Opinion: Unilateral America continues to haunt us

NEW YORK — The first decade of the 21st century is over, and not a moment too soon for many Americans.

The decade made short work of belying the widely held assumptions of the millennium celebrations 10 years ago.

First, the 9/11 attacks shook and ultimately shattered the so-called “unipolar” moment as the reaction of the United States failed to carry the day either on the battlefield or in the court of world opinion.

Then, just to put a big, broad line under the lesson, the economic hubris that funded “unipolarity” collapsed, too, ending a hallucinatory moment when supposedly serious economists argued that the days when the world’s economy was subject to cyclical swings of boom and bust were over.

The One or the Many?

For many of those now summing up the decade, the past 10 years read like an indictment of one man, George W. Bush, which is not surprising since eight of those years coincided with his presidency.

“If Dickens proclaimed of the 1790s revolutionary era in France that it was the best of times and the worst of times, the reactionary Bush era was just the worst of times,” writes Juan Cole, the hard-blogging University of Michigan Middle East expert who became a leading critic of U.S. policy in Iraq. “I declare it the decade of the American oligarchs.”

But that vastly oversimplifies the extent of the disaster that befell America during the first decade of the 20th century. Bush, after all, is in his rocking chair in Crawford, Texas, presumably unable to add to his achievements.

Yet the legacy of misguided decisions — including many which reach back to previous Democrat and Republican administrations — has not been wiped away by the election of a new leader, even one as clearly different as Barack Obama. As his first year in office demonstrates, the baggage of the unilateral America continues to haunt us. Even a short list has to include:

  • Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Our arrogant tendency to cite international principles (nuclear nonproliferation, free navigation of the seas) when they benefit us, and to break them at will (Geneva Convention, Kyoto Protocol) when they don’t
  • Our disgusting habit of borrowing against the future of our children to fuel the fallacy that our country can defy economic gravity and depend on our biggest potential adversary (China) as a benevolent creditor, which has created a society in which wealth has become so unevenly divided that we fit the profile of a mid-20th century Latin American democracy

None of this is solely the work of the man from Crawford, happy as I am to know he is living in that ZIP code once more. The cult of home ownership that banks and politicians exploited to create the real estate bubble which almost sparked a global depression began with Roosevelt and was raised from progressive policy to the status of religious dogma by Ronald Reagan (and his too-oft overlooked tutor, Margaret Thatcher).

The unleashing of the banking sector from any coherent form of regulation can be traced to Reagan, as well, though the wound that cut most deeply, most experts agree, was the partial repeal in 1999 of the Depression-era firewall called the Glass-Steagall Act. That move, an act of the Republican Congress that could have been vetoed by Clinton, was instead praised by his Treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers, as creating “a system for the 21st century.” Summers, of course, is now Obama’s chief economic advisor.

If Democrats must share the blame for going off the cliff, though, the Republicans who surrounded Bush for much of the decade were driving the car. The 2000 election, controversial as it was, still put a candidate in office who famously promised the foreign policy of “a humble nation, but strong.”

Instead, Bush appointed to key posts in his new administration members of a group which, during the GOP’s stint in opposition during the 1990s, convened themselves as the “Project for a New American Century” who argued passionately that America’s goal should be to prolong the unilateral moment in history and seek to remain so powerful that no rival would dare emerge.

Merely 10 years into that “new century,” that group — which included such first term luminaries as Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Elliott Abrams and Bush’s brother, Jeb, and Vce President Dick Cheney — has done more to accelerate the decline of American influence, credibility and power than any million Chinese.

New York, the Axis of Change

The epicenter of all this change, interestingly, was America’s financial center. The 9/11 attacks and the bursting of the American real estate bubble, both shot like electrical shocks to the heart of the American economy. After 9/11, the economy seemed to shrug off the pain and recover.

Within months, the mantra of those who argued that gravity had ceased to exist for America resumed. In economic parlance, our “new economy" was said to be sailing smoothly through a new epoch — the “Great Moderation” — a time ruled by sophisticated mathematical models and scientific certainty about risk management.

But devotees of deregulated, unrestrained capitalism, who ranked it with Gospel, Torah or Koran as truth, managed to do what Osama bin Laden’s trained murderers could not: seize up the engine of American commerce.

The consequent unraveling of faulty risk models and ill-considered investments that did so much to inflate the U.S. economy and the rest of the global economy in the preceding seven years, sparked a synchronized global recession more severe than any since the Great Depression. Bear Stearns shook, and then Lehman Bros and AIG shattered that foolishness.

The world that remains is completely remade. In 2000, America was resented by some, and admired and emulated by billions. Today, Obama or not, it is resented by billions, admired and emulated by some, and pitied by others.

The United States remains the most powerful economic, political and military force on the planet. All those things will remain true throughout the next decade. But the options available to up and coming nations — as well as the established countries of the old “west” — are no longer the “black and white” of George W. Bush’s worldview: “With us or against us.”

Brazil — to choose a country at random — can decide to be friends with the United States, China, Venezuela and Iran as it sees fit. Brazilians and Indians and South Africans and Italians don’t care much about our paranoid fears of any of these countries. If they have a dog in these fights, the United States over the past 10 years has given them every reason to lay low.

After the exposure of the Iraq War and our claim to “economic leadership” as two titanic frauds, it will take more than our word over the next few decades to persuade anyone otherwise.