June 21, 2004

IT'S ALWAYS DARKEST BEFORE AT DAWN WE SLEPT (via Eric Timmons & Charlie Herzog):

The End of Power: Without American hegemony the world would likely return to the dark ages. (NIALL FERGUSON, June 21, 2004, Wall Street Journal)

Waning empires. Religious revivals. Incipient anarchy. A coming retreat into fortified cities. These are the Dark Age experiences that a world without a hyperpower might find itself reliving. The trouble is, of course, that this Dark Age would be an altogether more dangerous one than the one of the ninth century. For the world is roughly 25 times more populous, so that friction between the world's "tribes" is bound to be greater. Technology has transformed production; now societies depend not merely on freshwater and the harvest but also on supplies of mineral oil that are known to be finite. Technology has changed destruction, too: Now it is possible not just to sack a city, but to obliterate it.

For more than two decades, globalization has been raising living standards, except where countries have shut themselves off from the process through tyranny or civil war. Deglobalization--which is what a new Dark Age would amount to--would lead to economic depression. As the U.S. sought to protect itself after a second 9/11 devastated Houston, say, it would inevitably become a less open society. And as Europe's Muslim enclaves grow, infiltration of the EU by Islamist extremists could become irreversible, increasing trans-Atlantic tensions over the Middle East to breaking point. Meanwhile, an economic crisis in China could plunge the Communist system into crisis, unleashing the centrifugal forces that have undermined previous Chinese empires. Western investors would lose out, and conclude that lower returns at home are preferable to the risks of default abroad.

The worst effects of the Dark Age would be felt on the margins of the waning great powers. With ease, the terrorists could disrupt the freedom of the seas, targeting oil tankers and cruise liners while we concentrate our efforts on making airports secure. Meanwhile, limited nuclear wars could devastate numerous regions, beginning in Korea and Kashmir; perhaps ending catastrophically in the Middle East.

The prospect of an apolar world should frighten us a great deal more than it frightened the heirs of Charlemagne. If the U.S. is to retreat from the role of global hegemon--its fragile self-belief dented by minor reversals--its critics must not pretend that they are ushering in a new era of multipolar harmony. The alternative to unpolarity may not be multipolarity at all. It may be a global vacuum of power. Be careful what you wish for.

One thing about Americans, we don't much like being a [or the] pole around which the world rotates, but the essence of our historic Jacksonianism is that once we're annoyed enough we do grasp the role for just long enough to smack down whoever was bugging us. Folk like Mr. Ferguson would like to see us make our interventions in the world more systematic and coherent, but that's unlikely to ever happen. It's fun to go Crusading once in awhile, but then it's back to being the Promised Land

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2004 11:16 PM

It sucks to be the world influencers/dominators/whatever by default, but if the rest of the world is so pitfully weak, then so be it.

And as soon as possible we want to be rid of the role. G'way so we can live our lives in peace.

/Annoyed Jacksonian.

Posted by: Gideon at June 22, 2004 2:40 AM

(Yes the above is sarcasm.)

Posted by: Gideon at June 22, 2004 2:55 AM


Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 22, 2004 7:45 PM

I liked his description (in the original op-ed, not this excerpt) of future Europe as "a fortified retirement community".

Posted by: Ken at June 24, 2004 8:21 PM