No wonder they had remarkably few hesitations about launching their incomparably powerful military on wars of choice in the Greater Middle East. What could possibly go wrong? What could stand in the way of the greatest power history had ever seen?
Assessing the Imperial Moment, Twenty-First-Century-Style
Almost a quarter of a century after the Soviet Union disappeared, what's remarkable is how much-and how little-has changed.
On the how-much front: Washington's dreams of military glory ran aground with remarkable speed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, in 2007, the transcendent empire of capital came close to imploding as well, as a unipolar financial disaster spread across the planet. It led people to begin to wonder whether the globe's greatest power might not, in fact, be too big to fail, and we were suddenly-so everyone said-plunged into a "multipolar world."
Meanwhile, the Greater Middle East descended into protest, rebellion, civil war, and chaos without a Pax Americana in sight, as a Washington-controlled Cold War system in the region shuddered without (yet) collapsing. The ability of Washington to impose its will on the planet looked ever more like the wildest of fantasies, while every sign, including the hemorrhaging of national treasure into losing trillion-dollar wars, reflected not ascendancy but possible decline.
And yet, in the how-little category: the Europeans and Japanese remained nestled under that American "umbrella," their territories still filled with US bases. In the Euro Zone, governments continued to cut back on their investments in both NATO and their own militaries. Russia remained a country with a sizeable nuclear arsenal and a reduced but still large military. Yet it showed no signs of "superpower" pretensions. Other regional powers challenged unipolarity economically-Turkey and Brazil, to name two-but not militarily, and none showed an urge either singly or in blocs to compete in an imperial sense with the US
Washington's enemies in the world remained remarkably modest-sized (though blown to enormous proportions in the American media echo-chamber). They included a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran and North Korea), a minority insurgency or two, and relatively small groups of Islamist "terrorists." Otherwise, as one gauge of power on the planet, no more than a handful of other countries had even a handful of military bases outside their territory.
Under the circumstances, nothing could have been stranger than this: in its moment of total ascendancy, the Earth's sole superpower with a military of staggering destructive potential and technological sophistication couldn't win a war against minimally armed guerillas. Even more strikingly, despite having no serious opponents anywhere, it seemed not on the rise but on the decline, its infrastructure rotting out, its populace economically depressed, its wealth ever more unequally divided, its Congress seemingly beyond repair, while the great sucking sound that could be heard was money and power heading toward the national security state. Sooner or later, all empires fall, but this moment was proving curious indeed.
And then, of course, there was China. On the planet that humanity has inhabited these last several thousand years, can there be any question that China would have been the obvious pick to challenge, sooner or later, the dominion of the reigning great power of the moment? Estimates are that it will surpass the US as the globe's number one economy by perhaps 2030.
Right now, the Obama administration seems to be working on just that assumption. With its well-publicized "pivot" (or "rebalancing") to Asia, it has been moving to "contain" what it fears might be the next great power. However, while the Chinese are indeed expanding their military and challenging their neighbors in the waters of the Pacific, there is no sign that the country's leadership is ready to embark on anything like a global challenge to the US, nor that it could do so in any conceivable future. Its domestic problems, from pollution to unrest, remain staggering enough that it's hard to imagine a China not absorbed with domestic issues through 2030 and beyond.
And Then There Was One (Planet)
Militarily, culturally, and even to some extent economically, the US remains surprisingly alone on planet Earth in imperial terms, even if little has worked out as planned in Washington. The story of the years since the Soviet Union fell may prove to be a tale of how American domination and decline went hand-in-hand, with the decline part of the equation being strikingly self-generated.
And yet here's a genuine, even confounding, possibility: that moment of "unipolarity" in the 1990s may really have been the end point of history as human beings had known it for millennia-the history, that is, of the rise and fall of empires. Could the United States actually be the last empire? Is it possible that there will be no successor because something has profoundly changed in the realm of empire building? One thing is increasingly clear: whatever the state of imperial America, something significantly more crucial to the fate of humanity (and of empires) is in decline. I'm talking, of course, about the planet itself.