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.
A new narrative of the dark European continent
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?