Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The United States at a Turning Point

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The United States at a Turning Point

Article excerpt

Denis McLean provides some observations of American altitudes and approaches to the world in the post-Cold War era.

What's going on in the United States? Mark Twain was once faced with a similar impossible question. He reported, `I was pleased to be able to answer and to do so at once. I said I didn't know'.

Living in the United States is like setting up your tent in the middle of a three-ring circus. Numerous high-wire acts, more or less successful attempts at wild animal taming, juggling and acrobatic displays are all going on at one and the same time. And, of course, there are always plenty of clowns wandering about.

Most Americans will freely confess to not understanding what is happening. Foreigners must try harder. We all know about the amazing diversity, of the country, its wealth, bountiful resources and vastness of scale, the titanic, almost inevitable clashes of interest. It is also necessary to take account of the deliberate in-built absence of decisiveness in the political process and the way the amazing bear-pit which is Washington operates as a place apart from the rest of the country. Then there are the continuing struggles for power between the states and the federal government, regional differences, the role of an astonishingly voracious media, and so on. What many outsiders overlook is the slow constitutional grind which provides that the most profound issues of human life, death and society will eventually be played out before nine men and women in black gowns who constitute that awesome body, the US Supreme Court.

There is no generalising about the United States. Even an attempt like this one to pick out some main themes is dangerous. So I begin with a warning -- in the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, `I will give you a definite maybe'.

Resisting the temptation to leap at once into the Bill and Monica story -- the sad tale of the lingering death of a Presidency -- I will deal first with the economic scene, before touching on politics and foreign and strategic policies. All feed into one another.

Why is the US economy riding so high? Even those who argue that it may also be riding for a fall start by accepting that current economic indicators are astonishing. Job creation is at an all-time high, unemployment hovers just above 4.59 per cent, inflation is barely discernible, the stock market keeps on bounding back and surging upward after setbacks, and US dominance in the key modern industries -- telecommunications, computers and information technology, energy and aviation -- is beyond dispute. GDP is growing at over 4 per cent; exports are up and interest rates down. Lest this is regarded merely as a financial frenzy, a sort of new South Pacific Bubble, it should be noted that the Dow Jones Industrial average has doubled and then redoubled in the past six years. American corporate interests are hugely diversified around the world and therefore the better able to capitalise on market opportunities as they arise and to adjust to trading difficulties. American research and development expenditure hugely outstrips that in competitor nations. There is a new spirit of entrepreneurship abroad. It was disconcerting to read of the swift fortunes made by comparatively young people in the various, rapidly multiplying sub-sets of the computer/information technology industries. And this is not all a California phenomenon. Staid old Boston is now one of the world's major financial centres and is also the Silicon Valley of the east.

Principal bulwark

Of course, booms do not last. There are many who doubt that the United States can ride out the complex economic tsunami now sloshing around the world. But for the present, US economic performance, so derided only a few years ago in the face of the German and Japanese miracles, is a principal bulwark against deeper trouble.

The central point is that economic confidence underpins domestic and foreign policies. …

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