How The Last Superpower Was Unchained

Authored by Tom Engelhardt via The Asia Times,

Think of it as the all-American version of the human comedy: a great power that eternally knows what the world needs and offers copious advice with a tone deafness that would be humorous, if it weren’t so grim.

If you look, you can find examples of this just about anywhere. Here, for instance, is a passage in The New York Times from a piece on the topsy-turvy Trumpian negotiations that preceded the Singapore summit. “The Americans and South Koreans,” wrote reporter Motoko Rich, “want to persuade the North that continuing to funnel most of the country’s resources into its military and nuclear programs shortchanges its citizens’ economic well-being. But the North does not see the two as mutually exclusive.”

Think about that for a moment. The US has, of course, embarked on a trillion-dollar-plus upgrade of its already massive nuclear arsenal (and that’s before the cost overruns even begin). Its Congress and president have for years proved eager to sink at least a trillion dollars annually into the budget of the national security state (a figure that’s still rising and outpaces by far that of any other power on the planet), while its own infrastructure sags and crumbles. And yet it finds the impoverished North Koreans puzzling when they, too, follow such an extreme path.

“Clueless” is not a word Americans ordinarily apply to themselves as a country, a people, or a government. Yet how applicable it is.

And when it comes to cluelessness, there’s another, far stranger path the United States has been following since at least the George W Bush moment that couldn’t be more consequential and yet somehow remains the least noticed of all. On this subject, Americans don’t have a clue. In fact, if you could put the United States on a psychiatrist’s couch, this might be the place to start.

America contained

In a way, it’s the oldest story on Earth: the rise and fall of empires. And note the plural there. It was never – not until recently at least – “empire,” always “empires.” Since the 15th century, when the fleets of the first European imperial powers broke into the larger world with subjugation in mind, it was invariably a contest of many. There were at least three or sometimes significantly more imperial powers rising and contesting for dominance or slowly falling from it.

This was, by definition, the history of great powers on this planet: the challenging rise, the challenged decline. Think of it for so many centuries as the essential narrative of history, the story of how it all happened until at least 1945, when just two “superpowers,” the United States and the Soviet Union, found themselves facing off on a global scale.

Of the two, the US was always stronger, more powerful, and far wealthier. It theoretically feared the Russian Bear, the Evil Empire, which it worked assiduously to “contain” behind that famed Iron Curtain and whose adherents in the US, always modest in number, were subjected to a mania of fear and suppression.

However, the truth – at least in retrospect – was that, in the Cold War years, the Soviets were actually doing Washington a strange, if unnoted, favor. Across much of the Eurasian continent, and other places from Cuba to the Middle East, Soviet power and the never-ending contest for influence and dominance that went with it always reminded American leaders that their own power had its limits.

This, as the 21st century should have (but hasn’t) made clear, was no small thing. It still seemed obvious then that American power could not be total. There were things it could not do, places it could not control, dreams its leaders simply couldn’t have. Though no one ever thought of it that way, from 1945 to 1991, the United States, like the Soviet Union, was, after a fashion, “contained.”

In those years, the Russians were, in essence, saving Washington from itself. Soviet power was a tangible reminder to American political and military leaders that certain areas of the planet remained no-go zones (except in what, in those years, were called “the shadows”).

The Soviet Union, in short, rescued Washington from both the fantasy and the hell of going it alone, even if Americans only grasped that reality at the most subliminal of levels.

That was the situation until December 1991 when, at the end of a centuries-long imperial race for power (and the never-ending arms race that went with it), there was just one gigantic power left standing on Planet Earth. It told you something about the thinking then that, when the Soviet Union imploded, the initial reaction in Washington wasn’t triumphalism (though that came soon enough) but utter shock, a disbelieving sense that something no one had expected, predicted, or even imagined had nonetheless happened. To that very moment, Washington had continued to plan for a two-superpower world until the end of time.

America uncontained

Soon enough, though, the Washington elite came to see what happened as, in the phrase of the moment, “the end of history.” Given the wreckage of the Soviet Union, it seemed that an ultimate victory had been won by the very country its politicians would soon come to call “the last superpower,” the “indispensable” nation, the “exceptional” state, a land great beyond imagining (until, at least, Donald Trump hit the campaign trail with a slogan that implied greatness wasn’t all-American any more).

In reality, there were a variety of paths open to the “last superpower” at that moment. There was even, however briefly, talk of a “peace dividend” – of the possibility that, in a world without contesting superpowers, taxpayer dollars might once again be invested not in the sinews of war-making but of peacemaking (particularly in infrastructure and the well-being of the country’s citizens).

Such talk, however, lasted only a year or two and always in a minor key before being relegated to Washington’s attic. Instead, with only a few rickety “rogue” states left to deal with – like… gulp … North Korea, Iraq and Iran – that money never actually headed home, and neither did the thinking that went with it.

Consider it the good fortune of the geopolitical dreamers soon to take the reins in Washington that the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, which ended less than a year before the Soviet Union collapsed, prepared the way for quite a different style of thinking. That instant victory led to a new kind of militarized dreaming in which a highly tech-savvy military, like the one that had driven Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in such short order, would be capable of doing anything on a planet without serious opposition.

And yet, from the beginning, there were signs suggesting a far grimmer future. To take but one infamous example, Americans still remember the Black Hawk Down moment of 1993 when the world’s greatest military fell victim to a Somali warlord and local militias and found itself incapable of imposing its will on one of the least impressive not-quite-states on the planet (a place still frustrating that military a quarter-century later).

In that post-1991 world, however, few in Washington even considered that the 20th century had loosed another phenomenon on the world, that of insurgent national liberation movements, generally leftist rebellions, across what had been the colonial world – the very world of competing empires now being tucked into the history books – and it hadn’t gone away. In the 21st century, such insurgent movements, now largely religious, or terror-based, or both, would turn out to offer a grim new version of containment to the last superpower.

Unchaining the indispensable nation

On September 11, 2001, a canny global jihadist by the name of Osama bin Laden sent his air force (four hijacked US passenger jets) and his precision weaponry (19 suicidal, mainly Saudi followers) against three iconic targets in the American pantheon: the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and undoubtedly the Capitol or the White House (neither of which was hit because one of those jets crashed in a field in Pennsylvania). In doing so, in a sense bin Laden not only loosed a literal hell on Earth, but unchained the last superpower.

William Shakespeare would have had a word for what followed: hubris. But give the top officials of the Bush administration (and the neocons who supported them) a break. There had never been a moment like it: a moment of one. A single great power left alone, triumphant, on planet Earth. Just one superpower – wealthy beyond compare, its increasingly high-tech military unmatched, its only true rival in a state of collapse – had now been challenged by a small jihadist group.

To president Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney, and the rest of their crew, it seemed like nothing short of a heaven-sent opportunity. As they came out of the shock of 9/11, of that “Pearl Harbor of the 21st century,” it was as if they had found a magic formula in the ruins of those iconic buildings for the ultimate control of the planet. As secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld would instruct an aide at the Pentagon that day, “Go massive. Sweep it up. Things related and not.”

Within days, things related and not were indeed being swept up. The country was almost instantly said to be “at war,” and soon that conflict even had a name, the Global War on Terror. Nor was that war to be against just al-Qaeda, or even one country, an Afghanistan largely ruled by the Taliban. More than 60 countries said to have “terror networks” of various sorts found themselves almost instantly in the administration’s potential gunsights. And that was just to be the beginning of it all.

In October 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan was launched. In the spring of 2003, the invasion of Iraq followed, and those were only the initial steps in what was increasingly envisioned as the imposition of a Pax Americana on the Greater Middle East.

There could be no doubt, for instance, that Iran and Syria, too, would soon go the way of Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush’s top officials had been nursing just such dreams since, in 1997, many of them formed a think-tank (the first ever to enter the White House) called the Project for the New American Century and began to write out what were then the fantasies of figures nowhere near power. By 2003, they were power itself and their dreams, if anything, had grown even more grandiose.

In addition to imagining a political Pax Republicana in the United States, they truly dreamed of a future planetary Pax Americana in which, for the first time in history, a single power would, in some fashion, control the whole works, the Earth itself.

And this wasn’t to be a passing matter either. The Bush administration’s “unilateralism” rested on a conviction that it could actually create a future in which no country or even bloc of countries would ever come close to matching or challenging US military power. The administration’s National Security Strategy of 2002 put the matter bluntly: The US was to “build and maintain” a military, in the phrase of the moment, “beyond challenge.”

They had little doubt that, in the face of the most technologically advanced, bulked-up, destructive force on Earth, hostile states would be “shocked and awed” by a simple demonstration of its power, while friendly ones would have little choice but to come to heel as well. After all, as Bush said at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in 2007, the US military was “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.”

Though there was much talk at the time about the “liberation” of Afghanistan and then Iraq, at least in their imaginations the true country being liberated was the planet’s lone superpower. Although the Bush administration was officially considered a “conservative” one, its key officials were geopolitical dreamers of the first order and their vision of the world was the very opposite of conservative. It harkened back to nothing and looked forward to everything.

It was radical in ways that should have, but didn’t, take the American public’s breath away; radical in ways that had never been seen before.

Shock and awe for the last superpower

Think of what those officials did in the post-9/11 moment as the ultimate act of greed. They tried to swallow a whole planet. They were determined to make it a planet of one in a way that had never before been seriously imagined.

It was, to say the least, a vision of madness. Even in a moment when it truly did seem – to them at least – that all constraints had been taken off, an administration of genuine conservatives might have hesitated. Its top officials might, at least, have approached the post-Soviet situation with a modicum of caution and modesty.

But not George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and pals. In the face of what seemed like the ultimate in possibilities they proved clueless when it came to the possibility that anything on Earth might have a shot at containing them.

Even among their critics, who could have imagined then that, more than 16 years later, having faced only lightly armed enemies of various sorts, still wealthy beyond compare, still with a military funded in a way the next seven countries couldn’t cumulatively match, the United States would have won literally nothing?

Who could have imagined that, unlike so many preceding imperial powers (including the US of the earlier Cold War era), it would have been able to establish control over nothing at all; that, instead, from Afghanistan to Syria, Iraq deep into Africa, it would find itself in a state of “infinite war” and utter frustration on a planet filled with ever more failed statesdestroyed citiesdisplaced people, and right-wing “populist” governments, including the one in Washington?

Who could have imagined that, with a peace dividend no longer faintly conceivable, this country would have found itself not just in decline, but – a new term is needed to catch the essence of this curious moment – in what might be called self-decline?

Yes, a new power, China, is finally rising – and doing so on a planet that seems itself to be going down. Here, then, is a conclusion that might be drawn from the quarter-century-plus in which America was both unchained and largely alone.

The Earth is admittedly a small orb in a vast universe, but the history of this century so far suggests one reality about which America’s rulers proved utterly clueless: After so many hundreds of years of imperial struggle, this planet still remains too big, too disparate, too ornery to be controlled by a single power. What the Bush administration did was simply take one gulp too many and the result has been a kind of national (and planetary) indigestion.

Despite what it looked like in Washington once upon a time, the disappearance of the Soviet Union proved to be no gift at all, but a disaster of the first order. It removed all sense of limits from America’s political class and led to a tale of greed on a planetary scale. In the process, it also set the US on a path to self-decline.

The history of greed in our time has yet to be written, but what a story it will someday make. In it, the greed of those geopolitical dreamers will intersect with the greed of an ever wealthier, ever more gilded 1%, of the billionaires who were preparing to swallow whole the political system of that last superpower and grab so much of the wealth of the planet, leaving so little for others.

Whether you’re talking about the urge to control the planet militarily or financially, what took place in these years could, in the end, result in ruin of a historic kind. To use a favored phrase from the Bush years, one of these days we Americans may be facing little short of “regime change” on a planetary scale. And what a piece of shock and awe that’s likely to prove to be.

All of us, of course, now live on the planet Bush’s boys tried to swallow whole. They left us in a world of infinite war, infinite harm, and in Donald Trump’s America where cluelessness has been raised to a new power.


gdpetti Quantify Tue, 06/19/2018 - 10:47 Permalink

but  most of that 'GDP' is WallStreet BS.... financialization... always the hallmark of collapsing empires.... it's a given, and everyone that knows any history knows it... the writing is on the wall... and that 'wall' is written in 'time'... which, like our lives, is a film... complete from beginning to end... we only see one frame at a time.... BUT this 'film' is a 'work in progress'... possible of change/edit at any time we so CHOOSE... FREE WILL... that is the 'power' of creation... and the challenge of being here and now on planet 'earth'... purgatory after the 'fall'... a school in greater self awareness... no pain,  no gain... this is how we learn, how the 'school' is setup.. and run by the 'dark side'.... which those of the 'Jewish' leadership have attached themselves to many, many, many eons ago.... and each generation seeking 'graduation'... thus earning their 'brass ring'.

A trillion 'dollars' isn't what it used to be... used to buy a lot... these days, in our 'financialization' corrupt imperialism days... it buys little to nothing but more trouble... but trouble and chaos is what is being encouraged... 'out with the OWO, in with the NWO'... what the USA is defending is our control of the helm of empire.. and Trumpy has been allowed to take the role of puppet in chief to assist the puppet  masters in outing/exposing/ridding the establishment.. the deep state... the OWO... not needed any more in their NWO...

This is the 'unchaining'... the 'outing' of the OWO... this time is different only in the timing on the larger wheel of life.. gold/silver/copper-bronze/ iron.... the bronze age ended with the last swingby of the main comet cluster (3600 yr orbit)... and it will mark the end of our current iron age.... only this time is different in that it marks the end of the 'Grand Cycle'... involving 'modern man'... or 'Adamic Man'.... and graduation day from this school called purgatory.... all to be reset... 

In reply to by Quantify

True Blue RafterManFMJ Tue, 06/19/2018 - 04:18 Permalink

And then he crowned it with this historically illiterate twaddlespeak; "There had never been a moment like it: a moment of one. A single great power left alone, triumphant, on planet Earth."

Um... "Carthago delenda est."

And so it was.

(Which only left those pesky Romans, then the Moors, and Genghis Khan, the Franks etc. etc. etc. to mess up his balderdash hypothesis.)

In reply to by RafterManFMJ

brushhog Matteo S. Tue, 06/19/2018 - 08:06 Permalink

Well, ZH loves these American bashing articles so you might apply the same conclusions here. Why all the vitriol towards America, why the constant affirmations that we are "collapsing, in debt, hypocrites, etc"...afraid, jealous, and aware of their own intrinsic weakness and decadence?

A quick check of where ZH comes from might open your eyes.

In reply to by Matteo S.

roddy6667 haunebu Tue, 06/19/2018 - 05:17 Permalink

The famine was over a decade ago. I guess you didn't get the memo. Now the farmers have crop surpluses and are allowed to sell up to a third on the open market (capitalism). 

Wars have not been fought with hand-to-hand combat in over 100 years. Where have you been? Watching movies in your mother's basement? The Japanese were small, and they were a formidable opponent in WWII. The Vietnamese are even smaller and they won the war with America. Wars are fought with artillery and guns and tanks and planes and bombs and missiles and ships and submarines.

In reply to by haunebu

gigadeath Tue, 06/19/2018 - 00:27 Permalink

"Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world."


Think of the MIC profits...... ;)

Service guarantees citizenship!


DarkPurpleHaze Tue, 06/19/2018 - 00:28 Permalink

Umm...maybe they were unblock-chained and didn't hold enough freshly imagined crypto-currency tokens they could've traded their gold for?

But at least the tokens are probably gold colored. So don't worry about trading in your gold because tokens are better then dirty, old cash on hand or in the evil banks.

Plus..."Billions worldwide" could benefit from this new monetary system...they say. 


Dr. Bonzo Tue, 06/19/2018 - 00:28 Permalink

Honestly no idea what Tom's point is with this rambling poorly edited piece. Just like the photo he grabbed from anywhere was wondering why they didn't put all 3 carrier airwings in the air for the photo op, the entire Kadena and Misawa airwings... shit, they could have a formation of 300some aircraft. I know the answer. Prolly can't. Fly few hundred jets for one 10 minute photo op and next day better than 60% will be broke-dick for the next 6 months. Pricey toys those highly sophisticated modern fighter jets.....

Blah blah blah.... last superpower unchained... blah blah blah... see? Rambling.... easy as pie.

Ghost who Walks Tue, 06/19/2018 - 00:38 Permalink

I agree with the position that Tom Englehardt makes with regards to the allocation of resources to the military and away from American infrastructure. It is certainly having a negative effect on American infrastructure.

This is the view according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. True they have got to talk to their book, but the recent failures of infrastructure in the US reinforces the case that they make.

The key question is how does the American public apply influence, pressure or drag its leadership to a place where their quality of life and the efficiency of their transport systems is regarded as a more important issue than the security of Israel? or South Korea? or NATO?

I can see how the criticism of the priorities of North Korea by the US can be seen as hypocritical, when the behaviours are similar but not to the same degree of extremism.

If the world will be a better place if North Korea de-nuclearizes, then how much safer will it be if the US does the same? You can say the same for all the other Nuclear powers as well. I rest no easier at night looking at the current lot of people who have their fingers near the missile buttons. I can't even name some of the leaders. Who really controls the Pakistan missiles?

Posa Tue, 06/19/2018 - 00:40 Permalink

At the end of the day, the post-Cold War ambition for Unchallenged Hyper-Power status was undone when the ruling Predator Class shipped US industrial power overseas (mostly to China) and destroyed the US labor force in the process. At that point, the Predator Class became delusional and unhinged from reality. Without an industrial base, technology slipped away, and with that military power. By the crash of '08 the Predator Class was blind and bonkers and could only gorge itself on massive asset inflation via the Fed and the White House. Ten years later and a decade of economic stagnation, the US is a weak and spent force on every level. The country is on the verge of a symbolic civil war. A divisive President is taking big gambles to revive the US as an economic power, but he, himself, is a product of the non-producer, parasite class. So the chances of turning around the US are slim. However, a general retreat from global military bases and wars may offer a chance at rebuilding and consolidation.

But being so addicted to wasteful spending and corruption will more than liking lead to physical breakdown of the US economy and large-scale deprivation and chaos.

Sandmann Tue, 06/19/2018 - 00:50 Permalink

It was somewhat different. Wilson got USA involved in WW1 because JP Morgan wanted to protect his investments and Wilson wanted a seat at the negotiating table to pursue his goals. US entry into WW1 prolonged the war and Wilson negotiated deals for Poland because of Paderewski lobbying him which created German enclaves cut off from Germany itself, same in Czechoslovakia where both states were condemned by League of Nations for persecuting [German] ethnic minorities and engaging in "ethnic cleansing" by "doing an Israel" and moving Settlers into German-speaking regions.

After WW2 FDR dreamed of working with "Soviet Republic" against Imperialist Britain to create a New World Order. FDR activities against British Empire in India, stealing away Saudi Arabia, and blackmailing Britain over War Loans and Lend Lease esp. with Morgenthau later on - made Britain afraid of postwar dominance of Europe by Stalin.

It needed US to stay in Europe after UK devastated economically by Churchill's War where he gave away tech like jet engine to GE and gold to FDR and influence - and Uk ended up with 50% 1947 GDP being Marshall Aid with food and clothes and coal rationing.

Churchill lost  election in July 1945 and Attlee replaced him at Potsdam. By March 1946 Churchill was off to MO to Fulton, where Truman was to build his Pres-Lib and give his "Iron Curtain Speech" to lock USA into propping up Britain's post-imperial role.


Britain needed "Fear of USSR" to keep Washington aligned and avoid Isolationism after 1919 and to leverage its own position in Europe. USA had cut off cooperation on A-Bomb so UK built its own and later built its own H-Bomb. Delivery mechanisms were not assured until Kennedy agreed on Polaris with Macmillan after Skybolt was cancelled.

Basically, UK like Israel needed US security guarantees and needed a "Hostile Front" in order to keep US engaged.

Trump was a major threat to this narrative. Just like GW Bush who campaigned on "American First" and no Nation Building - he was a threat to the World Order. Bush was reversed by 9/11 - Trump was going to be halted by Halper, MI6, Mifsud, FBI, CIA, - but still slipped through the blockade. Now he is unravelling the Korea Front by moving towards a Peace Treaty.

It is simply that Lobby Power in DC skews American priorities but they know they cannot tax American voters to pay for this so run huge deficits