Imperial overreach is accelerating the global decline of America
These are the words of Henry Hyde, chairman of the House international relations committee and a Republican congressman, in a recent speech. Hyde argues that such is the overweening power of the US that it may not hear or recognise the signals when its policy goes badly wrong, a thinly veiled reference to Iraq. He then takes issue with the idea that the US can export democracy around the world as deeply misguided and potentially dangerous. He argues: "A broad and energetic promotion of democracy in other countries that will not enjoy our long-term and guiding presence may equate not to peace and stability but to revolution ... There is no evidence that we or anyone can guide from afar revolutions we have set in motion. We can more easily destabilise friends and others and give life to chaos and to avowed enemies than ensure outcomes in service of our interests and security."
It is clear that the US occupation of Iraq has been a disaster from almost every angle one can think of, most of all for the Iraqi people, not least for American foreign policy. The unpicking of the imperial logic that led to it has already commenced: Hyde's speech is an example, and so is Francis Fukuyama's new book After the Neocons, a merciless critique of Bush's foreign policy and the school of thought that lay behind it. The war was a delayed product of the end of the cold war and the triumphalist mentality that imbued the neocons and eventually seduced the US. But triumphalism is a dangerous brew, more suited to intoxication than hard-headed analysis. And so it has proved. The US still has to reap the whirlwind for its stunning feat of imperial overreach.
In becoming so catastrophically engaged in the Middle East, making the region its overwhelming global priority, it downgraded the importance of everywhere else, taking its eye off the ball in a crucial region such as east Asia, which in the long run will be far more important to the US's strategic interests than the Middle East. As such, the Iraqi adventure represented a major misreading of global trends and how they are likely to impact on the US. Hyde is clearly thinking in these terms: "We are well advanced into an unformed era in which new and unfamiliar enemies are gathering forces, where a phalanx of aspiring competitors must inevitably constrain and focus options. In a world where the ratios of strength narrow, the consequences of miscalculation will become progressively more debilitating. The costs of golden theories [by which he means the worldwide promotion of democracy] will be paid for in the base coin of our interests."
The promotion of the idea of the war against terror as the central priority of US policy had little to do with the actual threat posed by al-Qaida, which was always hugely exaggerated by the Bush administration, as events over the last four and a half years have shown. Al-Qaida never posed a threat to the US except in terms of the odd terrorist outrage. Making it the central thrust of US foreign policy, in other words, had nothing to do with the al-Qaida threat and everything to do with the Bush administration seeking to mobilise US public opinion behind a neoconservative foreign policy. There followed the tenuous - in reality nonexistent - link with Saddam, which provided in large measure the justification for the invasion of Iraq, an act which now threatens to unravel the bizarre adventurism, personified by Donald Rumsfeld, which has been the hallmark of Bush foreign policy since 9/11. The latter has come unstuck in the killing fields of Iraq in the most profound way imaginable.
Hyde alludes to a new "unformed" world and "a phalanx of aspiring competitors". On this he is absolutely right. The world is in the midst of a monumental process of change that, within the next 10 years or so, could leave the US as only the second largest economy in the world after China and commanding, with the rise of China and India, a steadily contracting share of global output. It will no longer be able to boss the world around in the fashion of the neoconservative dream: its power to do so will be constrained by the power of others, notably China, while it will also find it increasingly difficult to fund the military and diplomatic costs of being the world's sole superpower. If the US is already under financial pressure from its twin deficits and the ballooning costs of Iraq, then imagine the difficulties it will find itself in within two decades in a very different kind of world.
Hyde concludes by warning against the delusions of triumphalism and cautioning that the future should not be seen as an extension of the present: "A few brief years ago, history was proclaimed to be at an end, our victory engraved in unyielding stone, our pre-eminence garlanded with permanence. But we must remember that Britain's majestic rule vanished in a few short years, undermined by unforeseen catastrophic events and by new threats that eventually overwhelmed the palisades of the past. The life of pre-eminence, as with all life on this planet, has a mortal end. To allow our enormous power to delude us into seeing the world as a passive thing waiting for us to recreate it in an image of our choosing will hasten the day when we have little freedom to choose anything at all."
That the world will be very different within the next two decades, if not rather sooner, is clear; yet there is scant recognition of this fact and what it might mean - not least in our own increasingly provincial country. The overwhelming preoccupation of the Bush administration (and Blair for that matter) with Iraq, the Middle East and Islam, speaks of a failure to understand the deeper forces that are reshaping the world and an overriding obsession with realising and exploiting the US's temporary status as the sole global superpower. Such a myopic view can only hasten the decline of the US as a global power, a process that has already started.
The Bush administration stands guilty of an extraordinary act of imperial overreach which has left the US more internationally isolated than ever before, seriously stretched financially, and guilty of neglect in east Asia and elsewhere. Iraq was supposed to signal the US's new global might: in fact, it may well prove to be a harbinger of its decline. And that decline could be far more precipitous than anyone has previously reckoned. Once the bubble of US power has been pricked, in a global context already tilting in other directions, it could deflate rather more quickly than has been imagined. Hyde's warnings should be taken seriously.
· Martin Jacques is a senior visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore [email protected]
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