Most Americans, especially under 50, have little or no remembrance of what it’s like to be a “superpower,” at the top of the global power structure and influencing events from the Congo, Vietnam, Egypt, Cuba, Korea, not to mention living within a world order made by and supervised by Americans. These citizens (“kids”) have absolutely no recall of the powerful domestic demonstrations against the Vietnam War that closed hundreds of universities and produced hundreds of thousands of protesters at a time. These went on literally for years as the U.S. war in Vietnam remains to this day the longest conflict, by far, in U.S. history (1959-1973 actual combat).
Vietnam, in retrospect, was also the only war the U.S. ever lost. Although few in America seemed to care when North Vietnam finally entered Saigon (April 30, 1975), that date might just be the “beginning of the end” for America as a superpower. But few knew it, as within a decade the Soviet Union was about to collapse, the Cold War terminated (December 1991), and nobody on planet earth seemed to be around to challenge American influence. The era of “sole remaining superpower” came and went in a flash as the Governor of Arkansas became president on the motto “it’s the economy stupid.”
Few Americans more (over 80) can even remotely recall the heady days after World War II when Harry Truman changed the world order 180 degrees, brought the country out of its endemic isolationism, saved western Europe, created NATO, saved South Korea, and entered the historic challenge against global Communism that took nearly half a century to finish.
World War II, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Iwo Jima? Forget it, even I can’t remember them.
But I do recall a Saturday in 2008 when we went to West Virginia for a day with the last “Doughboy” to fight World War I. He was Frank Buckles, 108, and regaled us all day about driving General Pershing to and fro around the Western Front (died 2011, buried in Arlington, President Obama officiated).
To quote the great Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin, “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end.”
Alas, they did. Now what about it?
In an apocryphal sense, I might imagine bringing up this past to a millennial with an equally fancied response: wasn’t the Army segregated, didn’t women work in the factories, could they vote, and weren’t gays forbidden? Fictitious? Maybe, but certainly fiction close to the political/social culture that has come to dominate the national discourse of the recent past. And, likely to continue into the foreseeable (and beyond) future.
Thus, the central factual point of the American political system over the last quarter-century has been the slow, but certain, demise of any and all American interest/concentration on the world order into a similar but opposite absorption to the domestic order.
This is more than a casual turnover; it amounts to a profound and probably lasting shift of what was once the greatest global phenomenon in world history to the same people adopting a near-total reversal into themselves.
This observation is neither judgmental nor imagined. If one needs evidence, wake up and smell the coffee (or move out of New Guinea). Nor does it matter to the system whether or not the domestic order is either pursued forever or achieved immediately. It’s the “chase” (preoccupation) that matters, the results can, and will, wait.
Nor should this phenomenon come as a surprise. America was founded on isolationism and experienced a global mission only during the last half of the last century. From this perspective, the country is only “coming home.” Or, as Reagan’s Ambassador to the UN, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, once put it, becoming “a normal country in a normal time” (1991).
The Future (if any)
So, under the “new normal,” what happens to the world when the superpower “cancels” the culture and divides itself into several parts based on color, gender, and historic definitions of what “we” are? As statues come tearing down and place-names are erased, who, if anyone, takes our place in the world (and who may care anyway)?
There are several options.
First, is nothing. The world has sailed along since the end of the Cold War with nobody in charge and can continue, indefinitely, this way. Of course, this eliminates nothing we have known for the last 6,000 years (wars, crimes, pandemics, crises, “meddling,” etc.) Recall the nineteenth century when the Congress of Vienna (1815) created the “Concert of Europe” that kept Great Power peace until the whole thing exploded in 1914.
Second, someone takes over. The top candidate is China and most speculation, ranging from the hysterical to the “expert,” will bet on them. How this could come about, what it may mean, and how it will be effected remains deeply in the speculative phase.
Third, someone else. Who might that be? This requires more than speculation; it requires an imagination. Russia, India, The European Union? We might as well speculate on an alien invasion, some kind of re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Finally, what are we left with? Many of us from the Cold War based the future on an American and democratic global “Concert” that would be open to invited member-states and might – just might – translate American political values into a benign and peaceful world order.
Maybe later, say 3020.