I was 12. It was 1956. I lived in New York City and was a youthful history buff. (I should have kept my collection of American Heritage magazines!) Undoubtedly, I was also some kind of classic nerd. In any case, at some point during the Suez crisis of that year, I can remember going to the U.N. by myself and sitting in the gallery of the General Assembly, where I undoubtedly heard imperial Britain denounced for its attempt to retake the Suez Canal (in league with the French and Israelis). I must admit that it was a moment in my life I had totally forgotten about until historian Alfred McCoy, whose new Dispatch Book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, is due out in September, brought it to mind again. And I certainly hadn’t imagined that Suez might have any applicability to this moment. But almost 16 years after this country’s disastrous “war on terror” was launched and with yet another major Middle Eastern city in rubble, we are undoubtedly witnessing a change in the balance (or imbalance) of power on this unruly planet of ours — and who better to make sense of it than historian McCoy?
Think of him as a modern Edward Gibbon, writing in the twenty-first century on the decline and fall of a great empire. However, unlike Gibbon, who wrote his classic book on Rome centuries after its empire had disappeared from the face of the earth, McCoy has no choice but to deal with American decline contemporaneously — in, that is, the very act of its happening.
I had a canny friend who assured me a couple of decades ago that when European countries finally started saying no to Washington, I’d have a signal that I was on another planet. So we must now be on Mars. I was struck, for instance, by a recent piece in the Guardian describing the G20 summit as “the ‘G1’ versus the ‘G19.’” In other words, it’s increasingly Donald Trump’s Washington against the world, which is the definition of how not to make an empire work. Since imperial decline may, in fact, have been a significant factor in bringing Donald Trump to power, think of him as both its harbinger and — as McCoy so vividly describes today — its architect.