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Can We Stop Being a Superpower, Please?

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It's been roughly 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, which means that the U.S. has experienced two decades of being the world's sole superpower. The experience hasn't been positive. Under the sway of neocon ambitions, in particular, the Bush era was marked by a failed attempt to dominate the globe militarily. Mired in Afghanistan and scarred by Iraq, those ambitions proved to be shameful and foolish. A group of misguided gunslingers led to a catastrophe. Have we come to the point where disillusionment will lead us where we need to go: the end of playing the superpower role?

This is a relevant question in the aftermath of President Obama's visit to Russia, a country that yearns to return to its former status and does everything it can to posture as its old superpower self. Yet other than a bloated nuclear arsenal and swaggering oil production, present-day Russia doesn't fit the bill and never will again. Its diminished threat is the first reason why the U.S. should abandon the thankless task of policing the world. The second is the enormous waste of resources involved in being a superpower. Sheer inertia keeps fueling the production of new armaments to replace outworn ones that were useless to begin with. Has the Stealth bomber justified its staggering cost? Has the nuclear submarine, Polaris missile, Titan missile, not to mention Star Wars? Most of these weapons haven't seen the slightest use. Billions of dollars have been spent on a defense system that is protecting us from a foe who long ago neutralized its threat.

The third reason to stop being a superpower is that Nixon's specter of the U.S. as a pitiful helpless giant hasn't decreased since Vietnam but only become worse. Crude terrorism lurking in the shadows of side streets is a match for advanced weapons systems if you are measuring in terms of psychological threat, anxiety, and a creeping sense that the enemy can strike at will. Atomic arsenals, a massive standing army and space-age technology aren't justified when a single dirty bomb can sneak in under the fence. It's time to accept what every insurgency expert tells us, that asymmetrical warfare is here to stay and must be fought on a smaller, smarter scale that is closer to neighborhood policing than conventional, World War II-style combat.

That's only the beginning of the list. During this crippling recession, there's the need to spend money on productive jobs and rebuild infrastructure, not more arms. There's the moral question of the fear we inspire internationally by our aggressive militancy, which is tragically at odds with our pronounced aim of world peace. Peace is achieved by being peaceful, no matter what the military-industrial complex claims to the contrary. Other factors center on the ideals of a functioning democracy. Is it fair for a few senior congressmen to hold the power to fund massive, largely secret arms programs without check? Should the arms lobby be able to write its own ticket, year after year? It's deeply wrong that a tiny portion of our populace should fight wars abroad, bearing the full burden of suffering, while reactionary politicians promise tax cuts and no consequences for the enormous harm we do by invading other countries.

America leads the world in arms dealing, starting wars, and developing new methods of mechanized death. Even if you leave aside the basic insanity of the Cold War and its stockpiling of nuclear weapons on a scale that can potentially decimate life on earth, all the reasons listed above should be enough to make anyone think twice. We may be accustomed to feeling like a superpower, but that isn't the same as feeling safe and secure. Having tried militarism for the past 60 years, perhaps we can give peace a chance and see if genuine safety and security lies there instead.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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