From Saigon to Kabul

Image: Aleksandar Pasaric


The train of a power in decline

When still in the last century, Immanuel Wallerstein formulated the thesis according to which the hegemony of the United States had begun a period of decline, many were those who pointed out the 'no sense' from your perspective. Wallerstein's argumentation, however, was endowed with consistent empirical-analytical bases.

Having them as support for his approach, he stressed that the rise of the United States in the world system should be seen as something whose roots go back to the 1880s. That is, having the world recession of 1873 as a specific point of incidence. The United States and Germany began to acquire a growing share of world markets, mainly at the expense of the continued recession of the British economy. Both countries had managed to achieve a stable political base: the United States by successfully ending the Civil War and Germany by achieving national unification and defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War.

Between 1873 and 1914, the two countries became the main actors in relevant branches of the economy, as was the case with automobile production and the leading role in the steel sector and industrial chemistry. Taking into account this factual panorama, it is to be considered that, although the historiography has consecrated the convention according to which the First World War broke out in 1914 and ended in 1918, and that the Second War lasted from 1939 to 1945, the most appropriate, however, it is conceivable to conceive the two wars as a single and continuous “30-year war” in the course of the latent conflict between the United States and Germany, with truces and local conflicts.

In 1933, the competition for international dominance took on a strong ideological tone, when the Nazis came to power in Germany and began their quest to completely transcend the world system, not seeking hegemony in it, but rather a form of empire that would embrace the " four corners of the world”. Let us not forget what the Nazi motto was: ein tausend jähriges Reich (an empire of a thousand years), cradled by the Deutschland über alles (Germany above all) from the song Das Lied der Deutschen (The Song of the Germans). For its part, the United States assumed the role of defenders of world centrist liberalism, in line with the 'four freedoms' of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to live without penury and freedom to live without fear). In this process, they made a strategic alliance with the then Soviet Union, enabling the defeat of Germany and its allies.

Two of the outstanding consequences of World War II were the massive destruction of infrastructure and the slaughter of populations across Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The only world power left intact, and even strengthened, was the United States, which quickly consolidated its dominance. In summary, the Soviet Union had a third of the world under its influence and the North American nation the rest. But Washington faced serious military challenges, as the Soviet Union had the largest land forces in the world, which led the United States to assert its power through a monopoly on nuclear weapons. However, this monopoly soon disappeared, as the USSR also developed them, followed by other countries. Thus, from the last century to the present, Washington's strategy has been to try to avoid the acquisition of nuclear weapons (chemical and biological) by other countries. In which it has not been successful.

Be that as it may, just as England was previously a world hegemonic power, the United States, in the period between 1945 and 1967/1973, was in fact an unquestionable power in the world-system, exercising its power based on a combination involving the economic, military, political and cultural dimensions over other countries in different regions. The monetary system devised in 1944 at Bretton Woods, with the gold standard for the dollar, led the dollar to become the international reserve currency.

As Economic History clearly shows, issuing a dominant currency worldwide allows the issuing nation to finance both its internal debt and exogenous expansion, and thus it can solve, for example, its balance of payments problems through interconnection with the circuits of international capital. In the case of the United States, in addition to this “comparative advantage”, the country was also anchored in the power of weapons, in the superiority of its military apparatus.

However, in the period 1967-1973, a moment of exhaustion of the phase of “uncontained expansion” of the USA in the world-system begins, being representative of this its defeat in the Vietnam War. The failure in Vietnam is symbolic because, from a geopolitical point of view, it marked the rejection – by populations defined as the Third World – of the status quo that emerged from the Yalta Conference, as well as being made significant by the fact that Washington invested all its military might in the conflict, yet suffered a humiliating defeat.

On the other hand, Vietnam was more than a military defeat for the American nation. The war strongly impacted US capacity with regard to the context of competition with other international actors, due to economic dominance in the world. “The conflict was extremely costly and practically depleted the United States' gold reserves, which had been plentiful since 1945. Furthermore, the United States faced these expenditures just as Western Europe and Japan were experiencing major economic spurts. These conditions ended American dominance in the global economy.”[1] In other words, in this environment, two major players rose to the forefront of the economic situation: Japan and Western Europe (European Economic Community, now the European Union). In addition to these two actors, nowadays, there is the economic superpower of a new global power: China. Moreover, it is worth mentioning the rise of the 'new Russia', rebuilt from the chaotic ruins of the way in which the Soviet Union was extinguished, and which has been asserting itself as a regional power with the capacity to intervene in the global geopolitical game.

The degree of impasses that, economically, the United States came to live between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s is well represented in the way in which the country unilaterally broke the Bretton Woods Agreement, ending the convertibility of gold to the dollar , making it fiat money. There was a concrete problem to be faced: it was necessary to recover the competitiveness of the US economy. However, the dollar could not be devalued without breaking the Bretton Woods framework. Thus, the country tried to convince the other countries to appreciate their currencies in a coordinated way, which would allow the dollar to be devalued without the official price of gold in dollars changing. The other countries, mainly Germany and Japan, did not accept it. Then, in 1971, the Nixon government unilaterally decided to end the gold standard, in addition to setting an external tariff on imports. Thus, a new monetary standard was instituted, unprecedented in the history of international relations, and which is known as the 'flexible dollar' – something even more advantageous for the North American nation.

Notwithstanding the commemorations of the US government for the end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the fact added a difficulty to the country, since it left it without the ideological justification that, since the end of the Second World War, supported the invocation of its condition of “ protector of democracy” and guardian of liberalism, resorting to the most diverse interventionist actions. In strictly economic terms, unlike in the past, the productive efficiency of US companies faces vigorous competition from companies in other countries. Add to this the “fictional capitalism” that the country has been experiencing for a long time, such as the subprime from 2007-2008 revealed. Intact, however, remains the military superiority of the American nation.

Historical processes always bear the mark of being long-lasting, and it is certainly not possible to make a definitive prediction about the future configuration that the decline of US hegemony will have – or even if it will be reversed. For now, as a factual judgment, its existence is verified. In his later works, Wallerstein asserted that the decline was irreversible and that the question was whether the country would fall with minimal damage to itself and to other countries. That is, in his perspective, the central point referred to the consequences of decadence. One main consequence, we can infer, focuses on the reduction of Washington's capacity – on the downward path – to successfully intervene in the world situation and manage the loss of confidence in the country, namely with its allies. In this regard, the scenes of the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan and the disastrous withdrawal of the United States from the country are symptomatic.

In 2001, the first American soldiers arrived in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government and, in 2021, the last soldiers leave the country, leaving the Taliban in power. Over the course of twenty years of America's longest war, thousands were dead and trillions of dollars spent to pay for a total failure. A failure shared by presidents of the two parties that command the establishment of the North American nation: Bush (son), Obama, Trump and Biden. Disaster in Afghanistan is the equivalent of defeat in Vietnam, and the desperate images of retreating planes from Saigon and Kabul paint the same picture: that of a power living in weakness. Defeat in Afghanistan is another step down the ladder in America's decline.

It will not come as a surprise that, in the not-too-distant future, amidst the mishaps it is facing, the North American nation will see the dollar no longer the 'currency of last resort'. If this happens, the country will then have lost protection for the “movements” of its budget and to fund its economic operations. Probably, if the option to monetize large deficits budgets continue to be carried out, thus feeding deficits external markets, there could be a situation in which – with an inflation surge – the dollar depreciates and weakens its attractiveness as an international reserve currency. Furthermore, another risk to the survival of the dollar as a reserve currency stems from the loss of US geopolitical hegemony. That's what happened to the pound as Britain slipped down the pecking order of the world-system.

What to expect from a future without the hegemony of the United States? It is necessary to take into account that 'the sea of ​​History is agitated', as Mayakovsky said, and no matter how much social scientists try to enclose its structural possibilities in schemes, it makes us, at every moment, dupes of nous-mêmes, and surprises us with unforeseen developments. In any case, the fall of the United States, in itself, does not guarantee us anything, nor is its decline a result of the decisions of some president (although they may hasten the process), but rather a consequence of the delimiting realities of the system- capitalist world. Possibly, we are entering an era of acute and constant turbulence, with effects on exchange rates and unemployment, on geopolitical alliances and ideological mutations, with these mutations producing different types of extremism. A time of uncertainty in different parts of the world-system: in the center, in the periphery and in the semi-periphery.

It is time to overcome certain fragmented and superficial approaches that have been introduced into approaches to the social by some establishments academics, to then develop concretely referenced reflections and focusing on the short, medium and long term horizons, as a requirement for formulating instituting and (self)critical positions based on what the analyzes reveal about the world-system, taking into account with a view to building projects committed to emancipatory processes. I think that, considering the time of uncertainty that is announced, it is in this direction that we must move, not to, as is so usual, repeat commonplaces and empty speeches about social change, but to contribute knowledge that, opening the path of praxeology, contribute to its becoming socially viable.

*Ivonaldo Leite is professor of sociology of education at the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB).


[1] Cf. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Decline of the American Empire, in Folha de São Paulo, Caderno Mercado, edition of 21/07/2002, p. two.

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