In a sense, human history could be seen as an endless tale of the rise and fall of empires. In the last century alone, from the Hapsburgs and Imperial Japan to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the stage was crowded with such entities heading for the nearest exit. By 1991, with the implosion of the USSR, it seemed as if Earth’s imperial history was more or less over. After all, only one great imperial power was left. The Russians were, by then, a shadow of their former Soviet self (despite their nuclear arsenal) and, though on the rise, the Chinese were, in military terms at least, no more than a growing regional power. Left essentially unchallenged was the United States, the last empire standing. Even though its people rejected the word “imperial” as a descriptive term for their “exceptional” country — just as, until oh-so-recently, they rejected the word “nationalist” for themselves — the world’s “sole superpower” was visibly the only game in town.
Its military, which already garrisoned much of the planet, was funded at levels no other country or even groups of them combined could touch and had destructive capabilities beyond compare. And yet, with the mightiest military on the planet, the United States would never again win a significant war or conflict. Though its forces would be quite capable of taking the island of Grenada or briefly invading Panama, in the conflicts that mattered — Korea and Vietnam — victory would never come into sight. And it only got worse in the twenty-first century as that military fought an endless series of conflicts (under the rubric of “the war on terror”) across the Greater Middle East and Africa. In those years, it left in its wake a series of brutal sectarian struggles, ascendant terror movements, and failed or failing states and yet, despite its stunning destructive power and its modestly armed enemies, it was nowhere victorious. Never perhaps had an empire at its seeming height attempted to control more while winning less. (The power of its economy was, of course, another matter.)