The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 BlogviewPatrick Cockburn Archive
We're About to See the US and UK’s Global Power Decline
🔊 Listen RSS
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information


Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Troll, or LOL with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used once per hour.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
Search Text Case Sensitive  Exact Words  Include Comments
List of Bookmarks

Boris Yeltsin was making a presidential visit to Washington in 1995 when he was found one night outside the White House dressed only in his underpants. He explained in a slurred voice to US secret service agents that he was trying to hail a cab so he could go and buy a pizza. The following night he was discovered by a guard, who thought he was an intruder, wandering drunkenly around the basement of his official residence.

Drunk or sober, Yeltsin and his escapades became the living symbol for the world, not just of the collapse of the Soviet Union but of a dysfunctional administration in the Kremlin and the decline of Russia as a great power. It was impossible to take seriously a state whose leader was visibly inebriated much of the time and in which policy was determined by a coterie of corrupt family members and officials serving at Yeltsin’s whim.

Donald Trump is often compared to Vladimir Putin by the media which detects ominous parallels between the two men as populist nationalist leaders. The message is that Trump with his furious attacks on the media would like to emulate Putin’s authoritarianism. There is some truth in this, but when it comes to the effect on US status and power in the world, the similarities are greater between Trump and Yeltsin than between Trump and Putin.

Trump does not drink alcohol, but his incoherent verbal onslaughts on Australia, Mexico and Sweden since he became President are strongly reminiscent of Yeltsin’s embarrassing antics. Both men won power as demagogic anti-establishment leaders who won elections by promising to reform and clear out corruption in the existing system. The result in Russia was calamitous national decline and the same thing could now happen in America.

It will be difficult for the US to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality. His battle cry of “Fake News” simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own. World leaders who have met him say they are astonished by his ignorance of events at home and abroad.

This cannot go on very long without sizeably diminishing American global influence as its judgement and actions become so unpredictable. Over the last three quarters of a century, countries of all political hues – dictatorships and democracies, republics and monarchies – have wanted to be an ally of the US because it was the most powerful player in world affairs.

It will remain so but the degree and nature of its primacy is changing significantly for four reasons. The US has a leader who appears unhinged to an extent not true of any of his predecessors. Secondly, political combat in the US has reached an all-absorbing ferocity not seen since the 1850s. This does not mean that the last act of this crisis will be a civil war, but American society is more divided today than at any time since the conflict between North and South. From the moment Trump took office he has shown no inclination towards compromise and his divisiveness inevitably makes America becomes a lesser power than it was.

The US is in a much stronger position today than the Soviet Union in 1991, but aspects of the two situations are the same. The Soviet Union was past its peak when it dissolved, but the US is weaker than it was fifteen years ago. Despite its vastly expensive armed forces, the US has failed to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or to obtain regime change in Syria. In all three wars, it made serious mistakes and suffered important setbacks. Barack Obama had an acute sense of just how far US military strength could be turned into political gains without stumbling into unwinnable wars in the Middle East and beyond. Contrary to Trump’s jibes about Obama doing disastrous deals with Iran and others, the last president kept out of the Syrian civil war, which would have been as draining as Afghanistan or Iraq, and gave priority to the campaign to eliminate Isis.

As presidential candidate Trump presented himself as an isolationist, claiming to have opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya. He had taken on board, as Hillary Clinton had not, that the American public does not want to fight another ground war in the Middle East. But Trump’s appointment of two senior generals – James Mattis as Defence Secretary and HR McMaster as National Security Adviser – tells a different and more belligerent story. Already, there are steps being taken to create a Sunni Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies and in cooperation with Israel, to confront Iran.

The Trump administration does not have a coherent foreign policy and will probably go along at first with many of the policies already in place. The dangerous moment will come later when it has to devise its own responses to new events, such as terrorist attacks by Isis, and its real capacity becomes apparent. It looks all too likely that a president who has such a ludicrously warped picture of life in Sweden will fail to grapple successfully with complex crises in Yemen, Syria or Iraq.

The election of Trump brings with it another negative but less tangible outcome that is already eating away at American primacy: the US will be not only divided but unable to focus on for the foreseeable future on anything other than the consequences of Trumpism. When US politicians, officials and media look at Russia, China, Ukraine, Iran, Israel or anywhere else in the world from Sweden to Australia, they will view them through a prism distorted by his preconceptions and fantasies.


The US is not alone in this. The debilitating result of a single factor marginalising other crucial issues has become all too clear in Britain since the Brexit vote. Tony Blair said in his recent speech that “this is a government for Brexit, of Brexit and dominated by Brexit. It is a mono-purpose political entity.” Aside from this single-minded focus, nothing else really matters, not the health service, the economy, technology, education, investment or crime. “Governments’ priorities are not really defined by white papers or words, but by the intensity of focus,” explained Blair. “This government has bandwidth for only one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.”

In the US, Trump is a similarly obsessive concern. Once it was smaller European countries like Ireland and Poland that were derided for an exaggerated and unhealthy preoccupation with their own problems. A Polish joke from the 1920s relates how an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Pole competed to write the best essay on the elephant. The Englishman described “elephant hunting in India”, the French wrote about “the elephant in love” and the Pole produced a lengthy paper on “the elephant and the Polish Question”. These days the Englishman would undoubtedly write about “the elephant and Brexit” and an American, if he was allowed to enter the competition, would write interminably about “the elephant and Donald Trump”.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump 
Hide 39 CommentsLeave a Comment
Commenters to FollowEndorsed Only
Trim Comments?
  1. It will be difficult for the US to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality.

    Cockburn finds his inner imperialist. Also, one’s picture of Sweden depends on where one lives over there, does it not? The Somalian gangs jockeying for territory and tossing the occasional grenade at each other in Malmo might merit some discussion.

    “International figure of fun” – Trudeau came here. Did he take the opportunity to lecture Trump about “refugees” and “misogyny?” Of course not. The Canadian national government is more pragmatic than it advertises.

    Trump has way more gravitas and intellectual vigor than the community activist or the white lady in the pantsuit. He has a coherent foreign policy: the American national interest. TPP has been consigned to the depths of Hell from which it sprang. ISIS will be destroyed, and the rationale for this whole absurd “refugee” charade disappears. Central America will no longer be allowed to dump its human surplus on the US.

    I can only imagine foreign policy under President Pantsuit. We’d already be at war with Russia over that Ukrainian city. Bombs would be raining down on Damascus, as we eliminate one of the few truly secular governments in the Middle East. If-you-get-here-you-can-stay-here immigration policy draining the welfare state.

    • Replies: @pyrrhus
  2. Obama did not keep us out of the Syrian war. The American people,united for once,gave a collective”WTF!?!?” Obama would’ve done whatever he was told to do,if he could.

    • Replies: @Anonymous Nephew
  3. Vendetta says:

    Trump as Yeltsin is a lazy and absurd comparison. Trump is defined by direction and drive; Yeltsin by his lack of it.

    This is made all the more stupid because you have narrowly missed a comparison that actually stands up – that of Trump and Khrushchev.

    Khrushchev is probably closer in temperament to Trump than any other 20th century leader in terms of being crass, stubborn, volatile, and prone to going off script and flouting the rules of propriety.

    They’re foils in that Khrushchev was to shabbiness what Trump is to gaudiness. They’re also rather similarly placed in ending up in charge of a regime hostile to their efforts at overhaul and reform; Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, Trump’s “drain the swamp.”

    Khrushchev was ultimately undone by a hare-brained foreign misadventure; I hope Trump, whether through historical insight, intuition, or mere dumb luck, avoids any overseas blundering that would lead him to a similarly premature downfall.

  4. Had dinner with a cute girl on Monday.

    She: “My very left wing aunt just got back from Sweden. She said it looked more like Somalia. It’s a hellhole.”

    And this from a resident of London. Trump is certainly imperfect and may well blunder over Iran thanks to Sunni & Israeli manipulation and foolish cabinet picks, but he is dead right about Sweden.

  5. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The elephant in the room remains manipulation of the truth. Do media practitioners have a conscience about misrepresentations and omissions? Do politicians notice their own dissembling?
    Newt Gingrich proposed a contract with America. Donald Trump should propose a contract with the truth, then sign one and have his press conference attendees of all stripes also sign.

  6. Another previously sensible writer on the left succumbs… Somehow Trump is worthy of a special category of derision based not on polices but by some very abstract psychological defect. Cockburn, as is common, supports his args by a MSM meme which is not even true–Sweden. Looking back on the previous several POTUS’s what is the difference? They all lied, sold out to big moneyed interests and did awful murderous things. Any possibility of Trump actually doing something constructive, like ditching TPP, won’t be helped by left piling on with the neocons and neo-libs. A confrontation with Iran is very troubling, not the non-intervention Trump campaigned on and an important issue. The author decries important issues being lost in all the drama, but that seems to be exactly what he is and much of the left is doing.

  7. Cockburn is concerned that the U.S. will not remain a super power. Cockburn is an Imperialist. I learned to hate Imperialists a long time ago in Viet Nam. Cockburn’s piece of shit Empire has been in steep decline since long before Donald Trump. I hope to live to see it dead and gone.

  8. dearieme says:

    “the US has failed to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq”: failed to win? Been utterly defeated, you mean?

    Though it’s hard to be certain: I mean, maybe W’s plan for Iraq was that the place be reduced to a deadly shambles, with the American army eventually withdrawing while paying tribute to warlords to ensure that the retreat took place with minimal harassment. In which case he achieved his aim and so it counts as a victory after all.

  9. Bill says:

    The whole column seems to be beamed in from an alternate reality, but this takes the cake for sheer delusionality:

    From the moment Trump took office he has shown no inclination towards compromise

  10. His battle cry of “Fake News” simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own.

    The problem is that the mainstream media really is “fake news” and that it really has been unfair to Trump.
    Also, the Brexit is probably the biggest issue in Britain since the Iraq War. May very well be the defining event for a generation. It does merit certain attention.

    So it looks like Cockburn is an old-school internationalist leftist who reflexively loathes Trump and the Brexit and everything Trump and the Brexit stand for.

  11. pyrrhus says:
    @The Anti-Gnostic

    Impressively dopey column, but the conclusion is correct. US power will decline. Reasons? Trump is not a warmonger or imperialist, the USA is dead broke, and Americans, as they showed regarding Syria, are sick of wars that only enrich military contractors.
    UK power? Doesn’t exist, and only a fool would think otherwise….

    • Replies: @OldFogey55
  12. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "SmoothieX12"] says: • Website

    Yeltsin was an alcoholic imbecile–a historical lesson and a cross to bear for Russia (despite de facto win of Zyuganov in 1996) to immunize herself against what we all observe today in Europe and in US. Comparing Trump and Yeltsin is simply incomprehensible. No parallels whatsoever.

  13. an American, if he was allowed to enter the competition, would write interminably about “the elephant and Donald Trump”

    Ad hominem attacks, long the province of the reactionary right have now infected elements of the neo-reactionary left with vigor and enthusiasm. Effectively a two-tailed coin balanced on edge; this new phenomenon always strikes out personally when it comes down.

  14. @pyrrhus

    UK military power is conveniently small – enough nukes to warn off the bad guys and insufficient conventional forces to initiate foreign wars (and no desire to get involved in any, unless the US puts the screws on them to join in). Leaving the EU will make no difference. Paradoxically, UK diplomatic power may actually increase after leaving the EU, as the UK pursues its own aims, not the compromise aims of a whole group of nations.

    I’d disagree slightly with JimboJones – I think this is the single most important issue for the UK since it joined the EU in the ‘seventies, not just the the most important since Iraq (which had limited impact on actual UK citizens, other than saddling them with yet more government debt).

    Mr Blair is an old leftie, appalled with the downfall of the EU ideal, and his views can safely be ignored

  15. Jason Liu says:

    The single mindedness that you describe is no doubt the will of tribalism, experienced by whites in the US and UK. Ethnic nationalism is usually the strongest political force there is, and given the state of pluralistic societies, it is well justified.

  16. I once watched a Russian TV interview with Yeltsin in which he was obviously, in British parlance, tired and emotional.
    Some of Putin’s Action Man behaviour is a reaction to what his predecessor was ike.

  17. Kiza says:

    Just keep in mind that this character Patrick is an MI6 journalist. Therefore, this rubbish article has been cooked up in the same lab as the Trump Golden Showers in Moscow Hotel Sex Dossier.

  18. No mention that the US Federal Government is $20 Trillion in debt and the US Trade Deficit is now $1 Trillion per year. The end is very near. No Empire can continue if it’s bankrupt.

  19. “… a president who has such a ludicrously warped picture of life in Sweden ….”

    Yeah, Stockholm isn’t yet another Mogadishu or Detroit or even DC, but they are working hard on to get there.

  20. Patrick Cockburn when the USA and Britain were stronger in the past, nothing Trump has said would shock people at all. In fact much of what Trump has said would be considered common sense back when the US ruled without dispute.

    Somewhat paradoxical don’t you think Patrick.

    Trump should be considered a sign the US is recovering her confidence and purpose, as Brexit should be seen as a sign Britain is recovering her confidence.

    The left and right despise Trump, that is the most obvious thing about his election. Why is the question.

    All this talk of immigration.

    They fear he might start making them have families and make babies!

    Shock, horror. They are in terror about being forced to become decent human beings again.

    Mass immigration and the social revolution are the real signs that the USA and Britain were in decline, they are now beginning to recover, and Trump is a sign of that recovery.

    • Replies: @Verymuchalive
  21. KA says:

    Trump is the reincarnated Girolamo Savonarola known for his prophecies of new glory, the destruction of secularism, and his urgings for and promises of Christian renewal. He denounced corruption, rule of 1 % and the exploitation of the the poor .
    We are for a rough ride . So is his fate + legacy . Messiah always comes in time of need because we create them They are part of the same process that seals the fate of the nation .

  22. @Father O'Hara

    Above all, the UK Parliamentary vote against Syrian action saved Obama by emboldening Congress (the UK having marched in lockstep with the US for the whole Blair/Bush era). Ed Miliband instructed the Labour Party to vote against (to draw a line under Blair era or embarrass David Cameron) and some brave Tories stood up and said no.

    But by then US/UK/EU had already destroyed another secular Muslim regime in Libya.

    Still, imagine where we’d be with President McCain, with US troops in the Donbass and Iran.

    Patrick Cockburn – the “calamitous national decline” of Russia was a result of Yeltsin allowing the country to be looted by elites – exactly what Trump has been elected to stop.

    • Agree: Kiza
    • Replies: @Peter Akuleyev
  23. @Pat the Rat

    Excellent points, especially the establishment’s ” terror about being forced to become decent human beings again.” I’ve never thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right. Prior to the social revolution, the establishment recognised its responsibilities to its fellow citizens and tried to develop policies to support them. By contrast Neoliberalism promotes absolute self-interest, which corrupts absolutely.

  24. attonn says:

    The only problem I have with Trump is the moronic planned military buildup ( you don’t do that when facing massive and increasing budget deficits), and backpedaling on trade tariffs (those should already be in place). Hopefully, it’ll change. Otherwise, the Donald is exactly what America needs.

  25. steve2 says:

    As an American, I say that Trump IS the elephant in the room. Long live Trump.

  26. Young says:

    I like Mr.Cockburn’s writing precisely because he lives and is expert in another part of the world. But, he obviously doesn’t live in nor know bleep about the US.

    I saw a commentator the other day talk about how all these ‘media’ types are all a) members of the 1%, and b) live exclusively in DC and NY. Hollywood is not a TV power, but does have influence in movies, and they all live exclusively in CA.

    So, what goes out to the rest of the world is from people who are millionaires living in DC, NY and CA. They hang out with other millionaires in DC, NY and CA. And because of this they are now massively out of touch with those who aren’t millionaires and who don’t live in DC, NY and CA.

    The key factor in this last election was that America reached a tipping point where the non-millionaires and those who don’t live in DC, NY and CA stopped believing or even listening to these millionaire ‘media’ types. That’s the fundamental sea change that’s taken place. The High Priests of the Media have lost their power and their monopoly in exactly the same way the Catholic priests losts their power and monopoly upon the sea change that was the rise of Protestant churches.

    And its quite possible that the next big tipping point will come when the majority of Americans ‘outside the beltway’ realize the harm that these traitors are doing to America. They are starting to get a clue today, and that’s only going to grow.

    Since Mr. Cockburn doesn’t live in nor really know America, he may be shocked in the future when the people he’s listening to today show up as refugees in Europe or the Gulf States and he meets them in future as they get drunk with him and cry about all they lost.

  27. Martin246 says:

    People make large assumptions based solely on the fact that someone is a general. They apply a lot of stereotypes and pre-conceptions based just on that single fact.

    I’d recomment two things to remember and consider.
    1) Nobody is better placed to see the costs and results of the horribly wrong uses of American military power than a General. They are the ones who write the letters home to the loved ones of the dead soldiers. Its thus quite possible for Generals to exist who might think that what we’ve done is wrong and must be changed.

    2) These Generals all had job interviews with President Trump. And President Trump had his choice of many people to hire for these jobs. Its therefore seems logical that he at the very least hired people who were able to tell him things he agreed with, and present at least some proof/case that they really mean it. And if they conned the President about that, they all serve at the pleasure of the President and can be gone with the snap of his fingers and replaced by someone else.

  28. Carrie09 says:

    My personal impression is that Mr. Cockburn was doing a Yeltsin with a bottle of Vodka and he was facing a deadline and had to submit a column. I’ll just say that Hunter S. Thompson did better writing is similar situationsw. 🙂

    Add to that his main place of publication is a somewhat, sometimes liberal UK newspaper, and thus it seems a logical assumption that his editors there had been telling their writers to produce anti-Trump pieces.

    My only surprise is that this site picked it up and republished this, although perhaps it did so just to generate an interesting string of comments.

  29. MarkinLA says:

    1) Nobody is better placed to see the costs and results of the horribly wrong uses of American military power than a General. They are the ones who write the letters home to the loved ones of the dead soldiers.

    Actually, I think it is the lower ranked officers who write the letters. As for knowing the costs of war, any study of history will tell you that generals are the last people to consider the costs. They are taught that when they do they become McClellans and not Grants. Look at WWI when the French Army mutinied because the were being thrown into one pointless offensive after another. When the US soldiers arrived in WWI the French and British generals looked at them as nothing more than fresh meat for the grinder.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  30. @MarkinLA

    That’s right, generals do not write the letters home, it is officers further down the chain who do that. Generals who bother too much about casualties may actually be penalised by their high command. A classic example from the British army was Major-General Stuart-Wortley. His division was involved in a diversion on the first day of the Somme, in 1916. He halted attacks when it was clear his 46th Division was making little headway, on a day that saw 57,000 British casualties. He was removed from command, and his division was considered sub-standard until the latter part of 1918. Although divisions like the 30th that had a higher reputation were fed into the meat grinder again and again until there was not much left.

  31. @Vendetta

    The Khruschev comparison is interesting. Pence et al. certainly have their knives out for Trump the same way Brezhnev and gang were angling to take down Khrushchev. Trump overseas blundering is his connection to Russia and to Russian gangsters like Felix Sater. The GOP can play that card whenever they feel like it, or thinks they can.

  32. @Anonymous Nephew

    Patrick Cockburn – the “calamitous national decline” of Russia was a result of Yeltsin allowing the country to be looted by elites – exactly what Trump has been elected to stop

    No, Trump was elected, by most of his supporters, to stop wealth transfers from the middle class to minorities and immigrants. Trump is himself one of the elite, he is a billionaire and hangs out with billionaires. Whether he has a real interest in stopping the elites from looting the US is still an open question. He talks the talk, but putting Goldman Sachs in charge of the economy, massive deregulation and lower taxes seems like hanging up a “come and get it” sign for the elite to come feed at the trough.

  33. Sean says:

    Polish leaders though were charged with looking after their countries interests . It is not the US President’s job to pamper other counties at the expense of his own people. Trump will keep the US on top, which means a sea change from the outsourcing hypercapitalism that was eroding US dominance. It is implausible on the face of it that power is lost by not using it.

  34. anon • Disclaimer says:

    WHY EXACTLY does the USA even need to be a “superpower” anyways? As long as it is a free country, has a good standard of living, has safe and secure borders, who cares about the rest? Such concerns have never troubled countries like Switzerland.

    • Agree: Talha
    • Replies: @Talha
  35. Talha says:

    Excellent points! Japan isn’t a superpower – they seem pretty content with that now – after having tried the superpower route.


  36. But by then US/UK/EU had already destroyed another secular Muslim regime in Libya.

    So far, events in Iraq, Libya and Syria have had pretty good side-effects, although the outcomes are still in flux. In all three countries, the secular/non-MB forces got the excuse they needed to kill hundreds of thousands of Salafists, along with a good many of their kin. This was a thinning of the herd that the pre-existing rulers did not dare to undertake because of the unknown risk to their continued rule, of all-out civil war.

    In Iraq, the Shiites did not dare to slaughter the Salafists because they were afraid of American and Gulf Arab intervention. The rise of ISIS gave them every excuse they needed.

    In Libya, Gaddafi kept making concessions to the Salafists. Outright revolt meant he had the reasons he needed to put them down. After Gaddafi was killed, the assassination of Chris Stevens gave Gaddafi retreads/Libyan secularists the bloody shirt they needed to smite the Salafists hand and foot. The guy leading Operation Dignity was Gaddafi’s #2, before he settled in the US a short distance away from CIA HQ. Hopefully he’ll be a teensy less anti-American than Gaddafi.

    In Syria, the ruling Alawites (10% of the population) have finally taken off the kid gloves that were put back on after the Hama massacre of the 80’s (under Hafez Assad) that may have killed tens of thousands of Salafists . Given the way Sunni Arabs hate being ruled by non-Muslims, let alone the apostate Alawites, the revolt was one of those things that was going to keep happening until the Alawite regime was deposed. While Bashar would probably prefer a quieter life, this revolt has given him the excuse he needs to evict millions of Sunni Arabs from the country. If the UN estimate of 4.8m refugees consists mainly of Sunni Arabs, and 60% of Syria’s pre-war population (22m) was Sunni Arab (13.2m) vs 8.8m non-Sunni Arab, this means that Syria’s Sunni Arab population has now dwindled to 8.4m. Sunni Arabs may now be only a plurality of Syria’s population. A little more military pressure, and they may even become less than a plurality.

    Overall, the destruction of Salafists in the Near East continues apace. While the cost in American lives and treasure was high, it’s a sunk cost. If we had to do it all over again, we probably wouldn’t. However, things haven’t turned out all that badly from a security standpoint. Salafists are on the run, and they and theirs are being slaughtered in a way that no American president could order directly.

  37. G. Mayre says:

    Cockburn gets it backwards. Their power actually will increase since Trump and Brexit will place them outside the confines of the “International Community” so they can join forces with other rogue states like Israel and form a Washington-London-Jerusalem axis accountable to no one.

Current Commenter

Leave a Reply - Comments on articles more than two weeks old will be judged much more strictly on quality and tone

 Remember My InformationWhy?
 Email Replies to my Comment
Submitted comments become the property of The Unz Review and may be republished elsewhere at the sole discretion of the latter
Subscribe to This Comment Thread via RSS Subscribe to All Patrick Cockburn Comments via RSS
Personal Classics
Full Story of the Taliban's Amazing Jailbreak
"They Can't Even Protect Themselves, So What Can They Do For Me?"
"All Hell is Breaking Loose with Muqtada" Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr