The United States in the 21st Century

By Trachtenberg, Stephen Joel | The World and I, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The United States in the 21st Century


Trachtenberg, Stephen Joel, The World and I


Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president and professor of public administration at George Washington University.

As it enters the third millennium, the United States--while on its way to becoming a nation of 300 million people--has grown used to hearing itself described as the world's only remaining superpower. The role that such status brings with it--the role of being the world's policeman--is one with which the citizens of the United States are presently wrestling. Americans are deeply divided as to whether a role requiring global interventions of every imaginable kind is one that even a country as powerful as the United States can play.

Inner division of this kind becomes apparent each time there is a world emergency of some kind--especially when the emergency involves refugees or violations of human rights in a distant and preferably "primitive" setting. Only hours are needed, it seems, before those demanding immediate intervention by the American armed forces confront fellow Americans with the opposite point of view: those who are convinced that interventionism is a symptom of moral and national decline.

Emergencies of this kind summon up, in a powerful way, several different strands of the American national character and history:

* The desire to serve the world as a force of enlightenment and righteousness. The cynicism induced by the wars of the twentieth century--World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War--has veiled but not eliminated the emotional conviction that America has been destined by God Himself to serve as a global savior. Such feelings have flowed into historical phenomena as varied as abolitionism (the ideological war against slavery), prohibition (the war against alcohol), as well as all the "reform" efforts that have created modern trade unionism, citizens' groups crusading on behalf of our natural environment, and all kinds of groups seeking to further humanitarian and peacemaking causes in a host of foreign countries.

* The conviction that the American sense of human rights, as incorporated in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, is destined for acceptance by the entire human species. One has to return to ancient Rome or to Baroque Spain and France to discover such gut feelings of a God-given destiny. Americans have always been averse to thundering displays of military power such as were commonplace in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union. This does not lead them, however, to feel other than righteous indignation when a foreign regime displays obnoxious and aggressive military tendencies. When misbehavior becomes a habit in some foreign setting, Americans move reflexively into the position that "there must be something we can do." It may be enough for the American delegate to protest at the United Nations. Or sentiment may reach a higher pitch and nudge the American president toward actual, physical war.

* The sense of utopian perfectibility. Americans often marvel at the fact that there are people in other nations who don't see themselves as on a "march to perfection." Meanwhile, many foreigners find the United States an exhausting place to live because every American--every businessperson, every government employee, every academician, and so forth--seems dedicated to doing his job even better. The notion that life is a quest for perfection can be traced back to some of the Protestant sects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who, in their own time, were called "Enthusiastics." For an American, to be glowing with a divine radiance while one is "advertising" one's product is just "the obvious way to be."

As Alexis de Tocqueville noted long ago, Americans never tire of forming voluntary citizens' associations aiming to make ours a better world. The spirit of this effort, as of so much American life, is religious and evangelistic. No nation in history has ever spent as much time, effort, and money to toot its own horn as has the nation called the United States. …

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