The American Century: An Obituary
It's difficult to pinpoint precisely when 'The American Century' died, but close observers place its passing somewhere between the 9th and 16th of July, 2018 after a long Illness. Cause of death has been tentatively listed as complications due to 'heart failure.'
Born in 1941, it was christened by Time/Life media founder Henry Luce just as the United States was emerging from a Depression decade marked by isolationism and severe economic hardship, and mere months before the nation would be plunged into the Second World War. The fresh and timely concept was quickly adopted, for better or worse, by key architects of the coming transformation of America's postwar foreign policy into one of internationalism, intervention and global leadership.
Reflecting the optimistic side of a victorious and expanding middle-class society, 'The American Century' grew to express a strong belief in sharing the benefits and bounty of a booming domestic economy along with the energetic promotion of democratic-capitalist ideology abroad. Despite debilitating setbacks and growing pains in the late 1960's and 1970's as a consequence of deep racial conflicts at home and the country's failed policies in Southeast Asia, belief in the concept rebounded strongly in the 1980's and 1990's, particularly during the nation's brief appearance as sole global hegemon following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The 9/11 terrorist attack on the homeland, however, coupled with disastrous and inconclusive interventions abroad and a serious economic debacle in the early decades of the twenty-first century drained its reserves, leaving it much more vulnerable than many knew to the next new contagion that might come along.
Ironically, it came from within in the guise of a surprisingly virulent campaign to "Make America Great Again," against which the national immune system proved ineffective.
Injecting his own alternative and highly distorted image of both the postwar world and American values into the political system--and in the service of his own much narrower and darker nationalist vision-- once in power Donald Trump moved rapidly and effectively to devalue, undermine and ultimately erase the very policies Luce and generations of Western leaders had spent decades putting in place to stabilize a troubled world.
In rolling back America's leadership in promoting worldwide democracy, erecting barriers to free trade and blocking the easy movement of goods, ideas and people across boundaries, while demeaning and demonizing allies and carefully-constructed institutions like NATO and the EU, Trump offered in their place only a world of competition, conflict, contention--and often chaos.
If Luce's "Century" represented an overly optimistic missionary American spirit, at times blind to its own failings, Trump's stands for its opposite, one which is fearful, suspicious of others, anxiously hoarding its own resources, and hostile to realities which might challenge its own preconceptions. Rather than celebrating the vitality of America's political norms and the nation's ideals of inclusion, equality and opportunity--even when imperfectly achieved--Trump celebrates their disruption, while actively generating and directing lingering public resentments and fears against minorities, foreigners and real or imagined enemy elements.
Almost certainly the final blow came with the President's public attacks on old allies and key national and international institutions while embracing and endorsing old foes.
When the sad call came from Helsinki this week, it only confirmed what many had already feared. The decedent's last words were not officially recorded but observers reported hearing a disbelieving gasp: "Server? What server....? It was noted that a Do Not Resuscitate order was in effect.
Emeritus Professor of History
Sonoma State University
July 16, 2018