Nearly a year before the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, media baron Henry Luce wrote a Life magazine editorial, declaring that “The 20th Century must to a significant degree be an American Century.”
Before the war, there had been multiple centers of world power, but history’s greatest military conflict reduced the number to two, the United States and the Soviet Union.
The U.S. emerged immediately as rich and confident. It produced half of all the world’s goods, including 80 percent of all cars. It produced a majority of the world’s oil (62%) and steel (57%). It held two-thirds of the world’s gold. Its naval fleet and air force were larger than the rest of the world’s combined, and it alone possessed the atomic bomb. Not for 2,000 years had one nation or empire so outdistanced the rest of the world.
The long Cold War years that followed the war were threatening, economically, militarily and ideologically, with the Soviet Union at times appearing to play nearly an equal role in shaping the global community. However, it was usually the U.S. that could act with impunity, imposing regime changes in Guatemala, Iran, British Guiana, South Vietnam, Bolivia, Indonesia, Syria and in a number of other places.
Four and a half decades after the world war, the Soviet Union collapsed for reasons both internal and external, not least the heavy cost of competing with Western nations. President George H.W. Bush handled the Soviet demise wisely, refusing to gloat, but most Americans coasted and took liberties with our own traditions and values, especially when weakening restraints on political partisanship.
Consequently, over the course of the last quarter-century, symptoms of American decline have become visible. The habit of engaging in wars continued with foolhardy – and fruitless – invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the war on terror in dozens of nations brought heavy financial burdens. Our uncontrolled power led us at times to use physical and psychological torture, establish detention centers and kill civilians with abandon. We mostly overlooked what enormous military power enables one to do. But many abroad did not, which led them to challenge America’s moral legitimacy and to question its model of democracy.
A salient example of American decline came as the Trump presidency withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran Nuclear Accord and suspended contributions to the World Health Organization. Threats to withdraw from NATO followed. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine four months ago resulted in an American-led solidarity of NATO to a degree that had seemed unlikely.
Every day we come across items marked “Made in China.” Its emergence as a superpower is reshaping global politics, especially in parts of Asia where America had been preeminent. Though a majority of nations still rate the U.S. as the stronger of the two, the fact that we must grapple with China throughout much of the world means that American power is often circumscribed.
At home, we are less stable as a country than we were a quarter-century ago. Anger, cynicism and political polarization run deep. For a dramatic symbol of America’s decline, it is hard to top the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6 last year, part of a shocking organized attempt to overturn a presidential election! The current Jan. 6 hearings are clarifying just how earnest and organized are several groups in their opposition to democratic structures and habits.
The “stolen election” lie is deepening the sense that the U.S. now constitutes two nations, bringing to mind John Dos Passos’s remark in his Depression Era novel, “The Big Money”: Americans are divided between haves and have-nots, he wrote – and his exasperated conclusion: “All right we are two nations.” Something of the same is at work today, not in terms of class but rather of status, culture and race.
The foregoing amounts to our transitioning away from the aggressive American Century concept that Henry Luce elucidated eight decades ago. During the past quarter-century, the topic has reappeared in popular and scholarly works, most recently in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine.
In it, Daniel Bessner, a Washington University historian of U.S. foreign relations, asks, “What comes next?” Our goal, he concludes, must be to create a “Global Century” in which the power of any one nation, including the U.S., is restrained: “The major problems of the twenty-first century require multilateral cooperation with nations that have adopted different political systems; there is no reason for the United States… to act as the global police force.”
Our developed world of interdependent economies is so intertwined by an explosion of media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, television, blogs and the whole technological world of the internet, that isolationist and ultra-nationalist impulses are unsuitable to the new world being born as we transition from the American Century.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected] His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.