The Rise or Decline of US Global Power? A Critical Look at Alfred McCoy’s New Book
American power. No two words seem to fit better in the modern political lexicon. America is associated with power like peanut butter and jelly, and there really are no deviations from this fundamental axiom in mainstream discourse. That said, American power is also taken for granted, mainly because Americans possess only a cursory level of knowledge when it comes to world history. Gore Vidal once referred to the this country as “The United States of Amnesia”, and while that certainly describes the short term memory of many Americans in regards to their history, America has sort of a collective amnesia that disconnects them from the rest of humanity. This amnesia makes Americans forget that when it comes to history, great powers rise and fall, so not even Empires are exempt from simple laws of gravity. Alfred McCoy’s new book ‘In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power’ does not take American power for granted. McCoy’s book takes a critical look at American empire by fitting it within a theoretical framework that presents a model for the rise and collapse of Empire. What we will see from a critical examination of McCoy’s framework and model, is that America is not exempt from these historical laws.
McCoy in many ways is equipped to write such a tour de force, being a historian that specializes in Southeast Asian studies. Once you consider that the genesis of America’s overseas Empire began in the Asia-Pacific region with the “opening” (read invasion) of Japan, as well as the brutal occupation of the Philippines, it makes sense to begin in that region when talking about US global power. McCoy’s research also took him all around the globe, particularly to Southeast Asia, and in the process came into the crosshairs of the clandestine drug trade that, thanks to the CIA, was permeating in the region, particularly Vietnam. McCoy is also a frequent contributor to Tom Dispatch, a subsidiary of The Nation Institute founded by journalist Tom Engelhardt, and you can read his many essays here.
When approaching the topic of Empire, McCoy lays the groundwork by delving into a subject that too few political analysts seem to understand, which is the study of Geopolitics. The term geopolitics itself was coined by a 19th century Swede named Kjellen defining it as “the theory of the state as a geographical organism or phenomenon in space”. McCoy begins his analysis elsewhere, with the work of British imperialist and founder of modern Geopolitics Sir Halford Mackinder. Mackinder is known mostly for his work “The Geographical Pivot of History.” laying out his theory of Geopolitics. Mackinder’s theory is interesting considering that from the perspective of a British imperialist, his theory involves looking at Europe as the periphery and concentrating on the massive continent of Eurasia as the center of Geopolitical power.
McCoy writes of Mackinder’s theory(quoted at length for importance):
Mackinder argued that the future of global power lay not, as most British then imagined, in controlling the global sea lanes, but in controlling a vast land mass he called “Euro-Asia.” By turning the globe away from America to place central Asia at the planet’s epicenter, and then tilting the Earth’s axis northward just a bit beyond Mercator’s equatorial projection, Mackinder redrew and thus reconceptualized the world map.
His new map showed Africa, Asia, and Europe not as three separate continents, but as a unitary land mass, a veritable “world island.” Its broad, deep “heartland” — 4,000 miles from the Persian Gulf to the Siberian Sea — was so enormous that it could only be controlled from its “rimlands” in Eastern Europe or what he called its maritime “marginal” in the surrounding seas.
To illustrate how this geopolitical reality has played out, McCoy uses the historical example of the nineteenth century battle between the British Empire and Russia over what is referred to as the “Heartland” of the “world Island”.
McCoy ties this into his Geopolitical framework noting:
From this geopolitical perspective, the nineteenth century was, at heart, a strategic rivalry, often called “the Great Game,” between Russia “in command of nearly the whole of the Heartland… knocking at the landward gates of the Indies,” and Britain “advancing inland from the sea gates of India to meet the menace from the northwest.” In other words, Mackinder concluded, “the final Geographical Realities” of the modern age were sea power versus land power or “the World-Island and the Heartland.”
To see how this ties into American Empire, we have to circle yet again back to Mackinder, who noted that the future of the world would come down to a balancing of power between sea powers operating on what is called the “maritime marginal” and “expansive internal forces” within the Eurasian heartland. McCoy quotes imperial historian John Darwin, who wrote in his book ‘After Tamerlane’, that the United States achieved its “colossal imperium…on an unprecedented scale”. This was accomplished through controlling what are called “the strategic axial points” on both sides of Eurasia. America maintains this axial domination through strategic alliances with Pacific powers such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, while enforcing the axial point in Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A cursory look at this Empire shows American primacy when it comes to dominance of land, sea, air, cyber, space, institutional, economic, and clandestine. The aforementioned institutional supremacy through defensive alliances like NATO and bilateral treaties with strategic nations in the Pacific allow America to surround the “world island” with military bases and naval fleets, allowing for easier power projection into the heartland. Over the years, that power projection has evolved from messy deployments of high numbers of ground troops, to the use of mechanized unmanned vehicles called drones. These drones are becoming so commonplace that, McCoy notes “they emerged from the war on terror as one of America’s wonder weapons for preserving its global power.”
Drones of course are used within the command of the armed forces, but they are also used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), making them a tool of clandestine operations. McCoy refers to this as the “Netherworld” where American power is projected behind a veil of secrecy. The clandestine realm played a major role in the development of American power, as covert operations became the preferred method of fomenting discord in countries the US deemed hostile. This evolution of power projection came during a very tumultuous period in history, with the rise of US power coinciding with the collapse of the British Empire, and with that the shift from Britain’s traditional sea dominance to a new kind of dominance that is only seen from the shadows. Clandestine power projection from the early days of the CIA was mostly used for fomenting coups, overthrowing elected governments, and even assassination. Over time, this evolved into a much more sophisticated network that combined your typical covert operations with a sort of underworld diplomacy that focused on preserving alliances with some less than savory characters. McCoy in particular brings attention to US involvement with the Contra’s in Nicaragua and the Mujahadeen rebels in Afghanistan during the 1980’s. This upswing in Clandestine power projection also coincided with the rise of the largest surveillance dragnet in the history of the world. The US intelligence community, primarily through the National Security Agency (NSA) has the ability to monitor all telephone communications that pass through US cell towers, as well as the ability to monitor the internet traffic of all Americans. The NSA also has the ability to monitor the activities of foreign leaders, whether they are “allies” or “hostile”. The NSA also has a strange alliance with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world called “The Five Eyes” which consists of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These five nations openly share any collected intelligence amongst themselves and the alliance itself can be traced back to the founding of the UKUSA Agreement of 1946, in which the US and the UK agreed to share intelligence with one another. The US also utilized the realms of cyberspace and outer space to project power and influence, attacking Iran’s nuclear reactors with the Stuxnet virus, which was the first case of weaponized cyber warfare (that we know of). Much of Washington’s space warfare strategy remains classified, but we know that the National Geospacial Intelligence Agency is crucial in the collection of intelligence, analyzing all video captured by surveillance drones and spy satellites circling the globe.
It is important to examine all the layers of what makes the US such a unique imperial power, because without such context, there are a lot of misconceptions regarding US foreign policy. Alfred McCoy illustrates this best when discussing what he calls “The Grandmasters of the Great Game”. McCoy developed his fundamental model of geopolitics in order to give us a picture of how imperial policymakers conduct policy. From that model, McCoy states that in the history of our nation, only three figures were effective at playing “the great game”. Those three men were Elihu Root, Zbignew Brzezinski, and Barack Obama. Some people (especially those on the right) may have a conniption at the thought of Obama being on the list considering his mistaken reputation as a foreign policy dove. In the context of McCoy’s framework, it makes perfect sense, whereas it makes sense to leave someone like Henry Kissinger, who McCoy sees as reckless and someone who damaged American credibility, off the list.
Elihu Root is a forgotten individual in US history, despite the fact that he served as Secretary of War for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of State, Senator, and an envoy who served under several presidents. Root was at the center of power during the transition of America from a largely domestic Empire to a global Empire, and as secretary of war led efforts when it came to reforming the structure of the army, creating a centralized general staff, a modern war college, and expanding training for army officers. Root established colonial regimes in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and dictated the constitution to an “Independent” Cuba which led to the establishment of a US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Root was also instrumental in the formation of the Council on Foreign Relations, and through his friendship with Andrew Carnegie, helped to found the Peace Palace, where the Permanent Court of Arbitration would be set up at The Hague. Root was an early builder of American Empire, and his policies and contributions to US imperialism are still being felt today. The US is still in Guantanamo, still is occupying the Philippines, and Puerto Rico is reeling from having to recover from a disaster, a recovery which has faced many obstacles due to their status as a “territory”. Root’s policies would be essential in laying the foundation for US global power for the next century, but it wouldn’t be for another 60 years until the next imperial grandmaster used US global power for the purpose of playing “The Great Game”
Zbignew Brzezinski, a Polish emigre and professor of international relations, is perhaps the closest thing we have to an intellectual successor of Halford Mackinder. Brzezinski embraced Mackinder’s theoretical framework of Geopolitics, including Eurasia’s designation of being a “world island” and the “heartland” being the “pivot” of global power. Brzezinski believed that “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Brzezinski would apply this philosophy during his time as National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter as he set about to free Eastern Europe from the clutches of the Soviet Union. In order to accomplish that, Brzezinski spearheaded a policy culminating in “Operation Cyclone”, which involved the funneling of money, weapons, and other resources to Islamic rebels fighting the pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan, in hopes that the civil war would draw the Soviets in to defend their proxy government. The plan worked, and the long term Soviet occupation of Afghanistan drained their economy to the point of collapse, resulting in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic and Balkan states of Eastern Europe. Of course, the unintended consequences of this policy would be the creation of a super powered global army of terrorists, some of which would go on to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks, but that wasn’t a concern for Brzezinski. During a 1998 interview for a French magazine, Brzezinski was asked if he had any regrets about the operation. He responded by asking “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet Union? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”. We clearly can see the fault in his logic, but this type of hubris is probably common among people who view the world as “The Grand Chessboard”, to use the title of Brzezinski’s most famous work. For now, it is important to note that while the blowback from funding terrorism has created a global situation that is nearly without precedence, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with one superpower, which was the United States. From there, the US would look to once again create a world order in its image, and there was no better person to do so than our next “Grandmaster of the Great Game”, a friendly face for Imperialism and Neoliberalism, Barack Obama.
In many ways, Barack Obama’s presidency was a blessing to US Empire, and this begins to make sense when you examine his presidency using McCoy’s theoretical framework. McCoy says of Empires “When their revenue shrink, empires become brittle. Consider the collapse of the Soviet sphere after its command economy imploded. Or recall the rapid dissolution of the British Empire after World War II as London faced an irresolvable conflict between “domestic recovery and its imperial commitments””. Taking this into consideration, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a disaster for US empire. Solely from the perspective of an imperialist in McCoy’s framework, that war cost lives, credibility, and an insane amount of money that didn’t go to repairing the needs of the country. More importantly, during those years in which the US was bogged down in the Middle East, China began the next phase of its rise, using it’s massive collection of sovereign wealth funds to launch massive infrastructure development across the entire Eurasian Continent. In comes Barack Obama, a friendly face of “hope and change” who vowed to end the Iraq war, while at the same time maintaining the occupation of Afghanistan. One thing that set Obama’s foreign policy apart from his recent peers was his “pivot to Asia”. When the pivot was first announced, many pundits didn’t know how to react, with one pundit even referring to it as a “pivot to nowhere”. The pivot to Asia strategy makes sense when you look at it from the geopolitical framework given to us by McCoy, and sheds new light on the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact that the Obama administration was trying to implement. The trade pact would encompass countries that make up 40% of world trade, and China would not be included, clearly illustrating the geopolitical nature of the agreement. The reasons in which this agreement was not successful will become apparent, but the question that needs to be asked regarding such an agreement is whether it came too late. In order to answer this question, we have to take a look at how “The Great Game” has been playing out over the last couple decades and who is winning.
China’s grand strategy certainly isn’t your typical imperial grand strategy, depending moreso on economic soft power than pure power projection through military might. Nevertheless the strategy, if implemented would clearly change the geopolitical power dynamics of the world, and that obviously has some policymakers concerned in Washington. One of the main post-World War II pillars of US empire is “The Washington Consensus”, a philosophical framework of global governance that emphasizes the primacy of western financial and governance institutions in conducting global politics. Institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and WTO are products of this framework, and these institutions, along with military alliances like NATO, have served to maintain a western-centric global supremacy with the US government at the helm. China’s strategy looks to reorient the entire landscape, shifting the epicenter of global governance from a “unipolar” model, which emphasizes the need for a single powerful hegemon, to a more “multipolar” model, which emphasizes regional hegemons. Halford Mackinder once wrote that “Trans-continental railways are now transmuting the conditions of land power,” and that “…the century will not be old before all Asia is covered with railways,”. He wrote this back in 1904, and due to the damage accumulated in the wake of two world wars, it wouldn’t be until the next century that his vision was realized. China by 2030 plans on linking all of their major cities by high speed rail, while simultaneously working with surrounding states to make the effort transcontinental. Plans on constructing a “Eurasian Land Bridge” or a high speed rail line that would go from Chongqing to Leipzig, Germany in 20 days is an example of one such ambitious project. Why is this significant? China being able to ship via high speed rail allows it to circumvent shipping lanes, most of which are patrolled by either the US navy or US allies. Circumventing these shipping lanes gives the Chinese ability to get around any obstacles that may arise if any diplomatic or geopolitical tensions arise between China and the US. Chinese grand strategy also involves the construction of a vast network of pipelines for the purpose of importing oil and gas. One of the most significant deals in this realm was between the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Russian state owned Gazprom. The deal was worth $400 billion, and it came during a time where Russia was facing increased sanctions from the West due to its annexation of Crimea. Russia as a geostrategic partner is essential for China’s implementation of their grand strategy. As long as Russia is the primary boogeyman of the West, and keeping the West bogged down in a two front proxy war in Syria and Ukraine, China can simply step in strategically without getting their hands dirty while continuing to implement what some in the US media are beginning to refer to as China’s “manifest destiny”. China is also looking to end the monopoly on military alliances, security alliances, and international economic institutions through alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations(SCO), functioning as a Asian security alliance, and the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), built in the likeness and image of the IMF, and already has support from many countries, including US allies like the UK, Australia, and South Korea.
Hopefully, this brings everything full circle, and allows us to contextualize McCoy’s rationale when it comes to his selected geopolitical grandmasters, in particular Barack Obama and his “pivot to Asia” strategy. Within the framework of McCoy’s model of geopolitics, the strategies of Root, Brzezinski, and Obama seem like the perfect Imperial chess maneuvers, and it would be hard to disagree. With that being said, McCoy’s work is not a celebration of imperialist mastery, and the seeming omnipotence of this “Great Game” does not have as much power as some may like to think. McCoy dedicates much to discussing “the limits of vision” and how imperial grand strategies have one blindspot when it comes to long term implementation, which is the will of the people. When it came to the long term vision of Root’s globalism, he was unable to foresee the populist backlash post-WWI which led to Congress rejecting the League of Nations, another of Root’s imperial projects, as well as the isolationist presidency of Warren G. Harding. Zbignew Brzezinski was almost callous when it came to the blowback of “Operation Cyclone”, and despite the US coming out of the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, has been unable to use that Super power to defeat the Frankenstein they cooked up in the laboratories of Langley. With Barack Obama, the Trans Pacific Partnership faced bipartisan backlash from a country whose economy was already wrecked by previous trade policies. Presidential candidates (including Hillary Clinton, who originally spearheaded the pivot to Asia initiative) came out against the trade pact and it eventually died when Trump came into office and ended trade talks. The lesson that McCoy is trying to get across here is perhaps unintended, but still important. The will of the people can trump (no pun intended) the power of Empire.
That last point is important in terms of illustrating the importance of understanding the Empire we live in, especially those dedicated to resisting it. For me, the one criticism I have of this book is perhaps its greatest strength. The book itself is a tour de force of US imperialism, treating the world as if it were a game of Diplomacy, or a “Grand Chessboard”. This sort of mindset fosters a callousness towards the people of this world, who are increasingly seen and used as pawns in a game being played only by wealthy and powerful people in suits isolated from the pain and suffering caused by their “ideas”. With that being said, it is essential to maintain a realistic outlook when critically examining how an imperialist sees the world, and that is the gift that this book offers. McCoy’s entire examination of the collapse of American power serves us two ways. One, it exposes the blindspots of imperialism, by demonstrating that the visions of imperial grand strategy are limited by the lack of knowledge of the imperialist towards the people they are trying to manipulate. This perhaps demonstrates that imperialism isn’t as inundated in the culture of America as we perhaps thought. Two, it offers us a look into the imperialist mindset, and gives the anti-imperialist a chance to learn more about their adversary. McCoy’s theoretical framework also proves to be highly dependable in forecasting geopolitical trends, which could serve as a useful tool when figuring out where and when future conflicts may arise. The most important lesson learned, and to reiterate what was said in the previous paragraph, is the power of the people, especially people in this country, to combat imperialism. Americans sit in the heart of the empire, and the land that we occupy allows the US empire to project its power all over the world. Without the foundation, the entire empire comes crumbling down, and the people of this country are that foundation. With enough outcry, we can combat imperialism, and with the current decline of US Global Power, there is no better time to speak out.