Luce mined a rich vein of rhetoric from John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” imagery (1630) to John O’Sullivan’s “manifest destiny” (1845), but in the aftermath of WWII, it wasn’t a hard sell. In contrast to virtually all other modern wars, WWII had a plausible claim to a clear-cut moral dimension. The “good guys” won. And, after all, who doesn’t like to feel that their success is well-deserved (or even ordained). In truth, the destruction of European power in the first half of the 20C (two wars and a depression), left the field pretty clear. Even the Cold War competition with the Russians didn’t really require that we break into much of a sweat.
Boy, those were the days! New cars, suburban houses, plenty of food, appliances, travel, space flight, pax Americana; how grand it was. For those of us born in the last 80 years, it’s seemed normal. It’s become baked in as the way things “should” be.
But its not. In fact, with a little, this aspect of modernity—the economic, military, and political global domination by the West— was anomalous.
For several reasons, modern industrialization began in Britain in the late 18C, closely followed by northwestern Europe and British progeny around the world, especially the US. The immense power—deployed economically, culturally, and militarily—was deceptive. Many attempts have been made to rationalize this global power shift and anchor it in some mode of moral superiority. But even if the root of that power was cultural rather than environmental or contingent, it is hard to translate into a justification for entitlement to that power, rather than a premise for humility and responsibility. Parts of 19C “liberalism” tried to move towards the latter, but got overwhelmed.
Through the end of the 18C, China was the most powerful civilization in the world, followed by India. European-led industrialization and imperialism eclipsed them in the 19C, only to be overtaken by the US in the first half of the 20C as European civilization imploded (twice), clearing the decks for an era of American dominance (itself distracted only by Russia punching above its weight for fifty years until it collapsed). China’s rise (return!) to global leadership has been treated with the arrogance of an incumbent monopolist. China has its own behaviors to answer for, but before we start lecturing, we should recall secret federal forces in Portland last month, George Floyd three months ago, or ICE child-separation policies in the last three years (just to take recent examples).
The late 20C wave of globalization which has spurred dramatic economic benefits in China and other parts of the Global South has, even more fundamentally than its material aspects, brought a change to the mentalités of the ancient capitals of Anglo domination. This has not been easy to swallow for those who have known nothing else. The backlash has shown up in Trumpery and Brexit.
Indeed, it is beginning to dawn on folks that American power is not God-given, that American economic pre-eminence is not an entitlement, and that we might have to (in the words of that old John Houseman commercial) “make money [& power] the old-fashioned way,” we may have “to earn it.”
(Whether this would be a good thing is a debate into which I do not enter today.)
Regardless of whether and how the US seeks to regain its global leadership position, in the meantime, we need to face facts. We will have to live/work in a world which is tired of generating surpluses for a small group of local elites and a small group of global elite countries; especially while most of them have to live in “third-world” conditions. Nor do they have to. Indeed, the biggest impediments to further global realignments are local and elsewhere: nationalism/autarky and corruption. I’m not suggesting such developments will be rapid, and they are hardly inevitable. Still, we “at the top” must contemplate them.
A central driver of the end of European empires in the mid-20C was the recognition, little-recognized, of the hollowness of “Western civilization’s” claims to moral superiority as a basis of colonial rule; undermined by the savagery of trench warfare and the Holocaust. Momentum/inertia carried them only so far. In our own version, significant components of American withdrawal from the world have been self-generated and reactive; but the results move in the same direction.
Beyond the economics and the atmospherics are the demographics. Much “attitude-adjustment” is needed here. Claims—implicit or explicit—of white superiority (often tied to claims of moral superiority) have to run head-long into the facts. Most folks aren’t white. Most folks aren’t male. In fact, “white” males (however defined) comprise less than 10% of the global population. So, when we see much debate about “minority” rights, it’s time to remember that we are watching through Alice’s peculiarly American looking glass.
Subconsciously, perhaps, the Trumpians and others of that ilk are aware of this. After all, my favorite Fox News show is titled: “Outnumbered: Overtime.” This would explain their virulent construction of a world where American history is immaculate, the “American Century” is perpetual and uncluttered by all those others. Indeed, in this worldview, their approach not only makes a great deal of sense, it’s absolutely necessary. Those who cannot tolerate the “real” world are facing an existential crisis. If you look down the road with Mitch McConnell or Steven Miller and see immigration and BLM and ‘Me too’ with disorienting terror, you might throw out your adherence to democratic norms and jam through every law and judge you could to keep the dike plugged for as long as possible. “Apres-moi, le deluge.”
However, for the rest of us, if you are not so wrapped up in an identity of superiority (insecurity), you might be okay with justice and tolerance of difference. If you’re not wed to a world-view defined by the anomaly of US power over the past 75 years (or “Western” power over the past 250 years), you might just want to get on with your life and help others to do the same.