Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The Incomplete American Century

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The Incomplete American Century

Article excerpt

Roberto Rabel reflects on the American experience during the twentieth century and suggests that Americans need to avoid a preference for smorgasbord internationalism.

Henry Luce first popularised the notion of an `American Century' in a famous editorial of 17 February 1941. Writing in his own Life magazine, the prominent American publisher argued that `the 20th Century must to a significant degree be an American Century' -- but only if his fellow Americans were prepared to assume the manifold responsibilities of global leadership. Six decades on, Luce's hope that the American people would rise to the challenge outlined in his article appears amply vindicated. Of all the world's nations, the United States is entering the twenty-first century on a high note, both internationally and domestically.

The United States currently holds a unique status within the international order. It is the world's sole super-power and only state capable of projecting significant military power on a global scale. Its national economy is the world's largest -- as it has been throughout the twentieth century -- and it remains the single most influential actor in the international financial and trading systems. Bolstering its military and economic prowess, there is a greater concentration of scientific and technological expertise to be found within the United States than in any other nation.

American international influence is equally formidable in the less tangible realm of `soft power'. American popular culture is the pervasive global culture -- and has been for some time. (Already in 1941, Luce observed that `American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products, are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common.') Moreover, the political commitment of the United States to foster liberal democracy, individual human rights and national self-determination has arguably helped ensure that more people today have some voice over how they are governed than at any other time in history.

The United States is still far from exercising the hegemony in world affairs suggested by some of its critics. But it is clearly the single most influential nation on the globe militarily, economically, culturally, politically and technologically. It is this conjunction of strengths, unique in modern history, which allows the Clinton administration to assert that the United States is the `indispensable' nation whenever concerted global action is required. (The Kosovo crisis was the most recent example of the force of this axiom.)

The century has ended well for the American people on the domestic front too. Since 1992, they have been basking in the longest unbroken period of economic expansion in the country's history. American unemployment rates are the envy of most European nations and have even fallen below those of Japan. Economic growth rates in recent -- years achieved without triggering high inflation -- have repeatedly surprised pundits, as has the buoyant stock market.

Relative harmony

Prosperous times have brought relative social and political harmony. Crime statistics, for example, have improved markedly. Moreover, while absorbing more immigrants since 1980 than any other developed nation, the continual broadening of the already diverse American ethnic and racial mix has generated fewer social tensions than might have been expected. Indeed, given its often chequered record in this respect, the United States is a more vibrantly successful multi-cultural society than ever before in its history and has even been described as the world's first `universal nation'. As in all countries, politicians continue to bicker; but it is a measure of the limited ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans that their most bitter battle of the past few years centred on a president's sexual indiscretions rather than substantive policy differences. …

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