The Dragon and the American Dream

Open your wallet and take out a one-dollar bill.

On one side you'll find an image of the Great Seal of the United States. There's a pyramid, with the eye of providence watching approvingly over our endeavors, the date 1776 (in Roman numerals), and the phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum. It means "A New Order of the Ages," signifying the beginning of the American era and a global revolution against tyrants.

You can put the bill away now, because a new order of the ages is emerging. It isn't an American era. It's a post-American era. For the first time since it entered the world stage, the United States is facing the emergence of a new great power rival. The rise of China challenges one of the most fundamental American beliefs: that history goes in one progressive direction.

The result could be a profound national identity crisis.

"The unparalleled, bewildering rate at which our power has grown and the proud consciousness that the future development of our boundless resources baffles imagination itself have taught us to deem feasible whatever we choose to will."  When professor Herman E. Von Holst looked out at the world in 1898, the opportunities for the United States seemed limitless. Westward expansion had reached the Pacific Ocean, and Americans had built the largest economy in the world. In 1898, the United States smashed the aging Spanish empire and took as its prize the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico (as well as ending Spanish rule in Cuba).

The Spanish-American War raised the curtain on the American century. When the drama began, the United States, Germany, Russia, Britain, France, and perhaps also Austria-Hungary and Japan, could all claim the hallowed status of being great powers. In the following decades, U.S. rivals exited the stage one by one, until America stood alone and unchallenged.

By 1939, on the eve of World War II, according to one measure, we were down to the final three, with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany towering over the other countries.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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