When the World Must Rise
My father told me that sometimes taking a sidestep back is in reality a step forward. For you have realised your way is blocked.
I have been reminded of his advice whilst reading about private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor. It recently published its Decade Forecast that projects the next 10 years of global political and economic developments.
The Stratfor Forecast is an engrossing - and chilling - read. It suggests the world of 10 years from now will be a more dangerous place, with US power waning and other prominent countries experiencing a period of chaos and decline.
In short: Japan will rise, China will fall. Russia will collapse, Germany will decline and the European Union will no longer define Europe. Poland will become a leading power, while as regional leader, Turkey and the United States will forge stronger ties - but out of necessity rather than any special relationship. And ultimately US power will decline.
Will any of this happen? Only those of us around for the next decade will know, but one thing makes sense: With the world becoming more disorderly and unpredictable, the US will try to take a less active leadership role in solving the world's problems. A more restrained US role in global affairs will make the world an even less predictable place, but it's a reality that other countries will just have to deal with.
The safety of being in the most stable corner of the world will give the US the luxury of being able to insulate itself against the world's crises, and I, for one, hope it does so, because those of us who believe in its democracy, will need it as a torch, burning in the distance as we take up the fight. As we, who remain under the shadow of night, fight tyranny in our own darkened streets across the seas, we will want to see America burning bright and free.
Ideals and dreams should be like stars we look up to, untouchable aspirations that we strive ever towards, unsullied by the hard reality of the ground work yet to be done. The America in my mind is that star, born from great destruction and chaos, spun into an energy of ideas that gave life to aspirational ideals to enchant a century out of darkness.
My criticism of the US, however, is that it never progressed further than pointing towards its star, and my disappointment comes because I care; I sincerely believe in America's potential. By now she should have set full sail towards those distant idyllic horizons, looking back lesuirely with encouragement as it waited for the world to catch up.
But it did not take adequate notes over what older democracies before it did wrong, and in wanting to (quite rightly) protect its precious ideals, for most of its powerful existence it has done everything, except be worthy of it.
Rather than make good on its word, it has for the past century tried to interfere globally with everyone else to make good on it, while at the same time using the world as it saw fit to fuel, energise, and feed its own citizens. If this meant creating disputes, interfering in the internal affairs of other governments, creating despots to undermine enemies and boosting the military arsenal of its friends abroad to get oil and buy diplomacy, then it did so.
It brought the world, so enlightened by it, to the brink of nuclear war twice, and twice pulled us back from it.
And that was all in the last century - America's finest hour. This century it went from blatantly undermining its own democracy, to undercutting its diplomatic ties with its oldest allies, all in the name of home security. And then there was the Iraq War, which in a piece for The Telegraph, Alex Proud describes as the most disgusting abuse of power in a generation, and a moral quagmire that never ends.
America is attacked by terrorists and so, declares war on a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks, while ignoring an oil rich ally which had everything to do with them. The justification for war is based on some witches’ brew of faulty intelligence, concocted intelligence and ignored good intelligence. Decent people are forced to lie on an international stage. All sensible advice is ignored and rabid neo-con draft dodgers hold sway on military matters. The UK joins this fool’s errand for no good reason. Blood is spilled and treasure is spent."
Although the America of the 1950s could never have foreseen what its deals for Middle Eastern oil would mean, it in effect sponsored an extreme form of Islam that in the fullness of time came to be adopted by disgruntled terrorists as a recruitment drive to kill innocent people on American soil half a century on.
The scapegoat for this 1950s child coming home to roost was Iraq: More innocent people killed. Thousands of allied troops and hundreds of thousands of blameless Iraqis murdered, leaving Iraq, now, in a far worse state than it ever was under any dictator. It has become an incubator for more terrorists, which, Proud says, is a special kind of geopolitical irony lost entirely on the war’s supporters.
Ten years ago when I blogged on Iraq, I wrote that things would get worse, so this cruel joke isn't lost on me. And as America drifted further away from its guiding star, it has, in effect, reaped some of the far seeds it has sown. In writing about the decline of US power, New York correspondent for the BBC, Nick Bryant is of the opinion that over the past 15 years, America's fortunes have changed with dizzying speed, and its political fingers have been burnt more than once.
The upshot is that the US is no longer so keen to exert leadership in an increasingly fiery world. Yet while its finger in the pie is a major reason we live in such heated times, one of the reasons why the world has become so disorderly is because America is no longer so active in imposing order, too. In trying to sort out its string of global messes, it has gotten more knotted with each revelation of its own transgressions, and over the course of this century Washington has lost its fear factor.
Needless to say, as Bryant points out, despots around the world took note. Barack Obama is blamed for not being involved in too much direct action, even in the face of the rise of the group calling itself the Islamic State. Some of his critics cite him as the cause for its appearance, but the Islamic State was created the minute his predecessor, George W. Bush, decided to embark on cowboy diplomacy.
Bush, though, wasn't a Texan pioneer civilising an untamed territory - and treating the Middle East as such was a huge error in judgement. We now live with Bush's legacy, but, oh, how different things would be now if he had put his hand up and accepted America's part in their national tragedy. Admitted how, after the felling of the Twin Towers, the 1950s greed for oil, blind imperial ambition and CIA self-assurance, must in some, however small way, shoulder the blame for the fruits of foreigner hatred.
Instead of making it an attack on policy, and having the guts to change that policy, Bush's administration twisted it into an attack on freedom, and created an axis of evil, where none had existed except in conspiracy theories. Instead of hunting down the evil mind that could murder thousands of innocent people on his home soil, he decided to go after a foreign despot, who had been allowed to get away with murder by his own father, George Bush senior.
Following this skewed logic led us to the world of today, where our freedoms are in real jeopardy and a real axis of evil exists. It's a world in which Obama has forcefully tried to go the other way, by advocating pragmatism and diplomatic dexterity instead, trying to steer a path between America being overextended and undercommitted, as Bryant describes it.
Sadly, it's too late for Obama to change the world by a skilful balancing of diplomacy. Our world will be a disorderly one, with a changing of the guard in many regions. You don't need Stratfor to predict that. But those who complain about Obama now, and see him as sidestepping, will in time come to realise that he was right to begin the process of taking a step back from America's role of global judge, jury and executioner.
In time, with hindsight, history may also record that it was with great foresight Obama was made a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. His was the first presidential hand in this century to turn America's moral rudder back to the right path, to guide his ship by the country's brightest star, and light a way for us all who have rolled up our sleeves to halt the contagion of hatred.
For if the continued and maturing power of the US is to be the one constant in the lives of those defending freedom, it has to be a power that will be much less visible, and utilised far less in the next decade than in the previous one. It has to set itself on a high moral ground, as a shining beacon in this period of ever darkening night.
It cannot do that from a ground of denial. If Americans cannot get past their blinkered patriotism over their elected administration's involvement in the issues that blight us all today, and accept that their global moment has proved to be momentary, then America will remain tarnished. If they cannot show the guts Bush lacked and raise a hand in acknowledgement of the wrongs done and open an honest internal dialogue with its past, then those of us who look to America will have lost our light.
For America is a light. It must burn strong, but from afar. As its trustees, its people must strengthen its borders and protect the light from going out over there, and trust the world to do the rest. Trust that as evil recruits, so does goodness. America has done its best, it must let us pick up the fight, even if the struggle will be the tougher because of it.
It's time the world learnt to fend for itself, because only then will we deserve the freedom the stars live by. As a pacifist I've taken up the fight, too; we may not take life, but we will lay down our own for what we believe in. And I believe in America. I've chosen my side. I've chosen the side that respects the rights of all living things, of all colours and sexual orientation, of all beliefs, to live side by side in tolerance.
And Americans who mourn the passing of the old century should realise that their country's place is assured in this new world. Anyway, who can really predict what the future holds? Indeed, there are foreign policy thinkers who predict America will preserve its pre-eminence for at least another 20 years, if it can sort its domestic problems out.
But ultimately, the overriding challenge for US diplomacy over the next years will be to strike the proper balance: Still a major economic, political, and military power in the world, but less militarily engaged than in the past.
It may not sound as grandiose as the moment the Berlin Wall fell when America was on top of the world, but its new role, in an, as yet, undetermined future, might still be just as romantic.
For if in the future America cannot lay claim to being the dominant Pacific military power it once was, or the world's foremost economic powerhouse, then let it lay claim to be the world's greatest heart - keeping alive every human being's unshackled cry for freedom.