The Re-emergence of ‘Great Powers’: Understanding the New World

Las Vegas, NM:  'House of Pain Tattooz' 11/12/14
Las Vegas, NM: ‘House of Pain Tattooz’ 11/12/14

‘Among its rivals – China, India, Germany and Japan – the United States no longer figures as a superpower.  With the worst infrastructure in the advanced world, a disappearing middle class, a higher proportion of the population incarcerated than in any other country, and a government gridlocked by corporate power, America and its political system are seen as a model by no one outside the United States.’[*]

Those two sentences have stuck with me since I first read them six weeks ago in Harper’s.

Their author is John Gray, Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.  A difficult writer to categorise, Gray weaves a mastery of fact and detail with a global perspective that yields a deep pessimism about the future of the West.  His dark perspective is intensified by anger – just below rage – at the Neoliberal idiocy guiding the West’s descent.

I could say a lot about ‘Under Western Eyes’, the title Harper’s gave the piece, a puzzling, unacknowledged reference to Joseph Conrad’s superb novel of the same name.  But here, I’ll focus on the two sentences I quoted.  They appear deep in a long paragraph, three-quarters of the way through.


           Is it conceivable to an American who came of age in the 1960s that the US is not a ‘superpower’?  Or that there are none?

Certainly, Russia is no longer the superpower the Soviet Union was.  Though for somewhat different reasons – mine would include fiscal and financial follies – I would agree that the US no longer holds the status.

As a result we have reverted, Gray asserts, to a world dominated by ‘great powers’, as Europe was after the Thirty Years War’s end (1648) until the onset of the nuclear age.

Today’s great powers are on three continents, not one.  Their strengths are different.  Two of the five amongst Gray’s rivals have world-as-we-know-it-ending capacity:  the US financially and militarily and China economically.  Russia retains world-ending military capacity but lacks the economic and social capabilities of its opponents in WW II.

In the half decade following that war’s end, two of today’s five great powers were occupied countries drained of men, flattened by strategic bombing.  A third received its independence from the UK and then was split – after a brief, bloody civil war – into India and Pakistan.  The last, China, had endured both invasion and civil war for 15 years before Mao’s victory in 1950.

Las Vegas, NM:  'Razor's Tattoos'  11/12/14
Las Vegas, NM: ‘Razor’s Tattoos’ 11/12/14

Of the five rivals, only Germany is not undergoing a conservative straitening of its national life.  Each has experienced this reordering in a way specific to its culture, its history.  Prime Minster Abe’s observance of Shinto ceremonies honoring Japan’s WW II dead comes as remilitarisation emerges for the first time in 70 years.

The possible points of collaboration and conflict among the five are mathematically calculable but are, in all, actually inconceivable and therefore not predictable.  If history ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the apparent triumph of one superpower over the other, it seems to have resumed (pace, Francis Fukuyama) in a familiar shape but with very different particulars and principals.


           In one of their many tactical wins during the last election cycle, Rightist commentators forced President Obama to embrace American Exceptionalism, the notion that the US is unique in its social and political character and has a mission to bring its enlightenment to other nations.  Exceptionalism has propped up military excursions since the the Spanish-American War (1898).

Almost no foreign writers buy American Exceptionalism, John Gray included.

His examples of what makes American different from its Great Power rivals will surprise noone, though I think the subversion of the civil service through pension and healthcare clawbacks, pay freezes and payless holidays is at least as significant as the other four.

I’ve decided, in the absence of any rational explanation, the opposition to investing in infrastructure or education is a death wish for the country tricked up as a matter of principle.


           Even so, it is a shock to find myself nodding in agreement as I read, ‘…America and its political system are seen as a model by no one outside the United States.’

For I saw the American system work in the 60s and 70s.  From Civil Rights, consumer and environmental legislation to the ending of funding for the Vietnam War to the impeachment of Richard Nixon: ugly as the ingredients and the process were, the result was pretty good sausage.

It grieves me that the only Americans today who cite our system as a model are those for whom Exceptionalism is the last best refuge.

So, what shall we do?



 * John Gray, ‘Under Western Eyes’, Harper’s, Jan. 2015, pp. 11, 15 (behind paywall).  This article was adapted from one appearing in Prospect (UK), Oct. 2014, also behind a paywall.


  1. Terrific piece forwarded to all thinking friends. The idea of exceptionalism is, of itself, so suspect. Great piece.

    February 14, 2015
  2. Ralph Meima said:

    In a life so far spent split between living in the US and living in other OECD countries, I’ve personally concluded that what’s exceptional about the US is shared with other staging areas and fields of operation of the European expansion into the rest of the world (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.). Unlike places where a specific dominant culture has been established for a long time, and had to make the best of its geography, natural resources, and neighbors, the European “excursion” has largely been about displacing other peoples, foraging, resource extraction, and staying flexible as new opportunities arose. Look at how many abandoned urban neighborhoods, derelict suburbs, abandoned industrial regions, and ghost towns there are in the US. There have been wave upon wave of temporary opportunity, bringing people and capital – for awhile – and then seeing them go. It seems to me that many of American’s institutions, from individualism and meritocracy to building codes, permitting, easy consumer credit, flexible labor markets, weak unions, and the car culture, were created to facilitate rapid exploitation and rapid withdrawal when the opportunity dried up. I think that’s why our economy has become so financialized: financial capital is fungible and mobile.

    The early-Oughties real estate and personal debt bubble illustrates the exploitation of temporary opportunity – with no thought to sustainability and long-term human needs – as much as land rushes, gold rushes, timber rushes, waves of suburbanization, consumer fads, and the corn ethanol and shale oil/fracked gas boom-busts have illustrated.

    At the same time, I think this American get in/get rich/get out paradigm is being actively challenged all around the US as the natural human tendency to build community and defend one’s turf, family, and neighbors persists alongside it. These two forces have always co-existed, I think. They take on partisan political dimensions, although I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the GOP is all about exploitation and the Dems all about community, sustainability, and permanence, because the GOP has a deep vein of burgherly civic conservatism.

    Look for example at advanced attempts to create universal, taxpayer-funded health care in Vermont. Republicans – and now, Governor Shumlin as well – argue the economy (i.e., businesses) can’t afford it. If the economy is designed for quick exploitation of profit opportunities, then of course it won’t. What if someone argued that Vermonters need to make sure that everyone’s health is seen to so that all can contribute to the continued (and never-to-be-taken-for-granted) flourishing of our land, people, and culture for another thousand years, and a thousand years beyond that? Of course, no one would, for fear of sounding silly. European “civilization” has only been here for 400 years. But it’s a perfectly normal assumption in the other Great Powers.

    Maybe we need to agree that the Great Extraction is over, and change course.

    February 14, 2015
  3. Peter Kinder said:

    Thanks, Bill!

    February 19, 2015

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