Given the cluttered landscape of the last 14 years, can you even faintly remember the moment when the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended in a stunned silence of shock and triumph in Washington, Eastern Europe was freed, Germany unified, and the Soviet Union vanished from the face of the Earth? At that epochal moment, six centuries of imperial rivalries ended. Only one mighty power was left.
There hadn’t been a moment like it in historical memory: a single “hyperpower” with a military force beyond compare looming over a planet without rivals. Under the circumstances, what couldn’t Washington hope for? The eternal domination of the Middle East and all that oil? A planetary Pax Americana for generations to come? Why not? After all, not even the Romans and the British at the height of their empires had experienced a world quite like this one.
Now, leap a quarter of a century to the present and note the rising tide of paranoia in this country and the litany of predictions of doom and disaster. Consider the extremity of fear and gloom in the party of Ronald “It’s Morning Again in America” Reagan in what are called “debates” among its presidential candidates, and it’s hard not to imagine that we aren’t at the precipice of the decline and fall of just about everything. The American Century? So much sawdust on the floor of history.
If, however, you look at the country that its top politicians can now hardly mention without defensively wielding the words “exceptional” or “indispensable,” the truly exceptional thing is this: As a great power, the United States still stands alone on planet Earth and Americans can exhibit all the paranoia they want in remarkable safety and security.
Here, then, are three exceptional facts of our moment.
Exceptional Fact #1: Failure Is Success, or the United States Remains the Sole Superpower
If you were to isolate the single most striking, if little discussed, aspect of American foreign policy in the first 15 years of this century, it might be that Washington’s inability to apply its power successfully just about anywhere confirms that very power; in other words, failure is a marker of success. Let me explain.
In the post-9/11 years, American power in various highly militarized forms has been let loose repeatedly across a vast swath of the planet from the Chinese border to deep in Africa—and nowhere in those 14 years, despite dreams of glory and global dominion, has the United States succeeded in any of its strategic goals. That should qualify as exceptional in itself. After all, what are the odds that, in all that time, nothing should turn out as planned or positively by Washington’s standards? It could not win its war in Afghanistan; nor its two wars, one ongoing, in Iraq; nor has it had success in its present one in Syria; it failed to cow Iran; its intervention in Libya proved catastrophic; its various special ops and drone campaigns in Yemen have led to chaos in that country; and so, as novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say, it goes.