The American Century Is Over—Good Riddance
By Andrew J. Bacevich
As someone who teaches both history and international relations, I have one foot in each camp. I’m interested in what has already happened. And I’m interested in what will happen next. In my teaching and my writing, I try to locate connecting tissue that links past to present. Among the devices I’ve employed to do that is the concept of an “American Century.”
That evocative phrase entered the American lexicon back in February 1941, the title of an essay appearing in Life magazine under the byline of the publishing mogul Henry Luce. In advancing the case for U.S. entry into World War II, the essay made quite a splash, as Luce intended. Yet the rush of events soon transformed “American Century” into much more than a bit of journalistic ephemera. It became a summons, an aspiration, a claim, a calling, and ultimately the shorthand identifier attached to an entire era. By the time World War II ended in 1945, the United States had indeed ascended—as Luce had forecast and perhaps as fate had intended all along—to a position of global primacy. Here was the American Century made manifest.
I love Luce’s essay. I love its preposterous grandiosity. I delight in Luce’s utter certainty that what we have is what they want, need, and, by gum, are going to get. “What can we say and foresee about an American Century?” he asks. “It must be a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills.” I love, too, the way Luce guilelessly conjoins politics and religion, the son of Protestant missionaries depicting the United States as the Redeemer Nation. “We must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world.” How to do that? To Luce it was quite simple. He pronounced it America’s duty “as the most powerful and vital nation in the world … to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Would God or Providence have it any other way?
Luce’s essay manages to be utterly ludicrous and yet deeply moving. Above all, this canonical assertion of singularity—identifying God’s new Chosen People—is profoundly American. (Of course, I love Life in general. Everyone has a vice. Mine is collecting old copies of Luce’s most imaginative and influential creation—and, yes, my collection includes the issue of February 17, 1941.)
Alas, the bracing future that Luce confidently foresaw back in 1941 has in our own day slipped into the past. If an American Century ever did exist, it’s now ended. History is moving on—although thus far most Americans appear loath to concede that fact.
Historians should be the first to acknowledge the difficulty of identifying historical turning points. In the spring of 2003, around the time U.S. troops were occupying Saddam Hussein’s various palaces, President George W. Bush felt certain he’d engineered one. More than a few otherwise-sober observers agreed. But “Mission Accomplished” turned out to be “Mission Just Begun.” Those who celebrated the march on Baghdad as a world-altering feat of arms ended up with egg on their faces.
Still, I’m willing to bet that future generations will look back on the period between 2006 and 2008 as the real turning point. Here was the moment when what remained of the American Century ran out of steam and ground to a halt. More specifically, when Bush gave up on victory in Iraq (thereby abandoning expectations of U.S. military power transforming the Greater Middle East) and when the Great Recession brought the U.S. economy to its knees (the consequences of habitual profligacy coming home to roost), Luce’s formulation lost any resemblance to reality.
Politicians insist otherwise, of course. Has the American Century breathed its last? Mitt Romney, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, leaves no room for doubt where he stands on the matter:
I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world. … This is America’s moment. We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America’s time has passed. That is utter nonsense.
Foremost among those waving that white flag of surrender, according to Romney, is President Barack Obama. Yet Obama’s expressed views align closely with those of his would-be challenger. “America is back,” the president declared during his recent State of the Union address. “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
As with most contemporary political speeches, this qualifies as pure malarkey. Among the conjurers of imperial dreams in Washington, the American Century might live on. In places like Newark or Cleveland or Detroit, where real people live, it’s finished.
As a member of the historical fraternity, count me among those more than content to consign the American Century to the past. After all, what’s past becomes our turf—precisely where the American Century ought to be. Exploration of that myth-enshrouded territory has barely begun. Grasping what this era actually signified and what it yielded promises to be an exciting enterprise, one that may leave the reputations of heroes like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan a bit worse for wear.
From the jaded, not to say cynical, observer of international politics, the passing of the American Century elicits a more ambivalent response. I’d like to believe that the United States will accept the outcome gracefully. Rather than attempting to resurrect Luce’s expansive vision, I’d prefer to see American policy makers attend to the looming challenges of multipolarity. Averting the serial catastrophes that befell the planet starting just about 100 years ago, when the previous multipolar order began to implode, should keep them busy enough.
But I suspect that’s not going to happen. The would-be masters of the universe orbiting around the likes of Romney and Obama won’t be content to play such a modest role. With the likes of Robert Kagan as their guide—”It’s a wonderful world order,” he writes in his new book, The World America Made (Knopf)—they will continue to peddle the fiction that with the right cast of characters running Washington, history will once again march to America’s drumbeat. Evidence to support such expectations is exceedingly scarce—taken a look at Iraq lately?—but no matter. Insiders and would-be insiders will insist that, right in their hip pocket, they’ve got the necessary strategy.
Strategy is a quintessential American Century word, ostensibly connoting knowingness and sophistication. Whether working in the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon, strategists promote the notion that they can anticipate the future and manage its course. Yet the actual events of the American Century belie any such claim. Remember when Afghanistan signified victory over the Soviet empire? Today, the genius of empowering the mujahedin seems less than self-evident.
Strategy is actually a fraud perpetrated by those who covet power and are intent on concealing from the plain folk the fact that the people in charge are flying blind. With only occasional exceptions, the craft of strategy was a blight on the American Century.
What does the passing of the American Century hold? To answer that question, inquisitive students of international relations might turn for instruction to television commercials now being aired by Allstate Insurance. The ads feature a character called Mayhem, who unbeknownst to you, hangs onto the side of your car or perches on your rooftop concocting mischief. The message is clear. Be alert: Mayhem is always lurking in your path.
Throughout the American Century, Mayhem mocked U.S. strategic pretensions. His agents infiltrated the National Security Council, sowing falsehoods. Mayhem whispered in the ear of whoever happened to occupy the Oval Office. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff met in the “Tank,” he had a seat at the table. Mayhem freely roamed the halls of the Capitol (although Congressional dysfunction of our own day may have rendered such efforts redundant).
Having learned nothing from the American Century, present-day strategists—the ones keen to bomb Iran, confront China, and seize control of outer space as the “ultimate high ground”—will continue the practice of doing Mayhem’s bidding. As usual, the rest of us will be left to cope with the havoc that results, albeit this time without the vast reserves of wealth and power that once made an American Century appear plausible. Brace yourself.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is editor of The Short American Century: A Postmortem, just published by Harvard University Press.