When I was young, I often imagined myself as an American diplomat. Back in the early 1960s, it seemed like serving my country in such a role would be an honorable, even glorious, path to take. Can you believe that I ever thought such a thing in this twenty-first-century moment when diplomats by the hundreds are being pushed out of, or have fled, the State Department? I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that, despite my dreams, I’m not today the U.S. ambassador to South Korea (or Germany or Turkey or scores of other countries) — not that, these days, anyone is. As those of you who read TomDispatch might guess, I never ended up in the State Department or anywhere else in the U.S. government in a job dealing with the rest of the world. Instead, sometime in the 1960s, in the midst of the horrors of the Vietnam War, my urge to serve went into opposition and I’ve never looked back.
However, that ancient Tom Engelhardt and his dreams popped into mind again this week when I read today’s piece by historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, whose take on this country’s fall from imperial grace looks ever more eerily accurate as the Trump era progresses, day by day, tweet by tweet. Only this week, for instance, National (in)Security Advisor John Bolton evidently tried to depth-charge the coming North Korean talks in Singapore by comparing that country’s nuclear situation to what he called the “Libyan model.” Who — certainly not Kim Jong-un and crew — could forget what happened to de-nuked Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi? (In Hillary Clinton’s infamous words, laughingly said, about the U.S. intervention in his country in 2011, “We came, we saw, he died.”) And then President Trump, evidently misunderstanding what “the Libyan model” even was, followed up by directly threatening the North Korean leader with Gaddafi’s fate. Brilliant! But I digress.
McCoy, thinking about what American decline amid such “diplomatic” chaos means on a planet in its own kind of decline, reminds us that in these last decades the urge to serve globally wasn’t mine alone (or that of my then-future wife who joined the Peace Corps in 1964). There has, in fact, been a certain American tradition of grassroots involvement with the world — ranging from evangelicals to military veterans to Peace Corps volunteers — a tradition that we might indeed sadly lose in the chaos of an American world turning itself upside down.
As for me, I’ve always thought that TomDispatch represented my youthful urge to serve transferred to another dimension, my own aging version of citizen diplomacy. But enough about me. Consider instead what McCoy has to say about a world increasingly in chaos and what might be lost in it.