In 1941, a year before America entered World War II, Henry Luce, the founder and publisher of Time, wrote an essay called “The American Century.” It was an argument not just against isolationism but for America as a global moral beacon. Luce, the son of American missionaries to China, wrote that America must “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence exert upon the world the full impact of our influence.” That vision, he wrote, was only possible if it reflected “a passionate devotion to great American ideals.” He enumerated them as a love of freedom and justice, equality of opportunity, and a commitment to truth and charity and cooperation.
The inaugural address of Donald Trump did not contain the word justice or cooperation or ideals or morals or truth or charity. It has only one reference to freedom. It did mention carnage and crime and tombstones and a variety of words never uttered before in a presidential inaugural. Since then, the president has doubled-down on his desire to build a wall on America’s Southern border and has said his administration will re-evaluate accepting refugees from designated Muslim countries and cut back by half the relatively small number of refugees accepted by the Obama administration. I spent seven years as editor of Time before I worked in the State Department as under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. While I was editor of Time, I never wanted to be the first of Luce’s successors to pronounce the end of the American Century. In part, this was because of a misunderstanding of the term. Most people thought it meant American power or hegemony and there was not much diminution in America’s global power. What it really means is America as a global model and guarantor of freedom and rule of law and fairness.