With Mammon’s pillars fallen and millions losing their homes, savings and jobs, many suspected 10 years ago this autumn that the fabled American Century was drawing to a close.
America’s hegemony was indeed challenged on multiple fronts.
Intellectually, the 2008 meltdown triggered an attack on the American-led science of economics, with Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Paul Samuelson charging, respectively, that three decades’ worth of macroeconomic theory was “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst,” and that “the Milton Friedman notion that a market system can regulate itself” was “utterly mistaken.”
Politically, the collapse of Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s policies now demanded post-American alternatives. The very quest for an economic concept that would defy American scholarship, regulation and political conduct was now part of an unfolding mutiny against all things American.
Geopolitically, the meltdown challenged America’s leadership of the global economy ever since 1944, when Washington made representatives from 44 countries create at Bretton Woods the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the gold standard.
Lastly, the arrival of Donald Trump at America’s helm eight years after the meltdown, and his conduct once there, further enhanced the impression that the American Century has ended.
The eulogies are premature.
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THE AMERICAN CENTURY was announced in a seminal 1941 essay by that name in which journalist and publisher Henry Luce (1898-1967) prodded the US to join the young war on Nazism, not for conventional geopolitical reasons, but because fascism – which had yet to attack the US – was challenging the ideas and values that the US was destined to spread.
The 20th century – argued the founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines – will be American because the US had already become “the intellectual, scientific, and artistic capital of the world.”
It was one of the most insightful, daring, and vindicated theses ever made in the history of journalism.
Anyone who lived last century will agree that America’s delivery of its civilizational fixtures – from the motorcar, the airplane, the personal computer, and the spaceship to the conveyor belt, the motion picture, the rock concert and the fast-food restaurant – made the era decisively American.
Moreover, what began with technological superiority and cultural inventiveness, and what was then bolstered by political defiance of both fascism and communism – was finally crowned by America’s decisive defeat of the Soviet Union and its ideology.
It was with this sense of triumph that Americans entered the current century, only to see their economic dominion challenged, their industrial leadership eclipsed and their moral mission defiled.
First, the meltdown cast doubts on America’s economic tenets.
Then came the many indications that American industry – like Britain’s at the dawn of the American Century – is being succeeded by a new power, in this case China.
With 27 years of double-digit growth since 1979, including 11 of more than 15%, and one – 1984, of all dates – when it grew by 19.5%, it became clear that China was challenging the American economy and manufacturing like no authoritarian power ever did.
Now, with the US economy having grown so far this decade by roughly 25% while China’s grew by more than 60%, and with China’s gross domestic product fast approaching America’s and already more than the combined products of Japan, Germany and Britain – the American Century is challenged not only in terms of economic thought but also in terms of industrial output.
It was against this already perplexing backdrop that Trump barged onto the scene, making some suspect he represents not the American Century’s twilight but the darkness that followed its dusk.
What the September 11 attacks did to America’s geopolitical hegemony; what the 2008 financial crisis did to America’s economic hegemony; and what the rise of China did to America’s industrial hegemony – Trump has been doing to America’s moral hegemony.
The 45th US president’s habitual cockfights with the judiciary, the press, the legislature and America’s allies hammer at the values that drove the American Century, and the patriotism that inspired Henry Luce when he wrote its manifesto. An America whose leader speaks abusively about minorities, women and neighbors cannot purport to lead a superpower with moral pretensions.
And yet, the American Century is not over.
INTERNALLY, unlike their president, the American people remain committed to the ideals he has been compromising. Whatever the timing and circumstances of his departure, America’s convictions will surely outlive Trump’s presidency.
Externally, the American Century was never about domination. It was about inspiration. That is why the rise of rival economies is not about the decline of the American nation, but about the success of its ideals, in this case free markets and hard work.
Yet, more than anything else, the American Century was about a concept China lacks, fears and actively fights: freedom; freedom in its most elemental senses – freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of the human spirit.
That is why the Asian giant managed to create a culture of production but not a culture of creation.
The same goes for Japan, which excelled at perfecting and mass producing but did not invent any major fixture of our life, having remained a regimented society, despite its embrace of political democracy.
What made America dominate its century was not its mass production of Westinghouse light bulbs, Kodak Instamatics and Parker ballpoint pens, but its having invented them, and Americans invented more than everyone else because they were truly free, and because they shared a quest to improve the world.
“Other nations can survive simply because they have endured so long,” wrote Luce. The American nation, however, “cannot truly endure unless there courses strongly through its veins, from Maine to California, the blood of purpose and enterprise and high resolve.”
Bruised, challenged, and bleeding, that sense of historic purpose – “conceived in adventure and dedicated to the progress of man” – is nonetheless still there.(Last in a three-part series on the 2008 meltdown’s anniversary)
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