If President Bush’s “first war of the 21st century” does happen, it is highly likely to go down in history as a signal moment for the onset of the decline of the United States as the hub of a major civilisation. It will be a definitive indicator of a great nation’s visionary exhaustion.
This happens when the state becomes manipulative and violent because it is no longer able to sustain an argument. We saw this in South Africa in the 1970s when the visionary aridity of apartheid drove the state towards compulsive violence. A state in this condition seeks to preserve its “way of life” at all costs by seeking to annihilate real or perceived threats. Unable to think beyond its history, it cannot imagine new solutions to old problems. Such a condition is signalled by the enormous incongruity between the amount of state violence threatened or deployed and the reasons for it. The disjuncture happens when the great power acts no longer as a leader, but as a controller; when it no longer sways by the appeal of its imagination, but by the brutality of its military power; when its vision, now summed up in the staging of media events, becomes banal and obscene.
The great power is poised to go down violently, provoking a global insurrection. It will not be able to contain the insurrection in any sustainable way. At some point, when mechanisms by which it dominated the world will have significantly collapsed, it will itself face the threat of internal disintegration, when its “way of life” becomes unsustainable, and the battle for resources will occur within its borders. New, emergent powers in the world, such as China, India, Iran, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Indonesia, and a revitalised European Union, while not representing new civilisations but their possibilities, will be the source of new energies and new ways of imagining the world. These powers and the rest of the horrified world will need to face the key question of such a future: how do we restore the world after the United States, a power in decline, has devastated it? This is a question I pray we will not have to answer.
It does not have to be this way. We must prevent this war and assist the United States to come to terms with its vulnerabilities. The nations of the world are so implicated in each other’s histories that we all share vulnerabilities. This kind of consciousness offers possibilities for new forms of community. I understand that it is going to be difficult for a state drunk with power to embrace humility and rediscover and experience the respect that comes from moral power. But the new way is not to remove vulnerability by annihilating the other. Rather, it is to strive to create a real sense of global community.
© Njabulo S. Ndebele 2003