Donald Forbes argues the United States is still by any measure a superpower, but one whose decline becomes more evident each year, its ability to resist the challenge from China increasingly doubtful.

What makes a nation irresistible at a given moment in history is the will to power manifested in a domestic unity of purpose projected by overwhelming military force. The isolationist America that conservatives wanted after Word War One would still have been rich but would not have been a superpower. What made it a superpower was Word War Two and international engagement. Size is a factor but not a necessary one. Britain and France established large empires despite being relatively small and owning them was a matter of national pride. The sun never set on the British empire at its peak, it was the saying.

Until the rise of China, the United States, even more than the Soviet Union, was a Gulliver in a world of Lilliputians. Today's America is much reduced from the country that ruthlessly brought its Soviet nuclear peer to its knees. China, the new challenger, is not remotely like the former Soviet Union. It is a strange hybrid, simultaneously a partner, a rival and a potential enemy.

As recently as 1998, then secretary of state Madeleine Albright boasted that the US was the indispensable nation, standing on the shoulders of others, seeing further. Her words sound hollow after a succession of self-inflicted US failures – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Ukraine – and now Afghanistan where America lost for all its overwhelming military superiority. Before them there was Vietnam which was probably the pivotal moment for what has followed.

Donald Trump won the presidency with the slogan 'Make America Great Again' and he lost it because progressive America was revolted by what it thought was crude jingoism. It preferred to follow the European espousal of soft power. The theory of soft power rejects the exercise of the will to power in favour of persuasion, and if persuasion doesn't work, that's alright too in the West.

Trump is claiming he had negotiated an orderly withdrawal of the last US forces with the Taliban. Whether this would actually have happened we will never know. But nothing can change the significance of Biden's panicked abandonment of the Afghan people to radical Islam.

True superpowers are as ruthless as Truman was when he bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is unimaginable that a modern American president would authorise anything so devastating. Washington, weakly led even by its own generals, possesses a military arsenal so powerful that it does not dare to use it to its full extent even in the fight against obvious evil which the Taliban certainly represent in Western terms.

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America's loss of the will to power dates back to the social upheaval of the 1960s as well as to Vietnam. Can a country as grimly divided against itself at home, in a way that deteriorates with each generation, continue to be a superpower abroad?

Irreversible change has often begun well before we realise it which is why we're surprised by events like economic crises that no one saw coming. This phenomenon also applies to countries. Individual setbacks are discounted as incidental when they are in fact evidence of a much larger process of decay that we have not been sharp enough to identify before it is too late.

Suez, for example, happened because the British, used to being a world power, had not realised that they were no longer as great as they had been. The EU has become sclerotic without anyone realising and now they have no idea what to do about it.

This seems to be where the United State is at now and Trump's insight, far from acting as a wake-up call, has had the opposite effect. President Obama wanted the United States to be a voice like any other in the management of the world while transforming it at home into a social democracy under vastly expanded government control. Biden is ensuring that happens.

Obama's progressivism has defeated Trumpism across the landscape to include even the armed forces which like every other area of US life are subjected to woke ideology that repudiates the wisdom of the ages, a euphemism for common sense evolved from shared experience. New ideas with no tether to tradition emanate from the academy and zip through society like bolts of lightning that illuminate how unreconcilable Americans have become. The New York Times's 1619 version of America's history instantly became received wisdom for the left, no buts and no debate, debate having become a no-man's-land rigorously policed by the left.

Nothing like this is happening in post-Maoist China, whose own madness lies in the past. China is an authentic superpower and rising. The United States risks becoming one in the past tense because Americans can no longer agree on what it should be and what it should do, the essential elements of the will to power.

 

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