The American century: a requiem



America’s “greatest generation” is justly celebrated for overcoming the Great Depression at home and the mortal threat posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan overseas. In many respects, the postwar generation of the 1950s and 1960s built a legacy that was equally consequential. At the conclusion of World War II, Europe and Asia lay in ruins. Stalin and Mao, in concert, were determined to employ their huge armies and the broad appeal of Marxism to create a communist dominion over both — and they had good reason to anticipate success.

There was only one possible impediment to these ambitions — the United States. But it was not at all clear that Washington had the will or the know-how to stop them. Most Americans thought that we had done more than enough for the rest of the world; it was time to demobilize and focus on concerns close to home. Even those who were convinced that everything America had fought for in the war could be lost were unsure what this country could do and whether the public would support the costs of a serious effort.

The answer came in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and it took the form of a series of dramatic foreign policy initiatives including the Marshall Plan, NATO, foreign aid programs and the Korean War with new alliances in Asia. It also included the creation of the United Nations and a galaxy of related international organizations including the World Bank, the IMF, the WHO, the World Food Program (just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) and a great many others. All this was critically supported by expertly staffed, well-funded U.S. government institutions that were America’s instruments for shaping the postwar world. And Americans knew what kind of world they wanted to enable — one without dominant imperial powers, one with independent states that interacted peacefully under international law, and one that reflected U.S. values of democracy, freedom of choice, respect for human rights and opportunities for markets and science to build a prosperous common future.

This all sounds very idealistic, but the actual results were quite extraordinary. Communist expansion was stopped, the Cold War won, the Soviet Union brought down without triggering a new world war, and more people around the world lived in better conditions than ever before. The United States became the center of a global network of alliances and partnerships that made America the consensus leader of the world. The “secret sauce” in this achievement was the American mindset, not to dominate and exploit, but to lift all for mutual benefit. Perhaps the most graphic example of this approach at work was the transformation of wartime enemies, Germany and Japan, into postwar allies and friends.

It was all pretty breathtaking when you consider it, and it lasted a long time — roughly 70 years from 1946 to 2016. By the end of this period two things had occurred that have (probably) brought this golden age to an end. The first was the emergence of China as a major force (economically, technologically and militarily) determined to supplant the United States as the world’s primary power. The second was the election of Donald Trump. That election brought to the Oval Office a president who knew nothing and cared less about all the history referenced above. For this singular president, only one thing mattered — the aggrandizement of Donald Trump, personally. The interests of the country mean nothing; the interests of Donald Trump mean everything. The consequences for America’s role in the world have been profound.

The U.S. government is staffed with career officials from agricultural scientists to Air Force generals who have dedicated themselves to the principle that the interests of the nation are paramount. It was inevitable that there would be a collision with a President who thought otherwise. That collision has played out on multiple fronts. From his first day in office, Mr. Trump has been on the attack against the so-called “deep state” of career civil servants. He has sought to weaken virtually every institution of government from efforts to gut the budgets of the State Department and aid agencies to attacks on the Joint Chiefs of Staff as “babies.” U.S. alliances have been routinely denigrated and leaders of allied countries repeatedly insulted and berated — in public.

Of all the institutions of government — the military and intelligence agencies — have been the most disrespected and damaged. While visiting a military cemetery, Mr. Trump commented to an aide that those interred there were “suckers” (for putting themselves at risk). He publicly referred to a genuine American hero, Sen. John McCain, as a “loser” because he was captured (and imprisoned and tortured for over five years). He destroyed the career of an Army officer assigned to the White House who testified in the House impeachment hearings — as he was legally required to do. He fired the head of the U.S. intelligence community because he insisted on giving honest assessments in testimony before Congress. His replacement, a political hack, pledged to be rigorously nonpartisan in his new job. Instead, he has released classified secrets to the public in an effort to bolster the Trump campaign (and endangered U.S. intelligence sources in the process). Mr. Trump has repeatedly indicated he will take the word of Vladimir Putin over that of American intelligence officers. The Marine Corps band, which has always been apolitical, is now drafted to perform at Trump’s political rallies. The list goes on and on and on.

Mr. Trump may not have achieved anything else, but he has, in all likelihood, brought an end to the “American century.”

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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