The American Century is over. The country no longer wants to be tied down by the principles and laws of international relations that we helped create. America is tired of managing the system of global governance created after the allied victory in World War II. Most importantly, America has given up on being the leader of the world that it worked so hard to make free. Like other great empires of history, the cost of maintaining control of the over the international system has proven to be too much. Unlike those empires, it has been the cultural and political rather than economic costs that have led to the end of the American Century.
In February 1941 Henry Luce, the creator of Time magazine, published an article entitled “The American Century.” In it he argued that America was facing a great decision: should the country lead the war against fascism despite not being directly threatened by it? It was a turning point in the history of American foreign-policy because in one succinct argument Luce explained why the United States had to give up its historical attachment to isolationism and instead embrace its destiny as the leader of the free world. This was a moment that the United States had begun preparing for three decades earlier. The foundations of a New World Order were created at the end of the First World War by American president Woodrow Wilson and his new liberal internationalism. His “Fourteen Points” speech established principles such as the promotion of diplomacy, respect for international law, and the right of self-determination over the realpolitik of European states that had led to the “war to end all wars.”. Victory in World War II convinced America and the world of the righteousness of these principles leading to the creation of a system of international organizations to protect and promote them. American leadership of this new system meant including the additional ideals of democracy, free trade, and respect for human rights. And there was no greater symbol of American leadership or the new system than creation of the United Nations. It was through the UN, from the Security Council and International Court of Justice to UNICEF and the WTO, that the entire world would benefit from the new American Century. It was a unique time in human history, but not because of the country’s astounding economic growth or its prominent role in the defeat of Hitler and fascism. It was the American Century because the country had committed itself to helping the rest of the world fashion their own versions of the American dream.
At the end of World War II the United States was the most powerful country the world had ever seen. It possessed conventional military power that rivaled all except the Soviet Union, and with the invention of the atom bomb the country was able to surpass even Stalin’s military might. There may have been a growing threat of international communism, but most of the world would soon be free from the grips of colonialism and imperialism. And so, the United States set about creating a system that would offer the newly liberated opportunities for democracy and prosperity. Despite those efforts a new and potentially more destructive Cold War broke out. Within five years of America’s rise to dominance the Soviet Union tested their own nuclear weapon and China, the most populous country on earth and an ally of the United States throughout WW II, was taken over by a communist regime. America’s leadership of the postwar world would not come without challenge. But as has often been the case in American history, victory in conflict reinforces the guiding principles that cause Americans to want to fight and lead in the first place. Just as the defeat of Nazism became the genesis of America’s desire to lead the world, the eventual defeat of the Soviets in the Cold War justified that leadership.
No leader is perfect, and the mark of a great leader is to never forget that. America made some truly terrible mistakes during the Cold War. From the Vietnam War to supporting coups against unfriendly regimes around the world, US leadership was often as flawed by ideology and miscalculation as the Soviets. The difference between the two was America’s goal of promoting liberty and economic opportunity for all the world’s citizens. It was the allure of American idealism combined with its cultural, economic, and political vibrancy that convinced most observers that the end justified the means. And when victory in the Cold War did come America was ready to celebrate by enjoying the peace dividend that so many had worked and died for. It was not just that the country would be able to transition billions of dollars from military to social programs creating room for new intellectual and technological growth. People around the world believed that the end of the Cold War marked a new age of democracy, free trade, and global peace. All of this would be accomplished through American leadership and vision using the international system of governance which had continued to evolve throughout the Cold War.
The pinnacle achievement of America’s leadership of the new system of multilateralism was the 1991 Gulf War and liberation of Kuwait. It represented a coming together of American power, the fruits of its leadership of the free world, and a global commitment to do things differently than the past. Instead of war prone alliances or a world divided by the US-Soviet rivalry, global peace would be pursued through coalitions of the willing committed to stopping aggression and despotism. The consistent reliance on UN resolutions indicated to many that a renewed emphasis on international law would be used by the strong to protect the weak. Cooperation from countries across the political spectrum was a key symbol of the new political order and international relations. And most importantly, US leadership of the effort gave the concept of collective security legitimacy over previous attempts to establish lasting global peace. When considered in relation to America’s dominance of the new technological battlefield and the decisive victory it had produced, there seemed no doubt that a new age of peace and prosperity were on the horizon. Unfortunately, America and the rest of the world had each begun to question whether the New World Order was best for their individual self-interests. And the rise of these new divisions, combined with the development of international terrorism and religious extremism, helped accelerate the decline and fall of American leadership we are witnessing today.
Academics argue that empires decline and fall through some combination of three causes: increasing costs of maintaining territory/control, cultural decline, and political fragmentation. Compared to previous empires like the Romans and the British, the United States developed a uniquely different relationship with the system it came to dominate. Rather than physically controlling other states or collections of territories, the United States developed an interrelated system of political and economic organizations through which it sought to influence rather than force compliance. The result was that US leadership was not resisted by other states in the same way that empires of antiquity were. American hegemony was further strengthened by its geographic isolation and its abundance of natural resources. This allowed the United States to adopt a policy of selective engagement, getting involved in international affairs only when it related to American national interests. And the entire system seemed to be working as long as America’s national interests continued to coincide with those of the global community. But even before victory in the Persian Gulf there were dark clouds obscuring the peace and prosperity that many were hoping was just over the horizon.
The Gulf War was the shining example of how US leadership and the new system it had built would work to promote world peace. If the US was willing to intervene against aggression and inhumanity through cooperative efforts such as UN peacekeeping the potential of the New World Order could be realized. Unfortunately, events such as the Bosnian War and the failed peacekeeping operation in Somalia all but eliminated public support for the type of direct US leadership of collective security that had made the Persian Gulf War such an overwhelming victory. During the 1990’s the UN became the focal point of more aggressive efforts to engage global problems in the areas of human rights, environmentalism, and economic inequality. Many of these efforts were the direct result of a post-Cold War US focus on the promotion of democracy, respect for human rights and international law, and protection of free trade. During the same time however, Americans voters started becoming more conservative, especially as it related to international relations. There were increasingly loud voices in domestic politics that questioned the international economic system, the existence of global warming, and even the need for the United Nations itself. Combined with latent attachments to isolationism and increasing self-sufficiency the United States was growing less concerned with ‘being the world’s policeman’. And then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed everything.
Initially the US response to the 9/11 attacks seemed to be a catalyst for reinvigorating its role of international leadership. But it quickly became apparent that the America was going to ignore and potentially even overturn many of the principles that had become the foundation of international relations. The country was willing to violate key tenets of human rights and international law if it meant being able to extract revenge from Al Qaeda and its supporters. The ‘extraordinary renditions program’, waterboarding, and the illegal surveillance of its own citizens were proof to many that the United States was ignoring the rules that it had for decades compelled the rest of the international community to adhere to. While the success of the First Gulf War had been evidence of the power and promise of US leadership, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was proof that America had forsaken multilateralism for self-interested unilateralism. More ominously, the country had adopted a Manichaean “you’re either with us, or against us” approach to international relations that saw security as the primary issue of focus for the global community. On the one hand the United States and its close allies were fully committed to confronting the new aggression of religious extremism. On the other, the humanitarian and legal pillars of the system the United States had worked so hard to build were now being undermined by its own policies and behaviors. America was growing less concerned with environmentalism, more willing to work with rogues and pariahs using the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ philosophy, all the while ignoring the rise of humanitarian issues around the world. And as the War on Terror now nears the end of its second decade even America’s will to continue a proactive and comprehensive fight against extremist terrorism seems to be waning.
Donald Trump is not responsible for the end of the American Century. He has however overseen an acceleration towards the finish line by exaggerating aspects of cultural decline and political fragmentation within the country. He did not create the long-standing culture of isolationism within the United States. But his abuse of xenophobic and nationalistic rhetoric has reawakened the notion for many Americans that the rest of the world needs us much more than we need them. Divisions between conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, and even different ethnic groups have existed in the country since its birth. But as the most important political figure in the United States and the leader of the free world present Trump has gone out of his way to widen these political divides. The result is that the country has chosen a path of ‘America first’ which from a variety of different international perspectives is increasingly being interpreted as ‘only America’.
Across every component of the international system US leadership or participation has been withdrawn from key agreements and treaties. More alarmingly, many of these reversals have yet to be replaced by alternatives of any kind. So, while some in the country celebrated the US withdrawal from the transpacific partnership, the reality is that the organization has since moved forward opening the door for China to become the primary economic power in Southeast Asia. Similarly, the president’s constant bickering with NATO may be the final impetus needed for Europe to begin developing their own independent security infrastructure. Despite attacks against previous nonproliferation efforts towards both Iran and North Korea, there continues to be little real progress in developing new frameworks for disarmament in either case. Early administration promises notwithstanding, the overall situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate as wars in Yemen and Syria continue to drag on. There are clear indications that rather than being defeated, religious extremism has fragmented and metastasized across both the African and South Asian regions. And yet American public support for globalism and management of the international system in general has declined so dramatically that there seems to be little concern about any of these issues as long as they are taking place anywhere else but the United States. President Ronald Reagan once spoke of America as “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom loving people everywhere.” The power of the sentiment was that not only did it highlight the American belief in its own ideals, it captured the world’s acceptance of American leadership as recognition of the righteousness of those ideals. As the American Century ends, we must now consider that the shining city has been replaced by a towering fortress intended to protect rather than project the beacon of American nobility. Moving forward America will continue to be confronted by a global need for direction and leadership, but will also be less and less convinced that providing that leadership is its own best interest.