Great powers tend to follow a similar pattern of rise, a short time of dominance, overextension, and fall. It is ever more clear that this country is following the classic pattern. Our period of dominance ran roughly from 1945 to 1965; its end was marked by our defeat in Vietnam. We are now in the latter stages of the phase of overextension. Fall, I suspect, lies around the next corner.
The evidence is all around us. The most dramatic is the Senate’s recent vote to oppose President Trump’s efforts to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, withdrawals that would reduce our overextension. The legislation was drafted by the Republican Majority Leader, Senator McConnell, and received overwhelming Republican support. But the vote (technically a vote to cut off debate but indicative of the line-up on the substance) of 68 to 23 showed many Democrats also voted for continuing our overextension. When the fall comes, neither party will have clean hands.
I would like to be able to say President Trump grasps the root problem, but as the pernicious neo-con influence on him grows, he too is stoking the fires of overextension. His withdrawal from the treaty with Russia that limited intermediate-range missiles is one example. His action is in direct opposition to his promise as a candidate to improve relations with Russia. Instead, he has ended up driving Russia and China into alignment against us, giving this country an entirely avoidable rising threat to its diminishing power.
Another case of pushing our overextension further is the mad notion of intervening militarily in Venezuela. Not surprisingly, two neocons, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Senator Marco Rubio, have concocted this witches’ brew. The neocons cannot grasp the rule, demonstrated in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, that if you break it, you own it. I’m sure Bolton is assuring yet another Republican president that if we intervene we will be met with cheers and flowers. Don’t count on it. The Latins would rather govern themselves badly than be “helped” to better government by American troops.
Why are we, and so many other countries before us, incapable of recognizing their overextensions and reducing their commitments? Three factors seem to be in play. The first is money. The Washington Establishment makes heaps of money from a “defense” budget sized to rule the world. Whether as campaign contributions, jobs and contracts after they leave office, or payments to family members working as lobbyists, senior Washington figures, civilian and military, are experts in “cashing in”. Many arrive in Washington poor, but few leave poor. Our trillion-dollar “national security” trough is the biggest in the world and the pigs have their snouts in it up to their ears.
Another cause is the psychological benefits of playing the “big man”. Senators, generals, admirals, and high administration officials all like to swagger around the world, propping up their often fragile egos by representing “the only hyperpower”, “the indispensable nation”, and the like. Modesty does not become them, or they would not have spent a lifetime crawling up the Establishment ladder in the first place. They take any reduction in America’s world role as a personal hit to their own prestige.
Thirdly, the Washington and broader military elites insulate themselves from reality and from failure. What subordinate dares tell a general that we have lost our recent wars? Who among Senate staffers wants to be the bearer of bad news to his boss? Our elites spend a great deal of effort making sure they do not come face-to-face with reality. In that, they are successful, if not in much else.
And so, regardless of what party is in power, our overextension will continue and even grow, until it all comes down in a heap. I think that reckoning is coming soon. In the meantime, if President Trump decides not to run again, a perfect replacement is waiting in the wings, someone to whom our situation would be entirely familiar. Does anyone happen to know the email address of the Count-Duke of Olivares?
Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.