Sick and on fire: the end of the American era

Withering attack: Former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said Trump “tries to divide us”. © Reuters

Will this be the week when it became clear the American era was over? As thousands take to the streets and a president threatens his own people, many predict a historic turning point.

In the USA, Covid-19 has claimed 108,000 lives. The economy is in turmoil, with nearly 40 million unemployed. Cities seethe with anger, as activists take to the streets to protest police racism.

President Trump reacted by tear gassing peaceful protestors and threatening to set soldiers on his own citizens, a move now publicly opposed by his own military chiefs past and present.

“I lived,” says former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, “through MLK and Bobby being assassinated, our cities burning, Watergate, 9/11 and other national tragedies. I’ve never been so frightened for our country as I am tonight.”

The facts are clear. Since World War Two, the US has been the most powerful nation on Earth. Its military budget exceeds that of the next 10 countries combined. The dollar underpins world economies.

Arguably, no empire in history has wielded such an influence. Claiming a moral authority, the US has imported its democratic values and liberal economics across the globe. Western nations flourished under the Pax Americana, and dozens of poorer countries fell into line.

American culture became hegemonic. The whole planet watches American movies, listens to American music, and eats American food – while using American technology, from the aeroplane to the washing machine.

But history shows the sun sets on all empires. Scholars have predicted the end of the ‘American Century’ for decades. Various events, such as 9/11 in 2001, Trump’s 2016 election, and the present crisis have all been cited as the crux.

Empires seldom go out with a bang. Disasters, says historian Patrick Wyman, don’t “so much break the system as show just how broken the system already was”.

Many say America’s cracks are now on show for all to see. The present disarray, they say, suggests a country with diminishing moral authority. If it cannot serve and protect its own citizens, they ask, how can it claim to know what’s best for the rest of the world?

“America,” writes expert Aris Roussinos, “is too lost in its own internal conflict to contemplate a grander, global struggle with any confidence.”

Trump is now the least popular president in history, with a 54% disapproval rating. To many of the commentators, the ongoing battles between liberals and conservatives, president and protestors, and federal and state authorities show a country fading into decadence, blind to its diminishing status in the eyes of the outside world.

So, when the history books are written, will June 2020 be seen as the month the American Century came to a close?

Decline and fall

No, say some: this is just turbulence. No other nation has ever held a candle to modern America’s wealth and power, and none ever will. From the Great Depression to the civil unrest of the 1960s, the country has emerged from past crises. And the only superpower-in-waiting, China, has huge problems of its own in Tibet and its brutal suppression of the Uighur people.

Yes, say others. This is the point of no return. America has proved itself unfit to lead. It no longer has the moral authority to impose its values. The American Dream has started to resemble a nightmare. A new world leader is required – China has a vision to be world leader by 2049 and who is to say this might not be better?

You Decide

  1. Is it fair that one country can tell others how to behave?
  2. Do all empires ultimately fall?

Activities

  1. Make a list of your favourite American books, films, and television shows. Then draw a picture encompassing five of your picks.
  2. Picture yourself in the year 2050. Your child comes home with a question to answer for school: “Why did the USA stop being the world’s most powerful country?” Write their essay for them. One side of paper will do!

Some People Say...

“All of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, each in the wildest horizons of his vision, to create the first great American Century.”

Henry Luce (1898-1967), founder of Time magazine

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Since rising to superpower status in the mid-20th Century, the USA has conceived itself as the lynchpin of a liberal world order, initially in opposition to the authoritarian, communist Soviet Union. It promoted free market economics, international institutions, and democratic political systems as a route to global peace and prosperity. Many Western nations accepted this as a desirable state of affairs, and counted on America’s overwhelming power to see it implemented.
What do we not know?
For as long as these ideas have existed, there has been debate over how they should be implemented and whether America’s particular version of a world order is necessarily the best one. Recent events, such as the 2008 financial crisis and Trump’s disruptions of diplomatic conventions, have exacerbated these uncertainties. The economic model that once appeared a blueprint to a peaceful future no longer seems so secure.

Word Watch

MLK and Bobby
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Democratic political candidate Robert F Kennedy, both assassinated in 1968.
Watergate
A famous scandal, in which President Richard Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 after he was caught conspiring in criminal acts on tape.
Wielded
Held and used power and influence; held and used a weapon or tool.
Pax Americana
The relative peace and stability in the West following World War Two. Like the Pax Romana and Pax Brittanica it is named after, it has often been enforced by conflict elsewhere.
Hegemonic
Dominant, from the ancient Greek hegemonia. Some have argued that no country has ever been a true global hegemon.
Crux
The decisive point, borrowed from Latin where it means the wooden fame on which criminals were crucified.
Disarray
Disorder; confusion.
Decadence
Self-indulgence. The term is often used to describe the European empires of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, sleepwalking to their demise.
Uighur
A majority-Muslim ethnic group largely based in Western China, that has been placed in mass re-education camps by the Chinese government.
American Dream
The idea that America is a land of democracy, equal rights, and opportunity for all – as popularised by the writer James Thuslow Adams in the 1930s.
2049
The 100th year since the founding of the People’s Republic of China – and the year by which Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants to achieve what he calls “the Chinese Dream” and become the dominant global power.

Subjects

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