak should leave office, or Pakistani demands that the CIA and American special operations forces start scaling back activities on their turf, or American officials practically pleading with an Iraqi government it once helped put in power (and now moving ever closer to Iran) to please, please, please let U.S. troops stay past an agreed-upon withdrawal deadline of December 31, 2011, or Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly blaming the Americans for the near collapse of his country’s major bank in a cesspool of corruption (in which his own administration was, of course, deeply implicated).

Only two-plus years after Global Trends 2025 appeared, it doesn’t take the combined powers of the IC to know that American decline looks an awful lot more precipitous and bumpier than imagined.  But let’s not just blame our intelligence functionaries for not divining the future we’re already in.  After all, they, too, were in the goldfish bowl, and when you’re there, it’s always hard to describe the nearest cats.

Nor should we be surprised that, like so many other Americans, they too were in denial.

Yes a goldfish bowl with mirrored sides that only reflected what you already believed. And as he states in the last sentence, “But I do know one thing: this can’t end well.”


2 thoughts on “What It Feels Like When a Superpower Runs Off the Tracks

  1. cmaukonen

    Oh I especially like his ending.

    Now that we’re so obviously there, the confusion is greater than ever. Theoretically, none of this should necessarily be considered bad news, not if you don’t love empires and what they do. A post-imperial U.S. could, of course, be open to all sorts of possibilities for change that might be exciting indeed.

    Right now, though, it doesn’t feel that way, does it? It makes me wonder: Could this be how it’s always felt inside a great imperial power on the downhill slide? Could this be what it’s like to watch, paralyzed, as a country on autopilot begins to come apart at the seams while still proclaiming itself “the greatest nation on Earth”?

  2. The Soviet people learned a couple decades back what this felt like and now we’re experiencing it. Next up will be the Chinese people in however long it takes for their government to start screwing up.

    Frankly, I don’t envy China. The timing of their rise as a key international player is awful. It’s more because of the U.S. messing up that China is going to be #1. If I were China I would be trying to figure out a way to keep that from happening. Too much stuff coming down the pike that’ll be really hard to manage, with whoever is on top of the heap being expected to play the pivotal role.

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