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The once and future thing

Elon Musk  observed that "brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time. Sometimes it will be ahead, other times it will be behind. But brand is simply a collective impression some have about a product."  When Time Magazine reported the Davos elite had decided that America No Longer Matters, it is proper to ask 'what no longer mattered?  The perception of America or the reality'? "A year after Trump’s election raised the prospect of revolution, the elites have regained their confidence. The revolt had been put down, stock markets are up, and globalism is making a comeback."

The reality of America can be made by measured by comparing it to the power relationships at the moment when the US became the Leader of the Free World.  The United Nations Security Council of 1945 is a snapshot of the victors frozen in time, like a high school yearbook photograph.  In that picture the Soviet Union still had its hair;  it was a great power, perhaps even the greatest if America's nascent A-bomb capability could be discounted.

For one thing Moscow had hordes.  Hitler invaded it with less than half the manpower pool of the USSR; a population of 69 million to Stalin's 170.  The US population was respectable, but not dominant by comparison:  148 million in 1939.  In material terms Germany and the USSR were about equal in GDP at the start of the contest.  While America's economy was larger, it was only a little more than twice as large as either.

In the intervening 80 years the powers aged differently.   Russia's population dropped to 144 million (down from 170 in 1939),  Germany posted a modest increase (82 million up from 69) -- but it was America that had grown to a whopping 323 million people.  Materially too the discrepancy was vast.  By 2017 the US had 5.3 times the GDP of Germany and 13 times that of Russia. Most tellingly the US leads in all the industries of the 21st century, fields not surprisingly considered the "greatest threats" to humankind.  It was a circumstance which led Pravda to declare that "SpaceX makes 'one giant leap for mankind' as Russia loses the space race".

With 21st century USA so impressively massive how could it be said that "America No Longer Matters?" The only way to reconcile the paradoxical collapse of the American brand with its physical ascendancy is to consider the possibility it is Washington which has become a cipher. The media conflates the two even while it daily paints DC in a coat of shame.  It is not that Russia can somehow control the colossus but the possibility that Washington has become an ineffectual and corrupt imperial capital, the plaything of bag men, ex-spies, influence peddlers and foreign agents that explains the emptiness of the place.