The American Age

Sunday, July 30, 2000

 It has been just over ten years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we are in a new age. In 1986 people would have seen their world of Reagan and Thatcher and Gorbachev as closely linked to the world of 1976 or, for that matter, of 1966 or 1956 or 1946. But today events just 10 years old are dim and quaint memories—remember the Nicaraguan contras? Now that we have crossed a great historical divide, events on the other side of that chasm are like ancient history.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.  

For almost a half century, the West has struggled mightily to spread capitalism and democracy around the world. Now it has gotten what it wanted—unbridled market and people power—which will prove harder to handle than anyone imagined. Capitalism and democracy are the two dominant forces of modern history; they unleash human creativity and energy like nothing else. But they are also forces of destruction. They destroy old orders, hierarchy, tradition, communities, careers, stability, and peace of mind itself. Unsentimental about the world as it exists, they surge forward, changing everything they encounter. The challenge of the West in the next century will be to find ways to channel the sweeping power of these two—the last surviving big ideas—as they reorganize all human activity. Otherwise, for much of the world it may be too fast a ride.

Things seem so different now because they are so different. For three generations, the world was defined by great political struggles: the depression, World War II, the Cold War, decolonization. Politics and diplomacy held center stage. Today the air is filled with a new sort of energy. "To get rich is glorious," goes a famous, recent tag line. It is the perfect sound bite for our age—because it was said by the leader of China’s Communist Party. The heroes of the past may have been soldiers and statesmen, artists and writers: Today they are entrepreneurs. Even countries like China, India, and Brazil that once scoffed at the crass commercialism of the West now search desperately for ways to create export zones and high-tech corridors. Napoleon once derided England for being "a nation of shopkeepers." We are now a world of shopkeepers.

Today, the events of the Cold War are already dim and quaint memories—remember the Nicaraguan contras? Now that we have crossed a great historical divide, events on the other side of that divide are like ancient history.

Intellectuals like to remind us that globalization is actually not that new. At the turn of the twentieth century, free trade, free markets, and democratic politics flourished. Today one does not need a visa to travel through much of Europe; then you did not even need a passport. The point of this comparison is, of course, how it ended—badly. In the early twentieth century prominent liberal thinkers believed that prosperity and interdependence had made war unthinkable. And yet it happened. World War I brought an end to the first great age of globalization.

But there are crucial differences between this turn of a century and the last one. Globalization today describes a far more pervasive and deep phenomenon than has ever existed before. Thousands of goods, services, and even ideas are manufactured globally, creating complex interconnections between states. A book, for example, can be written in New York, copyedited in India, typeset in the Caribbean, printed in Singapore, and then shipped worldwide. The Internet has made global manufacturing, distribution, and communication simple and cheap.

There is another crucial difference between the last round of globalization and this one: the nature of the superpower. An open world economy rests upon the broad edifice of peace, which usually requires a great global hegemony—Britain in 1900, America in 2000. But in 1900 Britain was a declining power; World War I simply accelerated that trend. The picture today could not be more different. Not only is the United States securely the leading power in the world, its advantage is widening. For the past decade, American journalists, politicians, and scholars have been searching for a new way to describe the post–Cold War world. It has been staring us in the face: We are living in the American Age.

The American economy has become the envy of the world, spearheading a series of technological breakthroughs that have defined a new post–Industrial Revolution. America’s military outpaces any other by leaps and bounds. The Pentagon spends more on defense than the next five great powers combined. It spends more on defense research than the rest of the world put together. And Washington has no grand illusions that war is obsolete or that globalization does not require political stability. Whatever Bill Clinton’s polemical rhetoric might suggest, there is no groundswell for isolationism in America.

For the past decade, American journalists, politicians, and scholars have been searching for a new term to describe the post–Cold War world. The term has been staring us in the face: We are living in the American Age.

America’s edge is as visible in other sectors of society. The gap between American universities and foreign ones is fast widening. Harvard University recently announced that it had completed its $2 billion fund-raising drive months ahead of schedule. Oh, and by the way, it missed its target, overshooting by $0.3 billion. That’s $300 million of spare change, which is more than the endowment of many of the best foreign universities. The World Bank recently calculated that the three richest men in America had a combined net worth that exceeds the total GDP of the 48 poorest countries in the world.

Of course, today’s tranquil times could be upset by war. A stock market crash could unnerve the booming economy. Bad foreign policy could bungle many of these extraordinary advantages. But none of these crises is likely to throw up a new superpower. In fact, when a crisis hits, America only becomes more indispensable—think of the East Asian economic collapse or the Balkan wars. Even in lands where the backlash against America has deep roots, Americanization is pervasive. Listen to a 21-year-old woman, forced to attend an anti-American rally in Tehran: "It’s a joke," she told the New York Times, pointing at the women clad in black chadors with bright blue colors flashing underneath. "How can you shout, ‘Death to America!’ when you’re wearing blue jeans?" Or consider China. Last November, Beijing compromised its gradual approach to economic reform when it agreed to join the World Trade Organization, largely under U.S. terms.

What can we expect in this new era? The short answer is, more of the same: More of global capitalism but also more of that other distinctive American export, democracy and popular power. Over the last 30 years, a great wave of democratization has swept the world. From Portugal and Greece in the 1970s to Latin America in the 1980s and Central Europe in the 1990s, elections have become a global phenomenon. The pressure will only get more intense. These two forces—capitalism and democracy—will hurl societies into modernity with all its glories and seductions. The companies of tomorrow will be efficient but will also face brutal competition. Citizens will be able to enjoy culture from all over the world—from opera to Jerry Springer. Teenagers, at the click of a mouse, already have access to great encyclopedias—and racist propaganda.

The World Bank recently calculated that the three richest men in America had a combined net worth that exceeds the total GDP of the 48 poorest countries in the world.

It is a heady mix and it will only keep getting headier. The forces of creative destruction are beginning to operate at warp speed, creating new companies, careers, and communities—but wrecking old ones at an equally dizzying pace. America has gotten used to this high-speed ride. Americans accept the chaos that comes from an ever-changing economy and a chaotic political system. They believe that, in the end, it all works out for the best. But will the rest of the world be so understanding? Some countries will close themselves off from this world and stagnate. The wisest will find a balance between their own values and the requirements of modernity.

Most countries recognize the need to tame the fires of capitalism—in fact, they probably do so too much. It will be harder for them to determine how best to handle democratic populism. Some countries have already begun to see its dangers. They recognize that democracy without the rule of law, minority protections, property rights—what I have called illiberal democracy—can be a hollow shell. It was elections that fueled the fires of nationalism that still rage in the Balkans. It has been elections that have legitimized all manner of thugs from Venezuela to Belarus to Pakistan. In Russia, a well-functioning democracy has been combined with the wholesale corruption of economic reform, law, liberty, and political institutions. The result: Most Russians now dislike capitalism. They may soon come to dislike democracy.

The United States, the world’s greatest democracy, has always kept its own popular pressures on a leash. Its court system is free from public oversight, its Bill of Rights designed to thwart majority rule, and its regulatory apparatus keeps tabs on rogue traders and large corporations. Indeed, one could argue that the American way is so successful because both capitalism and democracy are tightly regulated by the rule of law. If the world wishes to learn a lesson about America, this should be the one it takes to heart.

Most difficult of all, societies must make these adjustments as the forces of change swirl around with gathering fury. Whatever the balance countries arrive at, they will still be riding farther, faster than they have ever done. The only advice one can give as we enter a brave new world is this: Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.