America – a failed state?

By Johan Galtung

Depends, of course, on the criteria. A state has an inside towards its citizens, and an outside toward the state system. Depends on domestic and foreign policy, in other words. That means it can fail in two ways, by not catering to its citizens and by not coming to terms with other states. Actually the two are closely related as often pointed out: a regime (running the state) may compensate for failure at home by victories abroad. And, conversely, compensate for failures abroad by taking good care of its citizens. And, success at home used to mobilize grateful citizens for patriotic wars abroad.

America, or the USA rather, at present does not take good care of its citizens. A recent study cited in Nation of Change, More Evidence That Half of America Is in or Near Poverty, 24 March 2014, by Paul Buchheit: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that an average family of three needs $48,000 to meet basic needs, very close to the median family household income of $51,000. Since the 1950s the food costs have doubled, housing costs tripled, medical costs are six times higher, and college tuition eleven times–four key basic needs. Food, housing, health care, child care, transportation and taxes consume very close to the median income–not counting college education–hence, “half of America is in or near poverty”.

And that bottom half of the US population own only 1.1% of the nation’s wealth – the same as the 30 richest Americans – with s=zero wealth for the bottom 47%. Nothing to fall back upon. Safety net measures such as Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, public housing and soup kitchens help. But many are not able to benefit from them and they are all threatened politically.

Add the risk to security through suicide-homicide-accidents; a major cause being the handguns, easily available. Add the decreasing retirement benefits to many due to the losses through speculation. And black families suffer worst, including income decline.

All of this makes the major source of identity, the American Dream, once accessible to so many from far and nearby, wither away. However, how about the land of the free, the free country? Of freedom of speech there is plenty as long as nobody, except NSA, listens. Of economic freedom to use money to make more money there is also plenty, for those who have money. Result: a muzzled society of inequity.

Then the foreign policy. With close to 250 interventions abroad since Thomas Jefferson, the amount of hatred in search of violent revenge – blowback, “unintended consequences” – must be considerable. “We have never been so safe”, some say today, due to the “war on terrorism” and NSA spying at home and abroad. But revenge can find its new and very creative ways, as it did on 9/11. US foreign policy has put Americans at considerable risk at home and abroad when traveling.

Recently that belligerent foreign policy has also been remarkably unintelligent. Within a decade the USA has managed to deliver Iraq to its shia majority–Iran’s dream come true thanks to Bush Jr–and Libya and soon, probably, Syria to Al Qaeda, a sunni Arab movement–thanks to Obama. And Afghanistan to status quo, thanks to both.

We have been here before. Big Powers treating citizens well, mobilizing them for warfare, first successfully, then sliding downhill losing wars and citizen satisfaction. Names not to general US liking come up: France under Napoléon, Germany under Hitler. A book just came out by a former French prime minister, Leonel Jospin, Le mal napoleonéen, the napoleonic evil. In the beginning he solidified the Revolution with great benefits for people, did much to reconcile the two parts of France; the civil code. Then came an authoritarian and corrupt phase (“Napoléon, Quel Désastre!”, Le Nouvel Observateur, 6 March 2014, p. 91), then the empire, crowning himself in 1804, brilliant battles (see Paris metro stations)–and then Waterloo in 1815. The End.

And after that, a France stumbling from one crisis to the next.

Under Hitler ordinary Germans came to life with jobs, identities and freedoms that families lower down had never enjoyed; easily mobilized, with Kriegsbegeisterung, to restore Germany’s place in the world. Brilliant battles; like Napoléon, he tried to beat, losing in The End.

The three cases share one important factor: neither Hitler, nor Napoléon, nor the USA knew when to stop expanding, but followed the script to the end. Hitler could have stopped in 1940, not attacking Russia; Napoléon in 1807 after his successful battles; the USA in 1945, coming to an understanding with Russia rather than Churchill.

Russia. Russia survived Napoléon and Hitler, occupying both capitals after tremendous losses. Right now, if Putin knows where to stop, Russia will survive the USA too. Occupy Washington? Maybe not.

What that very same Washington could do instead is very obvious but not so easy given the many at the top of the USA who want both more belligerence and more inequity, without brakes and reverse gear.

Stop warfare, organize peace conferences with all parties, also those indeed not to Washington’s liking, understand what they want, search for a new order meeting all legitimate goals–including those of the USA–reasonably well. Open for reconciliation by acknowledging mistakes, open for some compensation. Lift the bottom of US society up, starting with the poorest of the poor; stop speculation–the twin brother of warfare–,reverse basic needs costs by having more people growing their food in cooperatives, public housing. Learn public health from Western Europe; make college inexpensive all over by inviting retired experienced professors to teach. So simple, but running against a stonewall of entrenched ideology. USA as its own worst enemy.

America a failed state? No doubt about it, like Napoléon’s France and Hitler’s Germany. A democracy, it took more time to fail. Being a democracy of kinds it may also take more time to repair. But repair it must. And–as somebody once said – Yes, we can!

First published here.

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