Promises About Another American Century Are Pretty Lies

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History shows that projecting a nation-state's trajectory nine decades into the future is folly. Our politicians better be preparing for anything as they pander.


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Circa 1912, it would've been a phenomenal feat to predict the events and outcome of Word War I, and impossible for anyone on earth to anticipate the rise of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, the Axis alliance, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the events of World War II, and America's subsequent place in the world. Nor could any person in pre-World War I America imagine the partition of Europe by Soviet communists, the nuclear arms race, the Cold War or its end. Neither could the British nor the French nor the Germans nor the Japanese nor the Russians nor the Poles anticipate the respective courses they would take over the ensuing nine decades.

So it's especially inane pandering for President Obama to say, while speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, "If anyone tries to tell you our greatness is past, that America is in decline, you tell them this. Like the 20th century, the 21st century will be another great American century. We are Americans, blessed with the greatest form of government ever devised by man."

Statements like that are politically popular. And when it comes to jingoistic nonsense repeated ad nauseum, there's no one more prolific than Mitt Romney. It is nevertheless important to remind ourselves that these men are lying to us, for it would be foolish to act as if what they say is true. Perhaps America will remain the most powerful country in the world nine decades hence. I hope so, and insofar as it's possible I think we ought to continue to have the strongest military in the world. But operating as if a superior form of government guarantees we'll remain the most powerful country is idiotic. The American century owed as much to Old World self-immolation as New World triumph. And history is rife with inferior forms of government conquering their betters.

The extra fiction Mitt Romney maintains when speaking about this subject is that America's fate, its relative power in the world, hinges not on our economic performance, foreign policy wisdom, human capital, or military prowess, but on the degree of patriotism in the heart of the chief executive. "Let me make this very clear," he said in his speech at the Citadel. "As president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American century. And I will never, ever apologize for America." He is always insisting that President Obama is someone who doesn't believe in American exceptionalism and therefore won't preside over an American century.
Statements like that are politically popular. It is nevertheless important to remind ourselves that these men are lying to us, for it would be foolish to act as if what they say is true.

It's always seemed to me that a traditional patriot doesn't value America because its military makes it top dog. His love of country springs from its founding principles and the degree to which subsequent generations live up to the best of that inheritance. If you think that the United States was exceptional way back in the 1780s, as Romney would surely avow, it makes no sense to marry your notion of American exceptionalism to never apologizing -- the founding generation had much for which to apologize -- or to being the most powerful country on the world stage. America didn't seize that position until 1945.

The bipartisan foreign policy establishment, and especially its Republicans, regularly invoke a perversion of American exceptionalism that treats global hegemony as an integral part of the concept, never mind founding-era notions about the danger of standing armies and the foreign policy advice that George Washington offered in his Farewell Address, when he stated, "Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. The period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel."

Washington added some questions.

"Why forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation?" he asked. "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?" 

We could use more leaders who encourage prudence and realism in foreign policy; instead we have two candidates who seem oblivious to the fact that a confident country doesn't need its politicians to offer up loud, repeated assertions about how it will too be an American century, as if the president just offering that assurance enough times will decide the matter.

Anyone who says they know our fate many decades hence is naive or lying. What's especially unnerving is when presidents abuse American hegemony as if its continuance is actually assured forever.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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