February 8, 2024

The US: No Longer the Ultimate Superpower

That time has long passed.

Tom Engelhardt
President Trump Departs White House For Campaign Stops In Minnesota

Former President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House in September 2020.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

I was born on July 20, 1944, almost two years after Joe Biden arrived on this planet and almost a year before You Know Who, like me, landed in New York City. The United States was then nearing the end of the second global war of that century and things were about to look up. My dad had been the operations officer for the 1st Air Commandos fighting the Japanese in Burma and, by that July, the tide had distinctly turned. The era that Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and I would enter feet first and naked would quickly become an upbeat one for so many Americans—or at least so many white Americans in the midst of a war economy that would, in some sense, carry over into a growing peacetime economy. Of course, World War II would end dramatically with the dropping of two new weapons, atomic bombs, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, signaling, though few fully grasped it at the time, that we humans would soon be capable not just of making war in a big-time fashion, but of all too literally destroying humanity.

The “peacetime” that followed the devastation of those two cities and the killing of at least 100,000 Japanese civilians in them would, for the next 46 years, be stoked by what came to be known as the Cold War. In it, a nuclear-armed America and a soon-to-be-nuclear-armed Soviet Union, as well as its “commie”—the term of the time—allies, faced off against each other globally. (Estimates done for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961 suggested that a full-scale US nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and Communist China would then have killed between 200 million and 600 million people.) Both sides would rush to create vast nuclear arsenals able not just to obliterate the United States and the Soviet Union, but the planet itself, while, in the course of the next three-quarters of a century, seven other countries would, cheerily enough, join the nuclear “club.”

Two of the countries waging war at this moment, Russia and Israel, are nuclear powers. And today, more than 78 years after those atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with perhaps 1,700 nuclear weapons deployed (most of them staggeringly more powerful than those first atomic bombs), the United States is in the midst of a multi-decade “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal to the tune of at least $1.5 trillion and possibly far more.

All in all, consider that quite an inheritance from that childhood of mine.

We kids grew up then amid what I came to call a “victory culture”—and what a potentially devastating culture that proved to be! Doesn’t the very thought of it leave you with the urge to dive under the nearest desk (something that, in my youth, was called “duck and cover” and that we kids practiced at school in case a Russian nuclear bomb were to go off over New York City)? Yes, there would indeed be a certain amount of ducking and covering of all kinds during that 40-odd year-long Cold War with the Soviet Union. After all, for the US, it involved a deeply unsatisfying war in Korea in the early 1950s and a bitter disaster of a war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, fearsome anti-communist crusades at home, and Washington’s support across the planet not just for democracies but for quite a crew of autocrats (like the shah of Iran).

Still, domestically the United States became a distinctly well-off land. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement grew to challenge the racial hell that was the inheritance of slavery in this country and, by the end of the Cold War, Americans were generally living better than ever before.

Of course, a grotesque version of inequality was already starting to spiral out of control as this country gained ever more billionaires, including a fellow named—yes!—Donald Trump who would be no one’s apprentice. But in all those years, one thing few here would have imagined was that American-style democracy itself might, at some moment, prove increasingly out of fashion for a distinct subset, if not a majority, of Americans.

If I Had Told You…

Now, let’s take a leap from the end of the Cold War in 1991 to the present moment and the question is: What are we headed for? Sadly, the answer (no given, but certainly a possibility) could indeed be an all-American version of fascism, brownshirts included, should Donald Trump be reelected in a chaotic November to come, including—absolutely guaranteed!—a contested election result (and god knows what else) if he isn’t.

Honestly, tell me that you even believe this world we’re supposedly living in exists!

As I approach 80, I find just being in it increasingly unnerving. Wherever I look, nothing seems to be faintly working right. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about our secretary of defense disappearing as this year began (yes, at my age I can empathize with an older guy who doesn’t want to share information about his prostate cancer, but still…); the increasingly extreme and disturbingly fascistic—a word I once reserved for Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and the war my father fought in—bent to what’s still called the “Republican” Party; the utter madness of one whale of a guy, Donald Trump, and the possibility that such madness could attract a majority of American voters in 2024; the urge of “my” president, that old Cold Warrior Joe Biden, to bomb his way into a larger, far more disastrous war in the Middle East (and who cares whether that bombing is faintly “working” or not?); oh, and (to make sure this is my longest paragraph ever) when some of that bombing is being done to “protect” American troops in Iraq and Syria (not to speak of those who recently were wounded or died in—yes!—Jordan), who cares why in the world our soldiers are stationed there in the first place; not to speak of the all-too-unstoppable human urge to set parts of our globe aflame with war after war (and don’t forget the way those wars throw staggering amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, so that it isn’t just Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Ukraine, or Gaza burning but, in some sense, our whole planet); and, of course, the fact that we humans seem bent on all too literally heating this world to the boiling point in a fashion that, historically speaking, should (but for all too many of us doesn’t) seem beyond devastating. I mean, give us credit, since 2023 was the hottest year by far in human history and yet, some years down the line, it may seem almost cool in comparison to what’s coming.

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

And consider that paragraph—possibly the longest I’ve ever written—my welcome mat to the 2024 version of our world. And welcome, as well, to a country whose leaders, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, felt distinctly on top of this planet of ours in every imaginable sense. They saw the United States then as the ultimate superpower (or perhaps I mean: THE ULTIMATE SUPERPOWER!!!), a power of one and one alone. After some rugged years on the foreign policy front, including that disastrous war in Vietnam that left Americans feeling anything but triumphant, victory culture was back in a big-time fashion. And that, unbelievably enough, was only a little more than three decades ago. Yet today, while the Biden administration pours weaponry into Israel and bombs and missiles into Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, who would claim that the United States (or any other country for that matter) was the “lone superpower” on this planet?

In fact, in 2007, with this country’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq already dragging on disastrously, I wrote a new introduction to my book on victory culture and it was already clear to me that “perhaps when the history of this era is written, among the more striking developments will have been the inability of a mighty empire to force its will or its way on others in the normal fashion almost anywhere on the planet. Since the Soviet Union evaporated, the fact is that most previously accepted indices of power—military power in particular—have been challenged and, in the process, victory has been denied.”

In historical terms, that should be seen as a remarkably swift fall from grace in a world where this country hasn’t been able to win a war in living memory (despite having something like 750 military bases scattered across the globe and a near-trillion-dollar “defense” budget that leaves the next 10 countries combined in the dust). These days, in fact, the former lone superpower seems in danger of coming apart at the seams domestically, if not in an actual civil war (though there are certainly enough weapons of a devastating kind in civilian hands to launch one), then in some kind of a strange Trumpbacchanalia.

Yes, if we were in 1991 and I told you that, in an election season 32 years later, the very phrase “civil war” would no longer just be a reference to a distant historical memory of the Blue and the Gray but part of everyday conversation and media reportage, you would have laughed me out of the room. Similarly, if I had told you that a strange yellow-haired man sporting an eerie grimace, a former 14-season TV apprentice (rocked by divorces and bankruptcies), would have won the presidency and then, three years after leaving office, be back at it again, reveling in the mere 91 criminal charges outstanding against him in four cases (not to speak of two civil trials) and campaigning on a promise of a one-day dictatorship on his first day back in office when he would, above all else, just “drill, drill, drill,” you would undoubtedly have thought me mad as a hatter.

If I had told you then that North Korea—yes, North Korea!—might have a missile that could reach the United States with a nuclear weapon and that its ruler (the man President Trump first called “a sick puppy” and later a “great leader”) was threatening his southern neighbor with nuclear war, would you have believed it? If I had told you then that the United States was fervently backing its ally Israel, after its own version of 9/11, in a war in Gaza in which staggering amounts of housing, as well as hospitals and schools in that 25-mile strip of land were being destroyed, damaged, or put out of action, more than 27,000 Palestinians (including thousands of children) slaughtered, 85 percent of the population turned into refugees, and perhaps half of them now in danger of starvation, would you have believed me? I doubt it. If I had told you that, more than 22 years after its own 9/11, my country would still be fighting the “war on terror” it launched then, would you have believed me? I doubt that, too.

If I had told you that, in 2024, the two candidates for president would be 81 and 77 years old (keep in mind that the oldest American president previously, Ronald Reagan, left office at age 77); that one of them would look ancient wherever he went and whatever he did, while the other, on the campaign trail, would begin slurring his words, while mixing up his Republican opponent with the former Democratic House leader, what might you think? (Oh, and don’t forget that the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, is almost 82 and last year froze twice while speaking with reporters.)

Honestly, could you have ever imagined such an ancient version of an all-American world—the world of a distinctly disintegrating superpower? And yet given how we humans are acting, the United States could well prove to be the last superpower ever. Who knows if, in a future that seems to be heading downhill fast in an endless blaze of heat, any country, including China, could become a superpower.

Kissing It All Goodbye?

In all those years past, the one thing few could have imagined was that democracy itself might begin to go out of fashion right here in the US of A.

Of course, the question now is: What are we headed for? And the answer could indeed be an all-American version of fascism, should Donald Trump be reelected this year, or an unimaginably chaotic scene if he isn’t.

And by the way, don’t blame Donald Trump for all of this. Consider him instead the biggest Symptom—and given that giant Wendy’s burger of a man, the word does need to be capitalized—around!

Imagine this: in a mere 30-plus years, we’ve moved from a world with a “lone superpower” to one in which it’s becoming harder to imagine a super anything on a planet that’s threatening to go down in a welter of wars, as well as unprecedented droughts, fires, floods, storms, and heat.

And if Donald Trump were to be elected, we would also find ourselves in an almost unimaginable version of—yes!—defeat culture (and maybe that will have to be the title of the book I’ll undoubtedly never write after I turn 80 and am headed downhill myself).

But don’t make me go on! Honestly, you know just as well as I do that, if the man who only wants to “drill, drill, drill” ends up back in the White House, you can more or less kiss this country (which already happens to be the biggest oil producer and natural gas exporter around) and possibly this planet goodbye. And if he doesn’t… well, you may have to kiss it goodbye anyway.

And that would be defeat culture, big time.

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs Tomdispatch.com, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. His next book, A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books), will be published later this month.

More from The Nation

Meir Kahane (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (right) edited side by side.

Israel’s Far Right Finally Gets the War It Has Always Wanted Israel’s Far Right Finally Gets the War It Has Always Wanted

Billed as a response to the October 7 Hamas attack, the conflict in Gaza has increasingly become a war to eliminate all Palestinians—a longtime goal of Israel’s homegrown fascists...

James Bamford

A soldier prepares to launch a drone in Afghanistan.

The Killer Robots Are Here. It’s Time to Be Worried. The Killer Robots Are Here. It’s Time to Be Worried.

When the leading advocates of autonomous weaponry tell us to be concerned about the unintended dangers posed by their use in battle, the rest of us should be worried.

Michael T. Klare

Following an Israeli attack in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, a wounded Palestinian child receives medical attention at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital on February 20, 2024.

Aren't the Children of Gaza Worth Saving? Aren't the Children of Gaza Worth Saving?

If our answer is yes, then we have to stop sending Israel the weapons that kill them.

Charles Glass

Palestinians inspect a damaged wedding Photography studio following Israeli strikes in Gaza City on February 13, 2023.

I Was Blissfully Planning My Engagement Party. Then the Bombs Started Falling. I Was Blissfully Planning My Engagement Party. Then the Bombs Started Falling.

I had dreamed of a wedding and cute, chubby babies. But I live in Gaza. So now I just dream of surviving.

Afaf Al Najjar

Injured Palestinians, including children, are brought to Nasser Hospital to receive medical treatment following Israeli attacks in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on January 22, 2024.

Israel Has Created a Medical Apocalypse in Gaza Israel Has Created a Medical Apocalypse in Gaza

The hospital system is barely functional. Disease is running rampant. Medical workers are being kidnapped, tortured, and killed. And the world is letting it happen.

Mary Turfah

Flowers laid in homage to Alexei Navalny, next to the Russian Embassy

Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Was Brave, Authentic, Funny, Larger Than Life. Will His Movement Survive Him? Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Was Brave, Authentic, Funny, Larger Than Life. Will His Movement Survive Him?

More than a politician, he became a talisman for Russia’s liberals.

Vadim Nikitin