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The End of the American Century

Four priorities that should shape U.S. policy.

by Jonathan Wilson
October 11, 2001

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The End of the American Century_Jonathan Wilson-Four priorities that should shape U.S. policy. England rose to unrivalled prominence in the 19th century through industry, and through the puritanical priorities of a Queen that leavened the whole culture with social conventions that emphasized piety, discipline, manners, and duty. One way to understand the power of these cultural norms is to consider one umbrella term: honor. Honor meant keeping a stiff upper lip, playing by the rules, doing what's cricket, and all that sort of thing. In the span of a generation, forty percent of all the world came under the rule of the British Empire as colonies, dominions, and spheres of influence.

Industry, which provided the hardware for empire-building, also proved to be England's downfall. Mechanized warfare developed on the assembly line with assembly-line principles. Half-way through the Victorian period, Germany gathered itself as a nation and, because of its industrial base, instantly became a rival.

By 1914 Victoria was dead, and The Great War demonstrated the murderous power of death machines. Honor propelled the sons of Europe to march forward in ranks as in the days of Waterloo, only to be mowed down by "machine" guns. In this war England prevailed. It appeared, at least on the maps of the world, as though England's power would continue unrivalled. Then the world shuddered through its second genocidal upheaval of mechanized slaughter just twenty years later, and the sun set on England's glory.

A Newsweek article from the October 7, 2001 issue, contrasted England's "resigned pragmatism" with America's "arrogant optimism." It is all a matter of direction and degrees.

As England's power faded, the 20th Century became, undisputedly, the "American Century." Our involvement in both European conflicts established ourselves as the guardians of freedom on a global scale, and the protectors of European post-war democracy.

As for the English in the 18th Century, a few American rear-guard actions proved more costly than worthwhile: For England, it was a kingdom of desert mountains called "Afghanistan" as they tried to check Czarist Russia's ambitions in Central Asia. For America, it was a couple strips of coastal territory on the Pacific Rim: "Korea" and "Vietnam." But on the grand scale even these contributed to America's victory in the Cold War and the shriveling of Russian Sovietism worldwide.

In fact, the entire globe is America's "sphere of influence." There may not be a single nation where friendship with, or sworn enmity towards, the United States is not a feature in political factionalism.

America's rise to prominence has been through technology, together with social values emphasizing choice, mobility and consumption which can be understood with the umbrella term "personalized liberty."

As history unfolds in our generation, I wonder whether America has now reached the part in the Empire Cycle that England reached in 1914.

Technology has provided weapons of murder and mass destruction that can scarcely be defended against. Technology has also de-nationalized the enemy. Enemy empires are international corporate giants rather than national dictatorships. Battles are fought through cyberspace where currency is wired, e-mailed instructions are exchanged, and viruses programmed and released.

Our compulsion towards personalized liberty have given us these technological conveniences, and our compulsion also causes us to revile, as a people, the oppressive intrusions into lifestyles, beliefs, and habits that have greatly assisted tyrants in maintaining security.

Yet our infrastructure is so deep, our power so great and our reach so wide, that we probably will, over the next several years, successfully demolish Osama bin Laden's international corporation and the terrorists it hides. We probably will take down a whole lot of villains. We may even get to defeat the Taliban and help moderates take power for a stronger, better Afghanistan.

What will happen 20 years later, though, after the children of the "Jihad Martyrs" have been raised on the rhetoric of hate and vengeance by charismatic teachers? Perhaps a second war, worse than the first, one which we will again "win," but one which will finally exhaust strength, forcing America to release its grip over global events. Sometime after that we will begin to speak of "resigned pragmatism" in the conduct of our diplomacy.

Perhaps the time is now, our own "1914," to reassess our global leadership, our strength, and our motives. Instead of trying to preserve our position at the top, perhaps it is time to begin a process of disengagement and re-engagement. I propose four priorities:
  1. Reduce dependence on Arab oil, thus disengaging ourselves from alignment with corrupt Arab regimes largely resented by their own people.
  2. Reduce aid to Israel while guaranteeing Israel's security and position in the United Nations. Recognize the sovereign state of Palestine.
  3. Cultivate the friendship and stability of our near neighbors.
  4. Commit to the defense of democracy on the Pacific Rim, including South Korea and Taiwan.
Each of these priorities can be coordinated. This direction would acknowledge that Israel can stand on its own economically but is a strategic partner militarily and an acknowledged sovereign state with territorial integrity. These priorities would, by silence, admit that the Balkans are a European problem, not an American problem, and that Africa poses no strategic interest to the United States.

It is time to acknowledge the friendship of Russia and to work closely with them in developing the rich mineral resources of their interior -- thus reducing our demand for Arab oil. This is an expensive proposition on the front end, but one which can be mitigated by expanding our relationship with Canada, Mexico and Venezuela, other "near neighbors" and leading oil exporters.

It is time to lift sanctions against Cuba.

This is just the beginning. From here, the possibilities stagger the imagination. Such as: Expand NAFTA to include Russia and Japan. Convert arctic submarines from the Cold War to commercial shipping, traversing the Arctic Ocean with payloads that can bring a modern infrastructure to northern Russia and prosperity to enterprising citizens. Include in NAFTA arrangements for the privatizing of space traffic by establishing international standards. Let United Airlines send tourists to Mars because our government will never get around to it!

The U.S. has been fairly uninvolved in the incompetence and corruption of the post-European African world. We can learn lessons from our African disinterest. In short, instead of bogging down in the ineptitudes of the Arab world, let's do what millions of Arabs themselves want us to do: Disengage. Removed from PanArabia's closed 19th Century world, we can lead the rest of civilization into a future beyond imperialism.

These priorities would reflect that it is time to start acting like a partner, and stop acting like an Empire. Maybe if we adopt "resigned pragmatism" now, we will save our citizens from the scourge of warfare in our borders. Instead of waiting for the sun to set on our glory, perhaps we can close the curtain and turn on the light.

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