Thomas Freidman’s ‘That Used To Be Us’ and the End of America

Michael Orion Powell Deschamps


Thomas Freidman’s That Used To Be Us is an interesting book. I got the paperback copy, well after its original publication in 2011. The thesis basically is that, although the United States helped create the modern world and the modern global economy, it has fallen drastically behind in it.

This is true, although the situation is even worse than Freidman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum demonstrate. The authors are at their best when they assert that the United States made a huge error in misunderstanding the end of the Cold War.

For anyone who studied Political Science in the period after the Cold War, you likely read or watched videos that were filled with anti-communist propaganda. Communism was over permanently, we were told – the Cold War asserted the victory of Western style democracy and capitalism over the forces of authoritarianism and socialism. One of the most arrogant and stupid claims in that era was that the end of the Cold War signaled “the end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama put it in his book of the same title. No Francis, the Soviet Union’s collapse only symbolized the law of history – that all empires fall.

The western assessment of the Cold War was serious nonsense, as the modern world informs us. That Used To Be Us reminds us that the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, which builds bullet trains while our “trains” creak and blow smoke, is China. China is no longer closed off as it was when Mao Zedong set up the People’s Republic of China – a change in policy that has severely impacted the global economy. However, it is still communist. The Communist Party still reigns there and the government still issues Five Year Plans. Many of its major industrial triumphs have been collective efforts. The idea that the American system and industrial success are interchangeable is obviously wrong.

So too have socialism and industrial success continued in other countries. Much of Swedish company IKEA’s inventory is produced in Cuba, a country that still has a communist government that was set up over half a century ago. Cuba survived even with a long standing embargo with the United States and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Maybe that wasn’t the end of history, after all?

What did go wrong, then? Well, for one – Cuba and China both stick to themselves. Neither country has gone on any sort of military adventures in recent history. Juxtapose that with the Soviets and the Americans, both of whom went on extended military campaigns in the most dangerous parts of the world, including both in Afghanistan – “the graveyard of empires.” Some things are really quite simple – when you deplete your resources on wars, you don’t have resources for other things. Thus, empires collapse.

Freidman, along with Mandelbaum, both supported the Iraq war, something the authors decide to remind us of. The Iraq war was a weird foreign policy event. For some reason, writers like Thomas Freidman felt the need to hang on to it and justify it intellectually – for them, it had the potential for some sort of grand vindication of liberal ideas. There were many interventions during the Obama years, usually avoiding the use of ground troops, as Bush used, that intellectuals like Freidman didn’t feel the need to defend so strongly. Like Christopher Hitchens, Freidman feels the need to rationalize his support for the war in parts of That Used To Be Us. It feels awkward and out of place – especially in the political context of the 2010s, when prominent politicians have vilified the Iraq war for some time.

In Freidman’s vindication of the Iraq war, he tries to illustrate a visit of his to Iraq, which sounds like a bit of a creative license was taken. An Iraqi soldier comments on how he thought all Americans were white and how amazing it is that all these ethnicities get along and how even women have their place in the United States military. Freidman juxtaposes this with how Iraq is a multiethnic society that required a strongman to keep things together.  This anecdotal mention resembles nonsensical propaganda that would be in a World War II-style John Wayne movie, if we still made such things.

Freidman wrote That Used To Be Us back in 2011, so we perhaps can forgive him for still holding on to delusions about the nature of American society. The years since, for whatever reason, have demonstrated a breakdown of American society that is unlike anything in my lifetime. The elements have always been there, sure, but there was a line that seemed to have been crossed during the second term of Barack Obama that made Freidman’s assertion of American exceptionalism seem ridiculous.

The regular shootings that America suffered were anything but random. Street executions of unarmed black men and women by police have entered near-epidemic status. So-called “lone wolf” attacks have also become the norm. Eliot Roger, a shooter who attacked the University of California – Santa Barbara, detailed a deranged rant in which he complained about women not dating him. Dylan Roof, who attacked a black church in South Carolina, issued a manifesto beset with neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate rhetoric. In response to that, a black shooter in Virginia shot and killed two white people, on camera, who worked for a local TV affiliate in Virginia.

Race and gender motivated these attacks and, while the choice of weapon was guns, which (generally speaking) result in lower casualties than bombs, it’s hard to see any objective difference between the small scale civil war of Obama’s second term and the civil war that erupted after the invasion of Iraq. Both were along sectarian lines, with a dose of gender added in, and both erupted in attacks that had regular consistency.

Such civil wars often occur when a power structure is shaken or eliminated – as the Soviet Union fell, much of Yugoslavia, which was held together for years by Tito (in my views one of the twentieth century’s greatest leaders), exploded in to a humanitarian crisis that required the intervention of NATO in the 1990s. There’s nothing really special about the United States, whatever deranged Americans who don’t know anything about the world may think. If that country continues like it has, it will have other countries helping police it just like every country that has fractured has.

America’s not special. It’s filled with regular people who are capable of love, hate, creativity and horror, just like anyone anywhere else. That’s the ultimate lesson of the past twenty years. Its dissolution isn’t even that unique or special – Republican frontrunner Donald Trump sounds and acts like Slobadon Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and a number of other strongmen who arose during periods of turmoil – while Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders’ brand of mid-20th century liberalism also signifies a product of national transition. The laws of history didn’t take a break for USAmerica – Instead, American society has confirmed how common its trajectory really is. An America that accepts this fact, as it seems the American people slowly are starting to, will indeed not be the country we are used to – but a country which accepts this may be better prepared to deal with reality.


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