John Michael Greer’s novel about the sudden end of American hegemony should be of interest to anyone who shares my conviction that the present order in this country neither can, nor ought to, continue much longer.
An empire does not admit to itself when it is in decline. No – that realization has to be imposed from without, and often quite bluntly. This, at least, is the theme that John Michael Greer runs with in Twilight’s Last Gleaming, his novel of how the American empire might fall in the not-too-distant future.
But all that is a topic for its own post. For now, I will conclude with a hearty endorsement of Twilight’s Last Gleaming. The novel is not, by any means, a perfect map for the future, but it does accurately describe a lot of the unpleasant things that will happen when the American empire learns the hard way that the world is no longer its own to rule.
Not everybody thinks of the United States as an empire, but in Greer’s eyes, you need to be an empire in order to consume a third of the world’s natural resources despite having only 5 percent of its population. And Greer gives America’s leaders credit where credit is due for managing the empire efficiently – rather than governing every colony directly like Britain did, at a huge financial and human cost, we just keep troops positioned strategically around the world, ready to pull a regime change when someone adopts economic policies that aren’t to our liking.
‘Dammit, we need that oil.’ The US President’s remark to his advisers when he realizes that Tanzania has turned to a Chinese firm rather than the Americans to develop a new offshore oilfield pretty much sets the stage for what this book is about. The CIA and the Defence Department get to work plotting regime change, without realizing that this time will be different, because with China giving behind-the-scenes aid to the Tanzanians, the Americans must face what they haven’t faced since 1941 – a conflict between equals.
I won’t bother myself about spoilers in this review, because Greer, in his book, didn’t bother to create any suspense – the reader can see each plot element unfolding a mile away, from the moment the Chinese smuggle cruise missiles into Tanzania in ordinary shipping containers. The American aircraft carrier ends up where carriers will end up as soon as they see their first real combat since 1945. The F-35s go where a competent enemy is bound to send any aircraft designed with commercial rather than military concerns at the fore. And the American ground troops, reduced to fighting without air superiority or decent logistics, end up in POW camps.
All of this, by the way, is only the first third of Greer’s book. The rest deals with the impact of the defeat on the American home front, and with the new international order that arises once American hegemony is dead and buried. Passages of the novel are told from perspectives in America, Tanzania, Kenya, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia… you get the idea. One thing you need to be warned about is that, with the possible exception of the Russian president, Greer’s characters are completely forgettable. They are flat as flat can be, within a week of reading the book, I had forgotten all but two of their names.
Where Greer excels is in what is usually known as world-building, though I hesitate to call it that, as sketching out possible futures for the real world is a much more intellectually demanding task than inventing fantasy settings. And Greer’s futures are believable. America will keep playing hegemon until someone makes us stop – you can’t get by without a little bullying when you consume more resources than you produce. And sometime within the next few decades, we will get worsted by one of the world’s ascendant powers, of which China is chief.
It’s toward the end that, in my opinion, the book wanders off into fantasy. The idea that, in our day and age, a constitutional convention might remake America with only failed interference from the President, and no interference at all from the Supreme Court, is quite naïve – in the real world, power does not give itself up voluntarily, no matter what the text of the constitution has to say about the matter. If Washington’s power is to be broken, as Greer thinks it will, then it will take resistance much fiercer than anyone in modern America is willing to give.