Just after 9/11, I went to a birthday party where everyone was understandably muted. We young men discussed what might happen next and considered the possibility of being drafted to whatever war was about to erupt.
War, we all agreed, was a certainty. “They’ve woken the giant,” concluded one chap, shaking his head. “They’ve woken the giant.”
The giant awoke and attacked Afghanistan, entirely missing Osama Bin Laden who had apparently legged it to Pakistan. Instead of turning the general area where the attack came from into a lake, the giant tried to turn that savage and ungovernable land into a thriving liberal democracy. Then it got distracted by an unrelated war in Iraq, whose underlying motivations remain opaque. And both conflicts evolved and will drag on well into the foreseeable future. And then there’s Libya and Syria and . . . many others.
Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, the giant was the most powerful entity on earth but nobody knew it because it (sensibly) didn’t do anything. Its military-industrial capacity remained latent and unnoticed. In the two world wars the giant awoke and shook the world, especially in the second. It reshaped global institutions and norms in its own image. The giant became even richer, more magnificent, and sent men to the moon.
Following the conclusion of the Cold War it seemed that the giant must go back to sleep. After all, what was there for it to do? And then 9/11 happened.
Many Americans have long since realised that it’s time to put the giant back to bed. It has been up too long. It has become tired and demoralized, has depleted its treasure and much of the goodwill of its friends. The Americans voted for Obama hoping he would end the stupid wars, but he and the lizard extended them. They voted for Trump but he shows no . . . will? ability? to pull back from the madness.
Wars should be short and decisive. They should be fought to achieve clear goals. Usually, they fail to fully achieve these goals or turn out to be so expensive that in retrospect they seem poorly considered. Lao Tzu wrote this. The current wars are achieving nothing for ordinary Americans. Do they really care who wins between the Sunnis and Shia? Do they prefer the Saudis over the Iranians? Do they fear Russia? I suspect few would answer ‘yes’.
As the Chinese have shown, power can increase through quiet development.
It can be depleted through overuse.
What America needs is a modern-day Hadrian who will acknowledge that the empire is large enough, and see that the main risk is becoming overstretched. Hadrian constructed the famous wall named after him in Britain to keep out soccer hooligans from Glasgow, and built many other walls, roads and defenses besides.
The Roman empire survived for centuries afterwards.
Rockabye giant, on the treetop
When the war blows, the cradle will rock
When the debt breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come giant, cradle and all