March 14th, 2008


The magic is over

It was the week the dollar fell to less than the value of this Japanese cupro-nickel coin and to its lowest-ever exchange rate against the euro, the week that gold rose for the first time ever to $1000 an ounce, the week that the foreign minister of France's most pro-American government in years made a speech in which he declared that, whoever succeeds Bush, for America "the magic is over... it will never be as it was before".

As the sub-prime crisis continued to sap confidence in American financial products, it was also the week when the head of the Middle Eastern operations section of the world's most powerful army was forced to resign after telling Esquire magazine he was at odds with the administration over the use of force against Iran. The administration was quick to say that Fallon's departure didn't mean that military action against Iran was pending, but the Cheney wing of the Republicans might see it as an election-year fillip to their own party, which always seems to benefit from war. Meanwhile, Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, noted that American military supremacy endures. And even anti-war Fallon told Esquire that Iran presented no threat to the US: "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them." Fallon's view that that time hadn't yet come was supported by pretty much everyone in the world, according to a BBC poll, except in Israel, where support for sanctions and military action against Iran is growing.

But if the US military hegemony established in the postwar period endures (there are still US military bases in 36 countries worldwide, including Britain, Germany and Japan, but no British, German or Japanese bases in the US), there's been a shrinking of US interest in the rest of the world. An article in the London Review of Books told us that "in 1970 CBS had three full-time correspondents in Rome alone: by 2006, the entire US media, print and broadcast, was supporting only 141 foreign correspondents to cover the whole world". Meanwhile, one Arizona town planned to dig a moat around itself to keep immigrants out.

The week the question of whether English-speaking nations can really be said to define modernity any more ricocheted around Click Opera like a tennis ball called "out" by the umpire was also the week when Martina Navratilova declared she no longer wanted to live in the US and was returning to Czechoslovakia. The Guardian ran a feature asking Can the US today really compare with Czechoslovakia in 1975? The answer was that life in the twilight of Iron Curtain communism was in some ways preferable to life in today's America (the communists had free healthcare, full employment, and economic growth). Navratilova, who defected from Czechoslovakia, declared herself as ashamed of George Bush's America as she'd once been of the communist regime in her homeland. "The thing is, we elected Bush," she said. "That is worse!"

Samantha Power, a foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, told Isabel Hilton on Radio 3's Nightwaves that even her boss wasn't magic: even if he won the Democratic ticket and the presidential election, he would face a huge struggle against vested interests to reverse the damage done in the last eight years to the American image and infrastructure. A couple of days later the smart-but-too-frank Ms Power was fired for telling The Scotsman that Hillary Clinton "is a monster".

But if Kouchner's right and the magic really is over -- if the US can no longer enchant the rest of the world by incarnating enlightened modernity, prosperity, Pied Piper trips to the moon and beyond, and if its financial sector continues to melt down -- a time of temper tantrums, bloodletting and killing sprees is unfortunately probably at hand. It may be that only scary monsters will be called to rule America, or that anyone who takes the failing nation's helm will have to become a scary monster, or get putsched out of power. It's become the nature of the beast, and it'll take some very strong magic indeed to change it.