The floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina are slowly receding, and the superpower stature of the United States is being hung out to dry. There's dirty laundry, to be sure, but also important lessons about how empires disintegrate. American glitz, glamour, grit, know-how, take-charge action heroism the stuff that inspires either admiration or fear and dread among the world's huddled masses have not stood up well on reality TV.
The projection of muscular might, essential for a government that asserts rights and powers of unilateralism at the United Nations, doesn't fit well with foreign aid coming to the U.S. from the likes of Sri Lanka, Venezuela or Canada.
Other best-laid plans have also been blown. The Bush administration had planned in the autumn to convince U.S. cotton, sugar and grain farmers to accept multi-billion-dollar cuts in subsidies. This was essential to the U.S. campaign at the World Trade Organization to set an example for other countries to remove their barriers to U.S. imports and accept a U.S. model of global free trade. Suddenly, this is a non-starter.
It's exactly the belt of Mississippi farms most in need as a result of the hurricane that receive the lion's share of U.S. farm subsidies. All those agricultural products languishing on barges in the Mississippi, waiting to be shipped around the world, are also the last, best hope that the U.S. economy can still export some products to gain foreign revenues. These are needed to balance the imports of the manufactured products the former industrial power now depends on.
Fuel and heating costs are set to spike. And a government revenue process based on reducing taxes while bulking up on debt now has to absorb a black hole of unanticipated expenditures that can only come from taking on billions more in debt.
If that results in inflation, or if inflation has to be dampened by hiking interest rates in a domestic economy already maxed out on credit card debt, who knows what the implications will be? In a world where interconnection happens at warp speed, it's hard to predict where the next unravelling will come from.
In terms of the economic cycles of spent superpowers, the U.S. is now clearly in the phase known as "overstretch."
Armed forces away from home are too expensive to maintain, especially when bread and circuses have to be laid on for the home front. Overstretch is known to be terminal. It's hard to teach an old empire new tricks.
The "bigger they are, the harder they fall" rule also applies to a surprising number of the world's super-brands, which are often subject to the hurricane force of unexpected change. When this happens to companies, as distinct from empires, it's called "blindsiding."
Overstretch and blindsiding, not natural disaster, are the wind tunnels that gave Katrina its devastating power to destroy, rather than simply damage.
Jim Harris, leader of Canada's Green party, has a day job as a business speaker and consultant and is an expert in blindsiding and the ways to avoid it. His book, Blindsided, is a romp through the junkyard of history where the remains of the Polaroids, K Marts, Simpson's, Eatons, Enrons and other capsized titanics of the business world have ended up. The list is impressive. About a quarter of the Western world's top companies of only 25 years ago no longer exist.
Like the Swiss watchmakers who thought quartz and digital were jokes, like the camera makers who didn't foresee digital displacing film or cellphones becoming the everyday cameras of choice for the young, these sideswiped companies didn't know what hit them. They had no problem with problem-solving, Harris writes, but with problem-seeing: noticing and responding to problems that, with their narrow focus, seemingly "came out of nowhere."
The blindness paradigm they suffered from was based on obsolete skill sets that became entrenched in an organization. The skills of companies that supplied ice to iceboxes had little in common with the skills of companies that supplied electric fridges, so companies that thought in terms of their skills instead of services the world needs got left in a rut created by denial.
That same paradigm blindness led the Bush administration to foresee security and defence threats in light of their skill base in military might. The U.S. accounts for half of the trillion dollars being spent around the world on armaments this year, says Harris.
And that, says Harris, a big fan of Zen, is why they're so weak. They got blindsided because they couldn't see the threat from global warming, which is widely thought to have increased the intensity of Atlantic storms; couldn't see the threat from losing marshes and sand islands that shielded cities from surges of stormwater; couldn't see that offshore oil wells destabilized the ocean and beach floor; couldn't see the threat from having so many toxin-producing companies so close to major population centres that might be subject to flooding; couldn't see the threat from racial segregation, marginalization and pauperization in a city core.
"They needed to redefine defence and security, but couldn't because they were in denial," says Harris.
The dominant skill set of a superpower relates to power over, not power to. Obsession with power over accounts for the lead role granted to the military, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, the police, Blackwater security guards just back from a tour as mercenaries in Iraq and FEMA, an emergency defence service with a mindset forged in the homeland security anti-terrorist campaign.
The skill set to shoot to kill looters on sight is not the same as the skill set to provide food, water, shelter, cleanup, care, love.
Any business or country without this skill set of soft power is not long for this world, which is why the mighty have always fallen and why the skills linked to the personal and the community may soon come to prevail.