The American Century is over. We can tell, not only because the Americans have elected a ludicrous President, but because, for all his nationalist braggadocio, Trump’s ambitions are so modest. He aspires, after all, only to make America great again. Not only does this acknowledge America’s fallen state. It puts Trump’s Presidency on the level with the likes of Erdogan and Putin. But greatness is for everyone. The American century in its pomp was lit not by greatness, but by supremacy, the certainty of being called by destiny, divine or secular, to play a role that was not just unique, but above all others. This is the literal meaning of a message that echoed down the century from Woodrow Wilson, to FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, Bush junior and Obama. The theological strain always sounded strange in foreign ears. But, will we miss it when it is gone?
Trump will not be the end of America as a global power. If Trump raises Pentagon spending, American military dominance may even increase. The technological prowess of Silicon Valley is unrivalled and is ever more seamlessly integrated with the network of global social media and information exchange. Wall Street remains the hub of global finance. The Fed is pivotal to global economic policy. American lawyers, management consultants, PR firms and lobbyists make up a global network of soft power. However uncomfortable it may be to deal with Trump’s administration, the America state anchors NATO and the alliance system in East Asia. Whatever happens to NAFTA, for Canada and Mexico, America will remain as an overbearing and inescapable neighbor.
America has not extinguished itself. But what it has extinguished is its claim to global political authority. That authority had been on the wane anyway. Under George W. Bush the nimbus that surrounded the end of the Cold War, curdled into bitterly contested hubris. Appreciating the damage that Bush had wrought, Obama dialed down the rhetoric. But for domestic consumption he too offered a powerful message of America’s singular role, a claim heightened by his very person. In electing a black man as President, not only the United States but Europe too, saw the sins of colonialism and slavery atoned. The promise of 2016 was that with Hillary Clinton the "woman question" too would find a belated answer. As Secretary of State Clinton had shown that she was a true inheritor of the 1990s mantle of American global leadership – far more so than Obama. Hence, the profound hostility she faced on the part of much of the US left and from the Russians. Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Trump thus marks a double break with the promise that "the arc of history bends towards hope", as Obama liked to put it, and any claim by America to lead the way.
Insofar as Trump is even aware of the significance of his retreat, he hails it as liberation. Now America can act like the others, he promises, they will fear us all the more. The sense that not being "like the others" was the whole point seems lost on him. This is the sense in which the American Century has ended. And this is what the world now has to deal with: a dominant superpower, still by far the most dominant that history has ever recorded, but shorn of aspiration to moral leadership.
For some, the ending of the century of American exceptionalism, will come as no great shock. In Central America, the Yankees came early, in force and without much respect for local sensitivities. They preferred, as they say, to put "boots on the ground". In Asia too America’s presence contained as much menace as it did promise. Disappointing the hopes of Chinese revolutionaries like Sun Yat-Sen, Washington’s backing for political progress after the revolution of 1911 was luke warm to say the least. Eventually, America emerged as a strong promoter of democracy in Japan. But in Taiwan and South Korea it took its time, not to mention in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. And then there was the quagmire of Vietnam and the secret and lawless extension of that conflict to Cambodia and Laos. And this is before we get into the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Saudi, and Israel.
If there is anywhere in the world that actually has a deep stake in the normative image of the American century, it is Europe. Indeed, one might say that America’s century formed a whitewashed extension of Europe’s own remarkable period of global hegemony that lasted, for sake of argument, from 1757 and the victory of British forces over the Mughal army at Plassey on the banks of the Ganges, to the outbreak of World War I. But it is only in retrospect from a very high vantage point that this continuity seems real.
November 1916 was the first American Presidential election that European’s followed with bated breath, as if our fate depended on the outcome. As far as the Entente were concerned, then too, the wrong man won, Woodrow Wilson the anti-war candidate. Five months later Wilson was forced into Europe’s war, not of his own free will, but by Germany’s aggression - unleashing the U Boats, inviting Mexico to join in an attack on Texas. America’s entry decided the war and made Wilson the dominant figure at Versailles. But facing opposition both from the European powers and Japan, and fierce partisan resistance at home, Wilson’s lost his grip. Within weeks of leaving the peace conference, in the autumn of 1919 the first American president to pretend to world leadership was humiliated by an oppositional Republican majority in Congress that vetoed ratification and disowned American membership in Wilson’s own creation, the League of Nations. It then went on to refuse to negotiate a reduction in war debts, impose a ban on immigration, shut out European trade. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve, hiked interest rates, sucking gold back into the US, at a time when Europe was gasping for credit.