The American Ascendancy | The Nation


The American Ascendancy

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The turn of the millennium provided yet another occasion to celebrate a triumphant American Century. And given the unipolar pre-eminence and comprehensive economic advantage that the United States enjoys today, only a spoilsport can complain. Unemployment and inflation are both at thirty-year lows. The stock market remains strong, though volatile, and the monster federal budget deficit of a decade ago miraculously metamorphoses into a surplus that may soon reach more than $1 trillion. Meanwhile, President William Jefferson Clinton, not long after a humiliating impeachment, was rated in 1999 as the best of all postwar Presidents in conducting foreign policy (a dizzying ascent from eighth place in 1994), according to a nationwide poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. This surprising result might also, of course, bespeak inattention: When asked to name the two or three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States, fully 21 percent of the public couldn't think of one (they answered "don't know"), and a mere 7 percent thought foreign policy issues were important to the nation. But who cares, when all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds?

About the Author

Bruce Cumings
Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of North...

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If this intoxicating optimism is commonplace today, it would have seemed demented just a few short years ago: Back then, the scholars and popular pundits who are supposed to know the occult science of international affairs were full of dread about American decline and Japanese and German advance. The American Century looked like an unaccountably short one. Today it is disconcerting to recall the towering influence of work by "declinists" like Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers) and Clyde Prestowitz (Trading Places); it is positively embarrassing to read recent accounts like Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order and Donald White's The American Century, which still seem to assume an America on the road to ruin. Prestowitz thought Japan was ahead of the United States in nearly every important industry and argued that Japan was verging on hegemonic predominance in the world economy. Now it is difficult to find any American who takes Japan seriously--in 1990, 63 percent of foreign policy elites fretted about competition from Japan; that fell to 21 percent in 1994 and a mere 14 percent in 1998.

Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man had a different point to make: The end of the cold war marked the real millennial transition, leaving just one system standing--ours. Few could have imagined Fukuyama doing this through a reprise of the thought of Hegel--and perhaps least of all the great philosopher himself, who would roll over in his grave to see his dialectic grinding to a halt in the Valhalla of George Bush and Bill Clinton's philistine United States. But Fukuyama's argument had an unquestionable ingenuity, taking the thinker perhaps most alien to the pragmatic and unphilosophical American soul, Hegel, and using his thought to proclaim something quintessentially American: that the pot of gold at the end of History's rainbow is free-market liberalism. History just happened to culminate in the reigning orthodoxy of our era, the neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan.

The United States has such a comprehensive advantage in the world that it could occupy itself for a full year with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a year punctuated by the disastrous collapse of several of the world's important economies (South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia) and followed by a new war, and nothing happened except that the American economic lead lengthened. The stock market continued to go up in spite of the global financial crisis, which included a very expensive implosion of the Russian economy in August 1998; the market expanded all through the war in Kosovo. (More recently it appeared that the bull market might be coming to an end.) Economic growth in the last quarters of both 1998 and 1999 was so robust (6.1 and 6.9 percent, respectively) that in GNP terms it created a Spain overnight. This isn't to say that US diplomacy is winning friends and influencing people the world over, but so what? Former UN chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali put his finger on the deepest truth: "Like in Roman times," he said, the Americans "have no diplomacy; you don't need diplomacy if you are so powerful."

Let me try to isolate four elements that I think account for the American ascendancy today, each of which has little to do with preponderant military strength (even though the United States has that, too): mass consumption and mass culture, the advantages of a continent, an unappreciated aspect of American technological prowess and the longevity of the global system that American planners established after World War II, a system that was long obscured by cold war obsessions.

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