This was the first spectacular failure of American leadership that marked the 20th century. It was out of the ensuing chaos, by the 1930s that emerged the aggressive coalition featuring Imperial Japan, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. And yet in February 1941 when the owner of Time magazine, Henry Luce sat down to write his famous article announcing the promise of an American century, his country was still on the sidelines. Luce was appealing desperately for action, not describing a reality. American industry was growing fat on war deliveries to Britain. Washington stood ready to inherit global power. America’s people hoped for the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But they were not in the war and preferred not to join, if they could avoid it. It took Pearl Harbor to stir them to action. Like 911 it hit a nerve that would turn America’s war into a righteous battle of self-defense and allow its ideological stakes to be rapidly expanded and to go on expanding until they reached the global reach of Cold War containment.
It was out of such moments of high contingency, of internal and external conflict, of deep political and moral ambiguity that the American century was fashioned. Out of a world of grey, what emerged was black and white: a new narrative of the dark European continent, for the second time in barely more than a generation, in need of American salvation.
It was a powerful historical narrative around which to organize trans-Atlantic relations after 1945. It underpinned NATO, still the most potent and historically successful military alliance in history. But those that America eventually came to help in 1941, the British, the French, the Russians, the Chinese have written deep in their historical consciousness, the ambiguity and contingency of that moment. Making the American century even for its most favored allies, involved sacrifices and profound disappointments. It involved buying into myths, indeed helping to make them. There was no greater exponent of this art of Making History than Winston Churchill with this narrative of the historic triumph of the English-speaking peoples. It was not for nothing that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This joint fashioning of the American century, was part of what made Europe different. And it was no small thing. It helped to add normative meaning to America’s evident preponderance of power in military, technological and financial terms, transforming preponderance into hegemony. How the world will react to a power deliberately stripped of even the pretense of legitimation is the question posed by Trump.
It will be difficult for everyone. But if there is any polity for which this will be particularly so, it is the Federal Republic. The rhetorical justification for the American century was fashioned first by painting the Kaiser and then Hitler as a historic evil. Conversely, it was the "good American hegemon" that made and remade Germany, three times over: First the Weimar Republic and then the Federal Republic, not once but twice. There is no state for which the "good America" is more foundational than modern Germany. Stresemann, Adenauer and Merkel’s Germanies are its products.
It is not a question of identity, of course. At home the two societies are profoundly different. But what America has hitherto solved for Germany, is the problem of international relations, of power, of Germany’s relationship to the world. The Cold War, NATO, American-sponsored European integration, the United Nations, these were the frame. It is not for nothing that the most neuralgic moments of tension between Germany and the US flared on the "periphery", over Iran and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, over Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, and Iraq in 2003.
What we face today, however, is more fundamental. In 2003 German Foreign minister Joschka Fischer demanded answers from Donald Rumsfeld. Where was the evidence that would justify the war against Saddam? He thus presupposed that the war had to be justified and he did so, spontaneously, in English, to demonstrate his commitment to the shared values of western democracy. Rumsfeld never answered, but the point was made. Can one even imagine a similar confrontation with Trump? The election of Trump suggests that America’s relationship not just to the world, but to a supposedly common reality has undergone a change. Empowered by the elections a minority of Americans wishes to throw off America’s anchoring role in the discursive community of the West. From this emerges a fundamental challenge: After America abandons its Sonderweg, what is Germany’s place in a world?