Thursday, October 02, 2008

Slouching into that good night

We're teetering on the edge of some bad juju here in America, and the woman above could be vice-president.

If that weren't depressing enough. . . .

Don't worry, be happy.

Remain calm, all is well. Yes, we can!

"We're gonna spread happiness! We're gonna spread freedom! Obama's gonna change it, Obama's gonna lead 'em."

Or so we have been informed by a choir of brainwashed children singing hosannas to the Man Who Would Be Dear Leader.

FOR THE LIFE OF ME, I can't figure out why the Europeans don't think much of us anymore. Really, where did this Der Spiegel opinion piece come from?

There are days when all it takes is a single speech to illustrate the decline of a world power. A face can speak volumes, as can the speaker's tone of voice, the speech itself or the audience's reaction. Kings and queens have clung to the past before and humiliated themselves in public, but this time it was merely a United States president.

Or what is left of him.

George W. Bush has grown old, erratic and rosy in the eight years of his presidency. Little remains of his combativeness or his enthusiasm for physical fitness. On this sunny Tuesday morning in New York, even his hair seemed messy and unkempt, his blue suit a little baggy around the shoulders, as Bush stepped onto the stage, for the eighth time, at the United Nations General Assembly.

He talked about terrorism and terrorist regimes, and about governments that allegedly support terror. He failed to notice that the delegates sitting in front of and below him were shaking their heads, smiling and whispering, or if he did notice, he was no longer capable of reacting. The US president gave a speech similar to the ones he gave in 2004 and 2007, mentioning the word "terror" 32 times in 22 minutes. At the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations, George W. Bush was the only one still talking about terror and not about the topic that currently has the rest of the world's attention.

"Absurd, absurd, absurd," said one German diplomat. A French woman called him "yesterday's man" over coffee on the East River. There is another way to put it, too: Bush was a laughing stock in the gray corridors of the UN.

The American president has always had enemies in these hallways and offices at the UN building on First Avenue in Manhattan. The Iranians and Syrians despise the eternal American-Israeli coalition, while many others are tired of Bush's Americans telling the world about the blessings of deregulated markets and establishing rules "that only apply to others," says the diplomat from Berlin.

But the ridicule was a new thing. It marked the end of respect.

"Well," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva began, standing outside the General Assembly Hall. Then he looked out the window and said: "He decided to talk about terrorism, but the issue that has the world concerned is the economic crisis." Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, said that the schoolmasters from Washington had dubbed the 1994 Mexican crisis the "tequila effect" and Brazil's 1999 crisis the "Caipirinha effect."

Are we now experiencing the "whiskey effect?" But President Kirchner was gracious and, with a smile, called it the "jazz effect."

Is it only President George W. Bush, the lame duck president, whom the rest of the world is no longer taking seriously, or are the remaining 191 UN member states already setting their sights on the United States, the giant brought to its knees? UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon referred to a "new reality" and "new centers of power and leadership in Asia, Latin America and across the newly developed world." Are they surprised, in these new centers, at the fall of America, of the system of the Western-style market economy?
OH, JUST WAIT. It gets better:
This is no longer the muscular and arrogant United States the world knows, the superpower that sets the rules for everyone else and that considers its way of thinking and doing business to be the only road to success.

A new America is on display, a country that no longer trusts its old values and its elites even less: the politicians, who failed to see the problems on the horizon, and the economic leaders, who tried to sell a fictitious world of prosperity to Americans.

Also on display is the end of arrogance. The Americans are now paying the price for their pride.

Gone are the days when the US could go into debt with abandon, without considering who would end up footing the bill. And gone are the days when it could impose its economic rules of engagement on the rest of the world, rules that emphasized profit above all else -- without ever considering that such returns cannot be achieved by doing business in a respectable way.

With its rule of three of cheap money, free markets and double-digit profit margins, American turbo-capitalism has set economic standards worldwide for the past quarter century. Now it is proving to be nothing but a giant snowball system, upsetting the US's global political status as it comes crashing down. Every bank that US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is currently forced to bail out with American government funds damages America's reputation around the world.

Of course, it is not solely the result of undesirable economic developments that the United States is in the process of forfeiting its unique position in the world and that the world is moving toward what Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, calls a "post-American age." Washington has also lost much of its political ability to impose its will on other countries.

The failed leadership of President Bush, whose departure most of his counterparts from other countries are now looking forward to more and more openly, is not solely to blame. Nor are his two risky wars: the one in Iraq, which he launched frivolously in the vain hope of converting the entire region to the American way of life, and the other in Afghanistan, in which Bush now risks the world's most powerful defense alliance, NATO, suffering its first defeat.

But it's hard to forget how this president's mentors celebrated the power to shape world affairs the United States acquired in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the East-West conflict. There was talk of a "unipolar moment," of "America's moment," even of an "end of history," now that all other countries apparently had no other choice but to become smaller versions of America: liberal, democratic and buoyed by an unshakeable confidence in the free market economy.

The Bush administration wanted to cement forever this unique moment in history, in which the United States was undoubtedly the strongest power on earth. It wanted to use it to clean house in chronic crisis zones around the world, especially the Middle East. Far from relying on the classic, cumbersome and often unsuccessful tools of multilateral diplomacy, the Bush warriors were always quick to threaten military intervention -- just as quick as they were to make good on this threat.

The strategists of this immoderately self-confident administration formulated these principles in the "Bush doctrine" and claimed, for themselves and their actions, the right to "preemptive" military intervention -- with little concern for the rules of alliances or international organizations.

The superpower even claimed privileges over its allies, even offending some of its best friends during Bush's first term. Bush withdrew the American signature from a treaty to establish the International Criminal Court, he refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change and he withdrew from an agreement with the Russians to limit the number of missile defense systems.

Washington sought to divide the world into good and evil -- and did so as it saw fit.

Now, in the wake of the crash on Wall Street, the debate in the UN reveals that the long-humiliated have lost their fear of the giant in world politics. Even a political dwarf like Bolivian President Evo Morales is now talking big. "There is an uprising against an economic model, a capitalistic system that is the worst enemy of humanity," Morales told the UN General Assembly.

The financial crisis has uncovered the world power's true weakness. The more the highly indebted United States has to spend to stabilize its own economic system, the more trouble it has performing its self-imposed duties as the world's policeman.
The new US president will only have been in office for a short time when a document titled "Global Trends 2025" appears on his desk. The report is being prepared by analysts at the National Intelligence Council. Its chairman, Thomas Fingar, has already released a preview, and reading it will not exactly be enjoyable for proud American. "Although the United States will remain the most important power, American dominance will be sharply reduced," says Fingar.

According to the preview of the report, the erosion of American supremacy will "accelerate in the areas of politics and economics, and possibly culture."

The century that just began is unlikely to be declared the American century again. Instead, "Asia will shape the fate of the world, with or without the United States," says Parag Khanna, a young Indian-American political scientist whose book "The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order" has attracted a great deal of attention in the United States.

There is much to be said for Khanna's assertion. Beijing is already funding a large share of the gigantic American trade deficit, while at the same time selling many consumer goods to the United States. In other words, it benefits from the US's weakness in two ways. And politically speaking, the newly self-confident Chinese will no longer allow themselves to be domineered by the West. Reacting to worldwide criticism of political oppression in Tibet, the Chinese encouraged their nationalist youth to assault Western institutions and refused to allow themselves to be lectured on human rights.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has acknowledged that the "world's largest debtor nation" cannot simultaneously shape the course of the world. The challenges America faces have multiplied, especially in recent times.

WELL, HOW DO YOU like that, America? You really must read the whole thing -- particularly since it's all true.

And particularly since it's all our own damned fault.

Sometime during the last few decades, we Americans ceased to be a serious people. The past eight years, particularly, have exposed a country unserious about public and private morality, unserious about effective self-governance and seriously incapable of cultural . . . seriousness.

But we did get the world to buy into a serious Ponzi scheme. We should be so proud.

We've made a grand hash of things, and now we stand ready to elect as our leaders either an unstable McCrank and his comely-but-ditzy sidekick or the Dalai Obama and his gaffe-prone lesser incarnation.

ONCE, the United States was a country of great products and audacious feats. That time is past.

It's now last call for the American Century as a nation slips off the barstool -- a little hazy, a little discomfitedly buzzed -- and prepares to slouch off gentle into that good night.

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