Middle Israel: Is the American century over?

2812-middle (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Having finally won the grueling presidential race of 2000, George W. Bush took to the podium and waxed poetic: "Through much of the last century," he said in his inaugural address, "America's faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea; now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations. Our democratic faith is more than the creed of our country, it is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along." Even 225 years on, concluded Bush, "we have a long way yet to travel." That, of course, was then. Now the way to travel seems so much longer, and the waves surrounding that rock so much taller, as defiance of America's global leadership has become increasingly common, brazen and foreboding. In his essay "To Open a Millennium," written during the few months that separated the September 11 attacks from his own death, Harvard scientist Stephen J. Gould argued that just like the 20th century began not in 1900 or 1901, but the morning after World War I, so the third millennium began the morning after 9/11. Now, viewed from December 31, 2007, and considering that the 20th century has been universally named the American Century, there is reason to suspect that what launched the third millennium has also sealed the American Century. Has it? ON THE face of it, 2007 was a relatively nondescript year. It had its normal portion of deceased celebrities, from Boris Yeltsin and Gerald Ford to Jerry Falwell and Art Buchwald; it had its usual crop of sports dramas, from the Colts' first championship to the Red Sox' second; and it had its fair share of natural disasters, from cyclones that killed a thousand Bangladeshis and a mud volcano that displaced 10,000 Indonesians to an earthquake that killed 500 Peruvians and wildfires that scorched much of Peloponnesian Greece. Yet sad, uplifting and tragic as such events are - they happen every year. What doesn't happen every year, or even every decade, is the visible decline of an empire, the kind last seen in Russia a generation ago and in Great Britain and France some two generations earlier. In 2007, as the Bush presidency approached its end, there were more and more reasons to wonder whether the US isn't heading the same way. As if somehow coordinated, America's geopolitical pretensions, lofty ideals and financial pillars came under disparate attacks that collectively rendered obsolete the spirit of Bush's inaugural speech. Back then, well before the 9/11 attacks, Bush, the American people and indeed the entire world were convinced that America's victory in the Cold War meant it would rule, certainly inspire, the world for at least another generation, probably much more. For its part, the US basked in its role as emancipator of the world, eager, as Bush put it, to pass the trust along. The attacks it endured in September 2001 only intensified this attitude, as America set out to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan, and hopefully also more of what lies between and around them. Add to that the new friendliness America found in China, Russia and India, and you get the pervasive sense that even after 9/11 a Pax Americana was not only feasible and desirable but also probable. In 2007 this optimism has suffered some diplomatic, ideological and economic setbacks. MOST GLARINGLY, the world has been steadily turning its back on the American war effort, albeit with varying degrees of tactlessness. What began before 2007 with West European departures from the American-led coalition following the electoral defeats of Bush's Italian and Spanish allies, this year spilled deeper into his coalition, with the changes of government in Britain, Australia and Poland. True, this trend reflects primarily the state of the war, which has lasted longer and proved more costly than originally predicted, yet it also reflects the steady devaluation of America's geopolitical currency. That is also what emerged in India this year, when Bush saw a nuclear deal he had struck with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summarily rejected and dumped by Singh's coalition partners. To them, the deal that was to legitimize India's nuclear arms and admit it to global nuclear energy markets would nonetheless have compromised India's sovereignty. They therefore threatened to unseat Singh, who in turn preferred surrendering to them than to Bush. In 2007, this was in line with the zeitgeist; people lost respect for America. America's allies, both veteran and recent, remained understated in the doubts they increasingly harbored concerning America's leadership. Uncle Sam's rivals had less compunctions. Russia turned down American pleas that it finally turn its back on Iran. China was even cooler, and at the same time intensified its involvement in Africa, making no secret of its quasi-imperial designs on a continent where it can present itself to local rulers as a power on the scale of America, only with no ideological strings attached. And back in Asia, Russia and China collected an assortment of Central Asian republics for unprecedented joint military maneuvers from which they loudly excluded America, declaring that the region's security should remain the exclusive business of its residents - euphemism for: "America is far and declining, we are here and rising." As if to pepper this already rich anti-American salad, the organizers made sure to invite Iranian observers, who of course happily accepted. The slight to America has also been ideological. In Russia, what was so recently celebrated as a new democratic dawn has effectively emerged as an autocracy where practicing free speech can be hazardous for one's health. Between this and China's already well-established grafting of economic freedom with political oppression, one can only recall nostalgically the original American belief that the defeat of the communist system of government was synonymous with the victory of the Western system of thought. China of 2007 has been home to five of the world's most valuable companies, including Petro-China, the world's first trillion-dollar company, while human rights groups charged Beijing with executing annually 10,000 to 15,000 people, more than the rest of the world put together. Add to these the authoritarianism that has emerged across post-communist Central Asia and you get billions for whom the Western experience of freedom will for now remain not much closer than the moon. The setbacks to America's messianic diplomacy have been ubiquitous. In the Middle East it started dialoguing with Iran, and in Burma it watched helplessly as street demonstrations against a dictatorship failed for the first time anywhere since the 1989 revolutions. Westerners, who had grown accustomed to seeing secretary-generals, generalissimos and presidents-for-life vanish in the face of popular dissent, were now surprised to see that the momentum had been lost. The Burmese generals made some token concessions, but otherwise killed protesters with impunity, reportedly jailed thousands and ultimately clung to power, ignoring Washington as it cried wolf. In Pakistan, America's ally General Pervez Musharraf was trampling in broad daylight all that Washington holds sacred, as he clashed with the judiciary, imposed emergency rule and suspended the democratic process. Needless to say that in 2007 the anti-American bravados of Hugo Chavez were trumpeted with redoubled volume and audacity across Latin America, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sounded his in Manhattan's Morningside Heights. Sniffing the lion's weakness, the hyenas were smacking their lips. Naturally, hovering above all this was the fundamentalist scourge. In Afghanistan, the Taliban returned with a vengeance, reclaiming lost turf and spreading deep into neighboring Pakistan, where it is now well camped in the northwest. And in our own backyard, Hamas has made a laughingstock - and minced meat - of America's allies as it wrested Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas. FITTINGLY, AMERICA'S geopolitical and ideological setbacks were compounded with financial tempest. With prices of wheat, oil and gold along with a slew of other commodities soaring to multi-annual highs, economists agree that 2007 has been a pivotal year, and not for the better. The turmoil in the commodity markets did not begin this year, but it took a new turn, as what had begun as a response to unprecedented energy demand in rapidly growing India and China was soon compounded with grain prices getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle of increased demand for processed food in Asia, rising demand for alternative fuel in the West and declining outputs due to poor weather in Australia, Argentina and Ukraine. And so, by the end of 2007 grain prices were nearly 10 times their level seven years earlier. Meanwhile, the more the Iraq war demanded taxpayer money, the more it expanded American deficits, which in turn accelerated American borrowing and sharply depreciated the dollar. The dollar, which had already been bending under the weight of rapidly appreciating oil barrels, was now being dumped in currency markets even more feverishly, thus raising demand for precious metals, whose prices in turn rose to nearly three times their levels at the beginning of the decade. It was against this already grim backdrop that America's housing market entered a harsh crisis of its own, as it turned out that parts of its mortgage industry were lending recklessly to clients who soon proved incapable of paying back. The bankruptcy in April of New Century Financial, one of the major banks that were lending to unqualified borrowers at exorbitant interest rates, led to other bankruptcies as well as sharp declines in the stock prices of housing-related companies. Now, add this to the already frequent defiance of US diplomacy, and add the sum of these to the growing disrespect for the dollar, and you get some serious reason to suspect that during the Bush presidency the American empire has been steadily declining. The pretension to carry and bear those ideals and trust about which he spoke when he entered the White House were somehow robbed by Americans like those who seduced poor people to take mortgages they couldn't afford, or like those who sold a mental case the arms with which 32 students and teachers were massacred last April at Virginia Tech. Has, then, the American Century come to an end? THE AMERICAN Century has been more than a common metaphor. Coined by Henry Luce, founder of Time, Life and Fortune magazines, it was defined by him in winter 1941, with Hitler's first attacks already well under way, but with Pearl Harbor and even the invasion of Russia yet to come. In what became a remarkably emphatic call for American intervention in and leadership of the unfolding war, Luce defined its aim as moral, and prescribed America's role in it as part of its destiny. "We are not in a war to defend American territory," he wrote, "we are in a war to defend and even to promote, encourage and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world." Only America, he asserted, could define the war's aims, provided its people "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world," which means "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence." Isolationism's "lifeless arguments" made no sense, as America had already become "the intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world," and its music, films, slang, machines and patents "the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognized in common." America, concluded Luce, had already become the world's economic, technical, artistic and altruistic leader - "but all this is not enough." To be successful, its vision as a world power must include "a passionate devotion to American ideals," from freedom and justice to opportunity, self-reliance and charity. "It is in this spirit," he ended, "that all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American century." America concurred. It not only won World War II and the Cold War by knockouts, it fed the world with corn, wheat and meat, filled its air with jazz, rock and pop, entertained it with Hollywood, TV and the NBA. It dressed humanity casually in jeans, sneakers, T-shirts and sweatshirts, invented the automobile, airplane, spaghetti junction and shopping mall, and gave mankind the refrigerator, the computer and the jet airliner. Viewed this way, all eulogies of the nation that conquered the moon appear premature at best, even after 2007. First, to all its detractors' chagrin, in Iraq America turned the tide this year, as terror, guerrilla and sectarian violence sharply declined. True, there will be no Jeffersonian democracy in Mesopotamia anytime soon, and Bush's intention to swiftly end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 2008 will, in all likelihood, prove elusive. And yet, in 2007 the US helped shape a 21st-century Middle East that will be better than the previous century's, and will bear an American imprint, even in the absence of Spanish, Italian or Polish troops on the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates. And while Iran has not been pacified in 2007, North Korea has, as it forfeited its nuclear ambition, responding to the very kind of American resolve that Luce so eloquently demanded. Second, what market mayhem America has seen this year is nothing it hadn't seen previously, and successfully weathered. No one is better than America at detecting the markets' reprimands and satisfying their whims. In the late '70s, American inflation hit 12 percent and interest rates climbed to 20% as oil soared within seven years from $3 to $30 per barrel. Less than a decade on, all that had become prehistory; not because America is lucky, wild or arrogant, but because the freedom, enterprise and hard work it has historically admired have made it history's number one technological inventor and political crusader. This is also why what gains America's enemies and rivals may have registered in 2007 should not be taken out of proportion. During the first American century the US had not one moment when it had no enemy lurking somewhere beyond the horizon. First it was fascism, then communism, and now it is Islamism. The previous wars lasted decades, and this one has only been waged for six years. All attempts to judge its outcome at this early stage are either short-sighted or manipulative. To determine the state of the American Century in general, and the challenge to American leadership in particular, one criterion should precede all others: creation. In probing this, one will learn that 2007's great invention - the iPhone - is as American as Steve Jobs is Californian, and that the mass-consumed cultural creations of the year, from animated film Ratatouille to The Sopranos' last season were also not made in Russia or China, not to mention Iran, but in America. Even the great environmentalist alarm, Al Gore's, came from America. Not only did America continue to lead the world in originality, its self-styled successors remained shackled to one-dimensional economic engines. The Russians are addicting themselves to the extraction of commodities, which currently sell well but in the future will surely depreciate, as they always do. The Chinese have remained focused on the mass-production of other people's inventions. These, and both powers' encouragement of a consumerism that only yesterday was seen as anathema, surely signal the demise of Mao's and Lenin's legacies, but they still leave the post-communist powers light-years away from launching the first post-American century. That will only happen if they ever embrace not just America's appetites, but also its spirit, by producing their own versions of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Alva Edison, the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong, Lee Iacoca, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Henry Luce, too. Until then, stay tuned for the second American Century. www.MiddleIsrael.com