Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Narratives for the Next Global Age
By Paul Starobin,
A Book Review By Jim Miles
Viking (Penguin) Books, New York, 2009.
ccun.org, July 18, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.