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The Decline of the West

Washington's moment as the globe's sole superpower barely outlasted Andy Warhol's notorious 15 minutes of fame. What went wrong?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 1:57 PM EDT

Back in the USA

Meanwhile, in the United States, Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Barack Obama continues to insist that we all live on an American planet, exceptionally so. If that line still resonates at home, though, it's an ever harder sell in a world in which the first Chinese stealth fighter jet goes for a test spin while the American Secretary of Defense is visiting China. Or when the news agency Xinhua, echoing its master Beijing, fumes against the "irresponsible" Washington politicians who starred in the recent debt-ceiling circus, and points to the fragility of a system "saved " from free fall by the Fed's promise to shower free money on banks for at least two years.

Nor is Washington being exactly clever in confronting the leadership of its largest creditor, which holds $3.2 trillion in US currency reserves, 40 percent of the global total, and is always puzzled by the continued lethal export of "democracy for dummies" from American shores to the Af-Pak war zones, Iraq, Libya, and other hot spots in the Greater Middle East. Beijing knows well that any further US-generated turbulence in global capitalism could slash its exports, collapse its property bubble, and throw the Chinese working classes into a pretty hardcore revolutionary mode.

This means—despite rising voices of the Rick Perry/Michele Bachmann variety in the US—that there's no "evil" Chinese conspiracy against Washington or the West. In fact, behind China's leap beyond Germany as the world's top exporter and its designation as the factory of the world lies a significant amount of production that's actually controlled by American, European, and Japanese companies. Again, the decline of the West, yes -- but the West is already so deep in China that it's not going away any time soon. Whoever rises or falls, there remains, as of this moment, only a one-stop-shopping developmental system in the world, fraying in the Atlantic, booming in the Pacific.

If any Washington hopes about "changing" China are a mirage, when it comes to capitalism's global monopoly, who knows what reality may turn out to be?

 

Wasteland Redux

The proverbial bogeymen of our world—Osama, Saddam, Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad (how curious, all Muslims!)—are clearly meant to act like so many mini-black holes absorbing all our fears. But they won't save the West from its decline, or the former sole superpower from its comeuppance.

Yale's Paul Kennedy, that historian of decline, would undoubtedly remind us that history will sweep away American hegemony as surely as autumn replaces summer (as surely as European colonialism was swept away, NATO's "humanitarian" wars notwithstanding). Already in 2002, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, world-system expert Immanuel Wallerstein was framing the debate this way in his book The Decline of American Power: the question wasn't whether the United States was in decline, but if it could find a way to fall gracefully, without too much damage to itself or the world. The answer in the years since has been clear enough: no.

Who can doubt that, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, the great global story of 2011 has been the Arab Spring, itself certainly a subplot in the decline of the West? As the West wallowed in a mire of fear, Islamophobia, financial and economic crisis, and even, in Britain, riots and looting, from Northern Africa to the Middle East, people risked their lives to have a crack at Western democracy.

Of course, that dream has been at least partially derailed, thanks to the medieval House of Saud and its Persian Gulf minions barging in with a ruthless strategy of counter-revolution, while NATO lent a helping hand by changing the narrative to a "humanitarian" bombing campaign meant to reassert Western greatness. As NATO's secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen put the matter bluntly, "If you're not able to deploy troops beyond your borders, then you can't exert influence internationally, and then that gap will be filled by emerging powers that don't necessarily share your values and thinking."

So let's break the situation down as 2011 heads for winter. As far as MENA is concerned, NATO's business is to keep the US and Europe in the game, the BRICS members out of it, and the "natives" in their places. Meanwhile, in the Atlantic world, the middle classes barely hang on in quiet desperation, even as, in the Pacific, China booms, and globally the whole world holds its breath for the next economic shoe to drop in the West (and then the one after that).

Pity there's no neo-T.S. Eliot to chronicle this shabby, neo-medievalist wasteland taking over the Atlanticist axis. When capitalism hits the intensive care unit, the ones who pay the hospital bill are always the most vulnerable—and the bill is invariably paid in blood.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times and a TomDispatch.com regular. His latest book is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Escobar reflects on the fate of the global economy click here, or download it to your iPod here. He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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