ISSN 2330-717X

The Last Act Of The American Century – Analysis


As the deficit crisis deepens, the United States needs to embrace the possibilities that economic decline present.

By Gerard DeGroot for ISN Insights

Empires, like people, have difficulty accepting decline. Rome was most volatile when Goths stood at her gates. More recently, the British bankrupted themselves preserving an illusion of greatness. Today, as the American century draws to a close, the US grows more frantic in its effort to reshape the world. While Detroit crumbles, billions are spent remodeling Kabul.

United States
United States

The final decades of American supremacy will be measured, in part, by how much composure the US displays while other nations overtake it. Will Americans go the way of the Dutch, who adjusted well to imperial decline, becoming a modern liberal nation at peace with itself? Or will they imitate the French, whose denial gave rise to a costly nuclear program and tragic colonial wars? The omens are not good.

What makes a nation great?

Gross Domestic Product is one possible measure of greatness – one by which America has reigned supreme for more than a century. But an overemphasis on that crude measure has led to the neglect of other, perhaps more meaningful, standards of greatness, among them liberty. Now, America finds itself in a bind, caught in a numbers game that it cannot win. The massive population and sustained growth of China will soon see it surpass the US in GDP.

At some point, a US president will have to tell the American people that their nation is no longer great, at least not by the traditional standard of measurement. As this is not a message to which Americans are likely to warm, the key lies in redefining greatness. But a new definition is meaningless without a new role. In other words, America cannot continue exercising its greatness as it has traditionally done.

Barack Obama has noticed the writing on the wall. “The international order has already been reshaped for a new century”, he told the British Parliament on 25 May 2011. “Countries like China, India and Brazil are growing by leaps and bounds. We should welcome this development”, he said, “for it has … created new markets and opportunities for our own nations.” As Obama understands it, Americans can still grow wealthy – still be ‘great’ – by selling products and services to larger economies. That seems a healthy response – in line with the outlook eventually adopted by other former empires.

The vicious circle

Later in his speech, however, Obama suggested that the obsession with greatness might impede this adjustment:

it has become fashionable in some quarters to question whether the rise of these nations will accompany the decline of American … influence around the world. Perhaps, the argument goes, these nations represent the future and the time for our leadership has passed. That argument is wrong. The time for our leadership is now.

That raises an uncomfortable question: will leadership be exercised through moral example or brute force? Recent events suggest that the latter is more likely. America has reacted to decline like a wounded animal, lashing out at every threat, however small. Obama, who once promised a break from the past, has in fact perpetuated a state of continuous war.

America’s attempts to defend its supremacy are weakening its strength. The US now spends $688 billion annually on its military, more than the next 21 countries combined, which begs the question: How can a nation that will no longer be the largest economy in the world maintain a commitment of that order? If the American approach does not change, it will soon be bankrupted by its own ego more than by anything else.

Back in 1941, the publisher Henry Luce wrote that Americans should “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” That was the essence of the “American Century”, an overwhelming belief in righteous exceptionalism that inspired a mission to reshape the world. Today, that conception of greatness is hopelessly out of date and certainly unaffordable. Yet the US continues to believe that security and prosperity lie not in fixing America but in fixing the world.

The Luce ideal evolved into a paradigm which held that proactive interventionism was essential to American security and prosperity. As the Defence Secretary William Cohen explained in 1998:

We have to be forward deployed in Europe and in Asia in order to shape people’s opinions about us in ways that are favourable to us. To shape events that will affect our livelihood and our security. And we can do that when people see us, they see our power … and they say that’s a country that we want to be with.

What Luce, Cohen and others failed to notice, however, was a classic vicious circle: a global military commitment weakens the domestic economy, thus hastening American economic decline. As this decline gathers pace, the sense of insecurity heightens, and so too does the inclination to intervene. The same mechanism that makes intervention more frequent also renders it less affordable.

The delusions of power

Americans have long confused power with greatness. They do not notice, or refuse to accept, that the quality of life in America has declined in relation to other developed nations. Intent on fixing the world, Americans have forgotten to fix themselves. As the journalist Fareed Zakaria recently pointed out:

[American] 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation … We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. … we’re 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity.

That said, America still leads the world in some categories: they have the most guns, the most crime and the largest amount of debt.

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration considered launching a war against Saddam Hussein. Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, provided advance justification: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further … into the future.” That justification perfectly summarizes an approach that has remained constant from Roosevelt to Obama. It is, in essence, the message between the lines in Obama’s speech to the British Parliament in May.

In truth, America’s inability (or refusal) to see into the future threatens its security and prosperity. Decline need not be disaster. Nor does the US necessarily need to lose its influence. At the height of the Vietnam War, Senator J William Fulbright remarked: “Maybe it would profit us to concentrate on our own democracy instead of trying to inflict our own particular version of it on others.” Instead of fixing Kabul, Tripoli or Damascus, Americans should fix Detroit. While its inclination to reshape the world through raw power is no longer tenable, America can still provide important leadership as a free and humane nation.

Dr Gerard DeGroot is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and author of The Dark Side of the Moon (New York University Press, 2006). Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.