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Late Soviet America

Like the Soviet Union in its final years, the United States is reeling from catastrophic failures of leadership and long-suppressed socioeconomic tensions that have finally boiled over. For the rest of the world, the most important development is that the hegemony of the US dollar may finally be coming to an end.

PRINCETON – The Soviet Union was fertile ground for political jokes, which featured as prominently in the culture as late-night comedy does in the United States. According to one popular story, a young man who shouted in Red Square that the decrepit Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was an idiot ended up being sentenced to 25.5 years in prison – six months for insulting the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and 25 years for revealing state secrets.

The Trump administration’s furious reaction to a new book by former National Security Adviser John Bolton has followed a similar script. The book is considered dangerous not so much because it insults Donald Trump as because it reveals that the president is deeply incompetent and “stunningly uninformed.” If it wasn’t obvious already, the whole world now knows that the US lacks any strategic orientation or coherent executive leadership.

In fact, many aspects of America’s current annus horribilis recall the final years of the Soviet Union, starting with the intensification of social and political conflict. In the Soviet case, long-suppressed ethnic rivalries and competing national aspirations quickly bubbled to the surface, pushing the entire country toward violence, secession, and disintegration. In the US, Trump’s response to nationwide protests against racism, police brutality, and inequality has been to stoke further the country’s historic racial divide. And, like statues of Lenin during the collapse of the Soviet empire, statues of Confederate leaders are being toppled just about everywhere.