(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about Gar Smith’s The War and Environment Reader.)
Historian Alfred W. McCoy has long chronicled U.S. government abuses of power, starting with his ground-breaking 1972 book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. For that exposé, McCoy trekked into rural Laos to interview hill-tribe guerrillas who grew poppies for heroin, which local warlords then sold to the CIA. His findings were so meticulously documented that they were hard to refute, but CIA operatives carried out a systematic campaign against McCoy that almost ruined his chances for a career in academia. McCoy weathered that storm and became a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he went on to write books about the CIA’s years-long development of torture techniques and the post-9/11 growth of the national security state.
McCoy’s latest book is called In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Haymarket). McCoy is not the first writer to focus on signs of Washington, D.C.’s imperial overreach, but this study is based on years of laborious work charting key aspects of America’s growth into a superpower. With a keen eye for both important details and broad tendencies, McCoy is ideally suited to carrying out such an ambitious project. This book is thoroughly sourced, with copious footnotes citing everything from mainstream news references to obscure government and academic studies.
One of McCoy’s conclusions is that U.S. “elites” tend to be uncritical defenders of American exceptionalism, which denies that the country is an imperial power. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, attacked the argument that Washington’s expanding economic power was a sign of empire as “ludicrous”; neoconservative historian Robert Kagan argued in 2012 that with a strong enough national will, the Unites States is capable of remaining the most powerful country on earth “for another two centuries.”
McCoy shows that such overconfidence is belied by a number of key factors. Chief among them is the resentment that has been bred around the world by heavy-handed tactics the United States has used to maintain global power. For example, CIA-backed coups replaced democratically elected leaders in Guatemala, Iran, Greece, and elsewhere with brutal regimes. McCoy goes on to argue that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who he describes as being “as inept as he was ruthless,” spread hatred of America by “extending the Vietnam War by seven bloody years to mask his diplomatic failure, turning East Timor over to Indonesia for decades of slaughter until its inevitable independence, cratering U.S. credibility in Latin America by backing a murderous military dictatorship in Chile, and mismanaging Moscow in ways that helped extend the Cold War by fifteen years.” On the matter of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, McCoy quotes President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Zbigniew Brzezinski—hardly a left-winger—as writing that George W. Bush’s war “precipitated a widespread delegitimization of U.S. foreign policy even among its friends.” Subsequent reliance on Special Forces and drone warfare over diplomacy have further increased anger at Washington, D.C., around the globe.
Although President Barack Obama was adept at cultivating positive relationships with U.S. allies, and oversaw moves toward reconciliation with Cuba and Iran that yielded tangible results, McCoy insists there were also foreign-policy blunders on his watch. Drone warfare continued to claim the lives of scores of civilians, and spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on world leaders caused considerable diplomatic headaches for the Obama administration. Meanwhile, military and intelligence budgets continued to balloon to unsustainable levels.
Of course, when it comes to damage to U.S. prestige around the world, it’s hard to overstate the impact of Obama’s successor. Donald Trump has approached international relations like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Trump’s notorious lack of intellectual curiosity and stunning inattention to detail has led to such faux pas as wrongly stating that South Korea was once a part of China. In addition, by insisting that South Korea and NATO countries pay for U.S.-installed anti-missile systems (which U.S.-based firms profited from), Trump solidified the image of the U.S. as an arrogant bully.
Despite the fact that in 2012, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released a report showing that CIA intelligence gleaned through torture was of a consistently low quality, Trump the candidate repeatedly said, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works.” Once elected, Trump appointed torture apologist Mike Pompeo as CIA director.
Writes McCoy: “After sanctioning torture to secure their empires, both Britain and France found that the inevitable revelations of abuse not only intensified resistance among subject populations and discredited the military effort among their own citizenry but also damaged their international standing. The systematic use of torture is both the sign of a dying empire and a cause of imperial retreat, and that obviously applies to the United States as well.”
McCoy charts the rise of China as a global power in enlightening detail, showing how that nation has been expanding its reach throughout Asia and Africa. At the end of this book, McCoy lays out several possible scenarios wherein China could attain dominance over the United States by continuing its moves to control the South China Sea and winning over new allies in Europe and Asia.
Author McCoy makes a convincing case that the United States currently suffers from overconfidence and hubris, neither of which seems likely to abate anytime soon. Furthermore, In the Shadows of the American Century puts forth a compelling argument that the first stages of the end of the U.S. empire have already begun. Unfortunately for anyone who values social justice and human freedom, China is unlikely to be any less destructive. ◊