After America – Narratives for the Next Global Age by Paul Starobin
Viking (Penguin), New York, 2009. Reviewed by JIM MILES
After a half decade of books on the ‘American empire’ and many more on the politics, military, religion, and economics that are pieces of the whole, a new trend is now appearing on the book market. After the election of Obama as president, the new material is all forward looking, promoting ideas or creating possible scenarios of where the U.S. can, may, could, or should direct its energies. The general trend is the recognition that the “empire” is in significant decline, generally considered due to a combination of economic and military misadventures under the Bush regime, with recognition that it all started well before. While some see the imperial role as one that requires regaining U.S. dominance and power others see it as finding a balance in a new ordering of the world in which the U.S. will still be important but will no longer be dominant.
Any conjectural interpretations must be treated with care. The danger in writing conjecturally is that it involves knowledge in a broad range of areas and not necessarily the author’s relative knowledge or specific area of expertise. The future involves everything – global climate change, the military and its full range of activities, politics at home and abroad, the global economy, and to tie all the above together should be a broad based human geography and cultural understanding of the many diverse attitudes and perceptions found around the world.
Paul Starobin’s After America sits comfortably within this category of forward-looking narratives. To my pleasant surprise, the book works very well, a combination of plausible/possible outcomes based on a quickly and accurately sketched history of the penultimate decade preceding the decline. It is easy to work through, as the writing is very well structured both for its technical writing skill and for the development of the main thesis. The defining moment for the U.S., the “high-water” moment, came at precisely 11:28 Moscow time, August 22, 1991. Okay, that is a bit too precise, but historians by necessity need to create book-marked dates to define their purposes.
That moment in the history of the fall of the USSR began an era of U.S. imperial dominance that in itself could have turned out many different ways. However, rather than becoming a magnanimous benefactor to help elevate the world to a new level of social comfort, the U.S. spent the first decade in awe of itself without any coherent idea of where it was going, and then when a coherent direction determined itself, it was towards hegemony and the full spectrum dominance of the whole world by a combination of military and economic might. That era passed swiftly in historical terms, although like most nightmares it seemed to go on forever, and remnants struggle on.
The main theme then is that of the myth U.S. exceptionalism (below) and its two underlying themes in the modern era of the U.S. acting as a global policeman, and the U.S. acting as the new imperial Rome, quashing all dissent and rebellion to create a peaceful world. However, empires are held “through terror” and overall, “The Rome formula is a fantasy.”
Starobin begins his arguments with the establishment of one of the ideas that has given support to U.S. adventurism around the world, an idea, a myth that underlies it all.
“Ideas, of course, can have great consequence, especially when they are interwoven with emotion to form the fabric of myth. And Jacksonian America proved to be the creator – or at least the completer – of America’s most cherished myth, the myth of American Exceptionalism.”
The first part of the text deals with the history leading up to the modern era of imperial dominance. It starts with the myth as an idea, then works through the manner in which that myth developed in real terms. The historical material is covered quickly and while any reader could ask “well, what about this…or what about that…” there is enough accurate information and correlation of ideas that support his main thesis and the many underlying ideas very well. Further, he does not sugar-coat the history. He recognizes the many frailties within U.S. society including its treatment of the blacks, and the indigenous population. The later historical perspectives are quite clear and distinct about U.S. connivances and failures along with its ever-broadening reach for empire.
Only two areas struck me as being ‘wrong’ with Starobin’s ideas, the first being the “accidental” nature of the empire. This seems to be part of the enduring myth of exceptionalism that perhaps Starobin does not see in himself. Yet, for that little piece of error as perceived by myself, the arguments and presentation are not at all hindered by this single word.
It becomes more of a semantic exercise. Starobin recognizes the slavery, the genocide of the indigenous population (starting with the exceptional fundamentalism of the first settlers), the “conquest” of Spanish territory, the pronouncement of the Munro Doctrine and Manifest Destiny, as the “United States” – remember, originally only thirteen on the eastern seaboard – expanded its territory imperial style across the continent with full knowledge and intent to conquer the land. Accidental or not, the U.S. acted imperially. There is too much within its actions and purposefulness for me to accept it as accidental, perhaps opportunistic would be a better middle perspective. Notwithstanding, his arguments succeed with his original thesis.
After passing through a brief history and then a brief – and again successful – recounting of current events since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Starobin heads into the future. He provides several scenarios, some more plausible than others, a matter he recognizes himself. His general arguments carry one underlying reminder – this fall from dominance is not necessarily a bad thing for the U.S. but if approached properly could provide the route to ongoing economic and social demographic success within the U.S., unhindered by the dogma and over-reaching of myth become empire.
Five main scenarios are hypothesized, some overlapping each other. In order of presentation he works through chaos, a multipolar world, the Chinese century, futuristic city-states, and a “universal civilization.” All are argued well and are multi faceted. There is recognition and application of the current global economic downturn that may or may not recover as anyone in particular predicts. Global warming is recognized as a serious problem. These scenarios play out for Starobin in a mixture of anecdotal reports supported with good factual information, and a decent sense of where reality might arrive. He recognizes so many possible scenarios without advocating any particular one (especially a resurgent U.S. empire as some have) and also sees positive attributes for the U.S. in all scenarios, with a bit of hedging in the “negative” chaos (as opposed to positive chaos – you’ll have to read it to find out more on this interesting opposition of ideas).
Middle East and Israel
My second criticism, one that again does not overtly affect the general trend of his arguments for the future, as the ‘facts’ are consistent with what I am familiar with concerns the Middle East. Again, it becomes a matter of definition perhaps clouded by a bit of remaining imperialistic lensing that may not have been fully exorcised from Starobin’s generally well presented arguments.
His positions are brief – as they must be by necessity when covering all of the imperial past and the main futures – but more in the ‘modernist’ interpretations of Bernard Lewis and others who see the Middle East as its own main problem. He indicates, “The region suffers from tribalism, sectarianism, religious fanaticism, tyranny, political corruption, poverty, and a plague of gangsters peddling narcotics and weapons.” He brings up the old imperial argument about keeping order, as “no one is able to step forward to take the role that America has played in keeping at least a modicum of order in places like the Middle East.” Ah, yes…hmmm…compare this to his ‘global policeman’ thematic criticism…and what about all the other ‘tribal’ areas of the world, especially Africa?
First of all the current United States’ version of patriotic nationalism is really nothing more than tribalism writ large (as with all modern states). While not dominant, certainly religious fanaticism had its role in the Bush regime, and when it comes to a plague of gangsters and narcotics and weapons, well, the U.S. cannot chastise anyone on those accounts. Speaking of accounts, what about the ‘banksters’ and economists who have ridden the U.S. into such huge realms of debt?
Yes, the Middle East has its problems, but as per the second quote on maintaining order, it would do well of the empire to step back and get out of other people’s lives and let them get on with establishing their own order (this applies to Russian and China and the U.K. as well as). Sure chaos may rule for a while, sure it may be archaic for a while, but there needs to be recognition of the U.S.’ imperial role in all that ‘backwardness’.
Israel is accorded its rightful place. There is not a discussion of Palestine per se (some topics by necessity cannot be covered) but a very concise statement about the U.S.’ relationship with Israel,
“It is understood everywhere in the Middle East, and beyond, that the Jewish state has the status of being an informal protectorate of America….It is generally considered good politics for a presidential candidate to play up U.S. support for Israel.”
Back to the future
There are many other smaller points of conjecture that arise in Starobin’s arguments, some surprising, some ordinary, but all are well supported. For anyone who considers themself a futurist or interested in what is coming next, it is a wonderful book to start with. It is neither apocalypse nor rapture but a well-paced, concise practical look at where we all might be headed into the middle of the current century. “After America” is a strong work for its concise summaries, strong support of futuristic arguments, informative, challenging, accessible, and entertaining.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.