The problem with “turning points”, as they’re commonly described in popular forms of historical storytelling, is that very few of them were recognized clearly as such at the time.
When I’m in the archives reading past individuals writing to and talking to one another, I’m often struck that they accord as much importance to events and news that we now consider to be either a trivial sideshow or to have been a small part of some significant general trend. Sometimes those same people treat what we now consider to be an absolutely crucial moment as if it were merely one more event of note: e.g, they often know that it matters but it’s not as if they are changed in a flash.
When you teach and study the history of the post-1945 world, particularly if you’re a specialist who focuses on a part of the world that had previously been under European imperial rule or you focus on the Cold War, the Suez Crisis of 1956-1957 is one of the absolutely unquestioned major “turning points” that you draw attention to. Certainly any adult with even a moderate interest in global affairs who lived through that time, particularly in England, France or the United States, remembers it. People at the time knew it was important, and for many British and French citizens it was a key turning point in their views of empire, the Cold War, the United States and the non-Western world. But if you read the correspondence of officials who were not absolutely in the heart of the storm at that exact moment, they sometimes just lumped Suez in with lots of other developments or felt it would be resolved in a more ordinary, expected way that was largely continuous with the prior history of empire. It was only five or ten years out that everyone could see clearly that Suez was the moment where the changed relation between Western Europe and the U.S. was finalized, where the terms of the Cold War in relation to the Non-Aligned Movement were really defined, where the end of empire became inevitable, where the blighted politics and military doctrines of Middle East rivalries congealed. It was quickly clear within the UK that Anthony Eden had been destroyed politically by the resolution of the crisis, but the intensity of the stench of failure and miscalculation around his decision-making has become far more pronounced in the decades since.
I’m raising this point because right now it is becoming clear that the post-imperial moment for the United States is not in some relatively imminent future but has already come and gone. It’s becoming clear that the Iraq War, contrary to the dearest wishes of its most lunatic devotees, was the Suez of the Pax Americana, that moment that comes in the life of most empires, however they’re configured, where they are goaded into a florid, expensive attempt to secure a distant frontier and end up proving only that the core no longer has and never will again have the resources or reputation to succeed in such attempts.
The brash neoconservative ideologues who planned and enacted the war never believed in “soft power” and so never realized the importance of reputation and sincerity, never realized the subtle benefits of international legitimacy, never realized that it actually mattered that the United States at least try to define and adhere to a more moral standard of conduct than its rivals and adversaries. Never realized that if you pull a Reichstag fire with your intelligence and send the guy who people trust the most out to tell lies and exaggerations, you will never be trusted again even when you’re telling the truth.
So they threw all of that soft power overboard in a way that makes it impossible to accumulate more of it, not that the current Administration is making much effort even after receiving an overearnest plea to go back to being the America the world used to know from the Nobel Prize Committee back in 2009.
Equally, the Iraq War’s planners managed to demonstrate what the upper limit of American military and economic resources were and where the political tolerance of a population much more eager to appear supportive of its military would end. Much as Suez made it clear that the UK and France would never again be able to control their empires if any territory or people refused to bow to “hegemony on a shoestring”. In both moments, all the old diplomatic and miltiary magic tricks were exposed for the shabby, threadbare things that they had become. The nitty-gritty revelations of the Wikileaks cables about how American officials struggled to gain even minute advantages in a hundred countries around the globe were already visible for anyone who cared to see in the straining inability of the United States to even decide what it wanted in Iraq, let alone achieve its aims.
The principal difference is that the American public and its punditry doesn’t know that the end of American dominance has already happened, let alone acknowledge who is to blame for it. Eden’s disgrace began immediately, whereas only the people who opposed the Iraq War in the first place so far seem to hold its planners fully accountable for the permanent damage it caused. So our talking heads continue to talk about what we should do about Egypt, or how we should dictate terms to Syria, and so on. Really that kind of talk was always a mistake, both morally and empirically, but now it’s a delusion.
The sad part of all this is that when the people of Aleppo cry out to the world and ask why the world has failed them, they are really crying out to the imaginary “world” of the Pax Americana, which even if it never lived up to its billing, was at least a world where it seemed somehow possible that something would be done and something was doable. The “world” to which the burned and dying of Aleppo now cry out is a world that has never cared for them. It’s a world that is ruled by political elites who either look at such an atrocity and calculate when they themselves might have need to order such actions or who avert their gaze and hope that somehow there’s a ten-point policy framework dreamed up by a gang of think-tank eunuchs that clearly spells out what the next six years of multilateral summits should talk about in order to determine what the following six years of summits should talk about and oh dear it’s terribly complex.
They’re not wrong, it is terribly complex and yet is also simple. Somebody flew a plane, someone dropped an awful weapon that should never exist except in nightmares, and the flesh of people who just want to go about their business melted. It’s terribly complex in the sense that there are people with political power in Syria who don’t seem to care much about Syrians, who have no vision about power except to keep it. They don’t pretend any longer to have ideology or purpose. It almost seems beside the point to call yourself the Democratic Republic of Bullshitistan and stage photo opportunities to prove you are the Beloved Leader. North Korea never fails to amuse for this reason: it’s like the Renaissance Faire of postwar politics, re-enacting when regimes cared enough to create elaborate lies about their benevolence. Now you just go ahead and kill people or promise that if your rebellion wins you’ll kill the other kind of people or at least cut a few hands off here and there. Or you go from being the regime that shelters dissidents to angrily chasing down your own, from being the regime that opposes torture to being the regime that normalizes it.
There isn’t even a fairy tale any more to believe in, nor a sovereign to petition. If you were with the dying in Aleppo and you cried out in anger that the world has failed you, you’re only wrong about one thing: there’s no ‘world’ left to have failed. The only hope is in you yourselves, and you’ve already given everything you had to give and more.
Maybe there will be some world that we can imagine doing something, once again starting a halting walk towards global progress, some future day after the United States gets over being over. You can be over and come out the other side truer and better to the deep histories and values of your people and nation. “I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” But empires that don’t know they’re not any more have often managed to thrash their phantom limbs hard enough to either cause enormous suffering (the humiliation of Suez was avenged in part on the people of Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion and on the people of Algeria as that war ground to a close) or lead to farces like the Falklands War.