America’s Global Implosion: From the Washington Consensus to the Arab Spring

The most unpredictable result of the aftermath of 9/11 was surely the massive implosion of US global power.

A lot was of course predictable in the aftermath. It was clear that the US state would appoint itself the “global executioner,” as we suggested then, although less clear how this would work through. It was clear that a pro-war racism against Muslims would blossom in North America and Europe, although it was perhaps unpredictable, even in the wake of then-president George W. Bush’s announcement in the days after 9/11 of a new “crusade,” quite how Christianist the military response would actually be. Equally predictable was the ongoing struggle over the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, even if the level of vitriol—culminating in Koran burnings in the United States—surely was not.

Stunning in its extent, rapidity, and comprehensiveness, however, was the collapse of US political and economic power around the world. At the turn of the twenty-first century, neoliberal capitalism looked to many like the jubilant “end of history,” and the Washington Consensus appeared to be a well-stitched global pact among national elites and ruling regimes on all continents. Globalization was widely equated with US economic, moral, and cultural power around the world. Ten years later, with the widespread revolts and revolutions of the Arab Spring—triggered in Tunisia, exploding in Egypt, and thereafter spreading across the region, from Bahrain to Yemen and from Syria to Libya—US global influence arguably now stands at its weakest point since the Vietnam War, if not before.

In 2001, in the wake of the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks, leaders in two European nations conceded that “we are all Americans” now.1 A decade later, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton seemed especially bewildered when trying to explain how, apparently out of the blue, so many previous allies within the Washington Consensus had been toppled. Washington had even cautiously embraced Libya’s Qaddafi—and he, Washington—as so much history was being quickly erased. Washington was particularly nonplussed by the downfall of Egypt’s Mubarak, who had been the linchpin of US strategy in the Middle East and a shock absorber between US patronage of Israel and Arab rulers’ tacit abandonment of the Palestinians.

In retrospect, what happened is hardly a mystery. The United States quite simply lost the “endgame of globalization”—an endgame they initiated, an endgame whose rules they largely set, and an endgame they refereed—and they lost it in dramatic fashion. It took more than nine years to find the perpetrator of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden—and then, in a country supposedly allied with the United States—and in the meantime, Afghanistan was invaded and ravaged, and the decade-long American war there now stands as the longest in US history, outstretching even the 1980s Soviet conflict in that war-torn land. This was not a winning strategy militarily, nor did it capture the hearts and minds of the people of the region.

The Iraq War is now more than eight years old, and there is less clarity than ever about why that war even began or, for that matter, why the early capture and killing of Saddam Hussein did not end it. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; it too was an erstwhile ally of the United States, and despite the hype, had no weapons of mass destruction. Yet the tally of civilian casualties alone ranges from a low of a hundred thousand to a high of more than a million; the British medical journal The Lancet published an estimate suggesting some six hundred thousand “excess deaths”in the war’s first three years.2

But the implosion of US power was more than simply a matter of ill-begotten wars and imperial overreach. If during the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s, a number of social scientists ventured an end to the American century, the dramatic economic expansion of the 1990s and into the first years of the new century dissolved such language, and few would have gainsaid the economic dominance of the United States in that period. The global economic crisis that ensued after 2007 changed all that, as the so-called Great Recession was indisputably triggered in the belly of the beast, namely, by the subprime housing crisis that sat at the nexus of urban construction and global finance, consumption and indebtedness. From the United States, the crisis spread globally, deeply threatening most parts of the Euro economy, from Greece to Spain to Ireland.

What some had glimpsed earlier, in contrast to hegemonic US optimism, suddenly became a cliché, that is, the economic rise of China, and along with it, India, Brazil, and Turkey, among others. Having overtaken a lethargic Japanese economy to become the second largest in the world, China is, according to recent estimates, poised to exceed the GDP of the United States in or around 2016. And yet these economies too are increasingly seen as vulnerable to the continuing global financial crisis that they have so far either avoided or only experienced mildly.

It may not be too much nor too early to suggest that what we have come to call neoliberalism is now “dominant but dead.”3 It is dead insofar as the momentum of change that broadly lay with the political right since the 1970s is now exhausted. The resort to military power on a global scale and intensified securitization against domestic populations in places where that had not previously been the norm suggest a certain desperation. Contributing to this exhaustion were not just military folly, imperial excess, and economic collapse: the anti-globalization movement of a decade ago may have come and gone, but it left a lasting sense that there is—there must be—an alternative. Several prominent theorists, practitioners, and apologists of neoliberalism have jumped ship or recanted, among them economists Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stieglitz, as well as the author of “the end of history,” Francis Fukuyama, and the governments of Latin America never allied themselves en masse with the neoliberal project, in some cases, most notably in Bolivia, openly opposing it. In most of the world, neoliberalism now represents an infill more than an expansionary project, although it has to be conceded that China and India surely represent absolutely vital exceptions.

And yet, at the same time, neoliberalism remains dominant. If there is now a clear sense that the future is suddenly again open, there is very little sense to date of what the alternative or alternatives to neoliberalism might look like. But that is precisely the importance not just of the revolutions in North Africa and southwest Asia but of the widespread anti-austerity revolts across Europe, the sweeping but hardly reported strike waves and civil protests in China, and the peasant and indigenous land seizures in much of central India. The future may not be clear, but the past is clearly implausible.

What, therefore, does this mean for the post-9/11 United States? While the geography of the US implosion has been highly uneven in its global effects, its history has been, to some degree, cyclical. I would argue that the implosion of US power in the last decade represents the latest of three historical moments in a larger American pursuit of its global ambitions. These three moments exhibit continuities but also discontinuities. The discontinuities arise from the various mixes of external and internal challenges to US global ambition, whereas, more surprisingly, the greatest continuity may come from within the project of a global American empire itself. The following risks oversimplification (greater detail can be found in my book American Empire4), but I think its broad contours have considerable validity.

The first moment promising the fruition of US global ambition came following World War I when Woodrow Wilson had essentially taken the reins of global control at the Paris Peace Conference, eyeing a League of Nations as the most viable means of averting future violent interruptions to global trade and commerce. The challenge came externally from anti-colonial movements around the world and internally from both socialist and civil rights movements, who had a very different vision of the American future.

The second moment came following World War II when Roosevelt’s United Nations, largely designed inside the US State Department, also faced an external challenge, less from anti-colonial movements, which the United States now purported to support, than from a Soviet-centered bloc and (less openly recognized) from rebuilding European powers threatened by US economic supremacy. Roosevelt and especially Truman also faced internal opposition, again from militant labor unions and workers, who now organized in pursuit of a quid pro quo for their wartime sacrifices, and too from civil rights movements fighting entrenched racism at home.

Yet both moments were also sabotaged by challenges from the far right within the United States itself. During the first moment, it was arch-nationalist and patrician Henry Cabot Lodge who galvanized the far-right rejection of US ratification of the League of Nations. And during the second moment, whatever other forces were in play (and, of course, they were), it was the far right under Joseph McCarthy who so intensified the Cold War as to preclude on the grounds of patriotism any possibility of US trade and commerce with major parts of the Eurasian land mass.

A parallel history is playing out today as we watch the denouement of the third moment of US imperial ambition. This time, the internal opposition to a US-led globalization has been far weaker, although it would be a mistake to underestimate the ideological power of the anti-globalization movement (especially after the 1999 protests in Seattle), a movement which itself was global. The external opposition since the apparent victory of the Washington Consensus is most evident in Arab states, but as the global antiwar movement demonstrated, it has galvanized a broader sense of resentment against the United States. That this resentment has been in large part self-inflicted by the extreme right wing with the wars following 9/11 is precisely the point. The rise of the Tea Party should also be understood in exactly this context. And that President Obama has not significantly reversed this predicament is again precisely the point. Amidst the revolutions of the Arab Spring, in dramatic contrast to the 1989 implosion of official communism in the Eastern Bloc, there was no outbreak of pro-American embrace but rather, by all accounts, a broad popular resentment at violent US incursion into their world and, at the same time, at US support for the dictators who oppressed them. In the streets of Europe people are fighting against, not for, the economic world that the United States pioneered.

The future is more radically open than it seemed on the eve of 9/11, not so much because of 9/11, but because of the response to it. That the United States maintains such unprecedented military dominance even amid global economic crisis is a potentially dangerous situation. The kind of protectionism that might have marked prior such moments is barely plausible today, whereas a dramatic securitization of civil society, even on top of what has already occurred, seems almost guaranteed. Heightened military conflict also seems more likely, if hardly predictable in detail. Yet between the economic and the military, of course, lies the political, and more than in the last several decades, the future is likely to be shaped by the kinds of strategies organized as alternatives to the sources and causes of crises.


Neil Smith is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

  1. Peter Struck, the German Social Democrat parliamentary leader, pronouncing that “today we are all Americans,” and Jacques Chirac, president of France, endorsing the Le Monde headline. Alan Freeman, “‘Today We Are All Americans’: NATO Allies Pledge Support,” Globe and Mail, September 13, 2001, http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/special/attack/pages/worldreactions_article12.html; and New York Times, “Interview with Jacques Chirac,” September 8, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/08/international/europe/09CHIR-FULL.html.
  2. Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, and Les Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-sectional Cluster Sample Survey,” Lancet, October 12, 2006, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2806%2969491-9/fulltext.
  3. Neil Smith, “Neo-liberalism—Dominant but Dead,” Focaal: European Journal of Anthropology 51 (2008):155–57.
  4. Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).