Engelhardt: The Great Concentration or the Great Fragmentation
Mysteries of the Twenty-First Century in a Helter-Skelter World
By Tom Engelhardt
It’s possible I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong planet — and if that sounds like the first sentence of a sci-fi novel maybe, in its own way, it is. I thought I knew where I was, of course, but looking back from our helter-skelter world of 2014, I wonder.
For most of the last several hundred years, the story in view might be called the Great Concentration and it focused on an imperial struggle for power on planet Earth. That rivalry took place among a kaleidoscopic succession of European “great powers,” one global empire (Great Britain), Russia, a single Asian state (Japan), and the United States. After two world wars that devastated the Eurasian continent, there emerged only two “superpowers,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They were so stunningly mighty and over-armed — great inland empires — that, unlike previous powers, they could not even imagine how to wage war directly upon each other, not without obliterating much of civilization. The full planet nonetheless became their battlefield in what was known as the Cold War only because hot ones were banished to “the peripheries” and the conflict took place, in part, in “the shadows” (a situation novelist John Le Carré caught with particular incisiveness).
Those two superpowers divided much of the planet into mighty blocs, as the “free world” faced off against the “communist” one. What was left, often called the Third World, became a game board and sometimes battlefield for influence and dominance. From Havana to Saigon, Berlin to Jakarta, whatever happened, however local, always seemed to have a superpower tinge to it.
This was the world as it was presented to me in the years of my youth and for decades thereafter. And then, unexpectedly, there was only one superpower. In 1991, something like the ultimate step in the concentration of power seemed to occur. The weaker and less wealthy of the two rivals, its economy grown sclerotic even as its nuclear arsenal bulged, its vaunted military bogged down in an unwinnable war with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan (backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan), suddenly vanished from the planet. It left behind a dismantled wall in Berlin, a unified Germany, a liberated Eastern Europe, a series of former SSRs in Central Asia fending for themselves, and its bloc partner (and sometimes-rival-cum-enemy) China, still run by a “communist” party, gunning the automobile of state onto the capitalist highway under slogans like “to get rich is glorious.”
Full Spectrum Dominance on a Unipolar Planet
As with the famous cheese of children’s rhyme, the United States now stood alone. Never before had a single power of such stature, wealth, and military clout been left so triumphantly solitary, without the hint of a serious challenger anywhere. Economically, the only other system imaginable for a century had been banished to the history books. There was just one power and one economic system left in a moment of triumph the likes of which even the leaders of that winning state had neither imagined nor predicted.
Initially, Washington was stunned. It took the powers-that-be almost a decade to fully absorb and react to what had happened. After all, as one observer then so famously put it, “the end of history” had been reached — and there, amid the rubble of other systems and powers, lay an imperial version of liberal democracy and a capitalist system freed of even the thought of global competitors and constraints. Or so it seemed.
For almost a decade, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were, no bones about it, in the era of “the Washington consensus” and “globalization.” The Earth was flat and we were all One, swimming in a sea of giant swooshes, golden arches, action movies, and Disney princesses. What a moment to dream — and though it took a decade, you’ll remember the dreamers well. Having prepared the way as a kind of shadow government, in 2000 they took over the White House (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court). After a single devastating terrorist attack (the “Pearl Harbor” of the twenty-first century), they were soon dreaming on a global scale as befit their new vision of power. They imagined a “wartime” that would last for generations — some of them even called it World War IV — during which they would establish a full-scale military protectorate, including monster bases, in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and a Pax Americana globally aimed at preventing any other great nation or bloc of nations from arising to challenge the United States — ever.
And that should have surprised no one. It seemed like such an obvious concluding passage to the Great Concentration. What else was there to dream about when “The End” had come up onscreen and the logic of history was theirs to do with what they would? After all, they had at their beck and call a military the likes of which no other 10 nations could match and a national security state, including surveillance and intelligence outfits, whose post-9/11 reach was to be unparalleled among countries or in history. They sat atop a vast and wealthy state then regularly referred to as the planet’s “sole superpower” or even its “hyperpower,” and no less regularly called its “sheriff.”
Where great powers had once been, only a few rickety “rogue states” remained: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And with the help of a clever speechwriter, George W. Bush was soon to pump those three countries up into a convenient “Axis of Evil,” a phrase meant to combine the fearsomeness of World War II’s Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and Ronald Reagan’s famous Star Wars-style moniker for the Soviet Union, “the Evil Empire.” No matter that two of the three powers in question had been at each other’s throats for a decade and the third, a half-nation with a population regularly on a starvation diet, was quite unrelated.
Beyond that, when it came to enemies, there were relatively small numbers of jihadi bands, mostly scattered in the tribal backlands of the planet, and a few poorly armed minority insurgencies. A “unipolar” planet? You bet, hands down (or rather, as the Bush administration then saw it, hands up in the classic gesture of surrender that it quickly expected from Iraq, Iran, and Syria, among other places). The future, according to the prevailing script, couldn’t have been more obvious. Could there be any question that dominance, or even as the U.S. military liked to put it, “full-spectrum dominance,” was the obvious, uncontested, and only possible result?
A Jihadist Paradise on Earth
As the present chaos across large swathes of our world indicates, however, it didn’t turn out to be so. The planet was telling quite a different story, one focused not on the concentration of power but on a radical form of power drain. In that story, the one for which the evidence kept piling up regularly in the post-9/11 years, no application of power seemed to work for Washington. No enemy, no matter how minor, weak, ill armed, or unpopular could be defeated. No jihadist group wiped out. Not one.