I submit that winning the Cold War and emerging as by far the world’s most powerful country was one of the worst things that has ever happened to America. We spent the 1990s drunk on our own success and power, believing that neoliberal capitalism marked an “end of history” written on American lines. Then 9/11 happened, and the nation went berserk. As Derek Davison writes at Foreign Exchanges, it was a terrible tragedy, but as far as actual body count not even in the same time zone as, say, the siege of Leningrad, or indeed the several catastrophes America would go on to inflict on the Middle East in a frothing desire to inflict vengeance on somebody, never mind who. The Costs of War project at Brown University recently calculated that the various post-9/11 wars have created 37 million refugees. “The real trauma that America suffered on 9/11 was to its collective self-image, its belief in its own overwhelming power, and control of the rest of the world,” Davison writes.
When one country is so strong that it can do basically whatever it wants, its internal pathologies or neuroses become the world’s problems. It is not a coincidence that the most decent, best-governed countries in the world — places like Taiwan, New Zealand, or the Nordics — do not have the option of flying off the handle at a minor provocation and turning half a subcontinent into a smoking blood-drenched hellscape. It is also likely not a coincidence that as America has torched international treaties banning wars of aggression and torture, Chinese leaders have felt a freer hand to oppress neighbors or their own population. American hypocrisy is too glaring for any kind of values-based criticism to bite anymore, and we have sowed too much disunity with Europe to present any kind of united front against genuine horrors. “Stand with the U.S. against China?” Germany might say. “What, are they not torturing enough people?”