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.
Trump ’s administration is the death knell of the American Century.
No, Trump’s vision does not spell the end of American power, but a retraction of American influence. It suspends American involvement as a global leader on global decision-making for a resolute policy of non-interference. At the State Department, when I traveled abroad for discussions with another nation’s government, I talked not only about agreements and exchanges and trade deals, but also about freedom of religion and expression, transparency, and rule of law. I sat in diplomatic “pull-asides” with President Obama and Secretary Kerry and foreign heads of state where they talked not only about America’s interests but universal values—free expression, religious liberty, rule of law. I sat next to Kerry as he demanded the release of political prisoners and journalists who were behind bars. These were uncomfortable discussions. I once had an African foreign minister say to me with a touch of annoyance: “You come and talk to me about transparency, but the Chinese come and build a super-highway.”
And that was often the case. And no other nation, I promise you, ever talked to that foreign minister about transparency. That is America’s strength, not its weakness. The Chinese, and now the Trump administration, will resolutely practice non-interference in other nations’ affairs. America First is not a policy that any of our allies around the world want to hear. Our adversaries are delighted. Our power and influence with our friends and adversaries came in large part because we were the one nation that did not always put ourselves first.
American presidents operate along the realistic and idealistic sides of the foreign-policy continuum. But ever since Woodrow Wilson, Americans have always seen themselves as being the moral beacon that Luce talked about all those years ago. As Obama has said many times, our ideals are our policy. Trump appears to see those ideals as, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, effete.
Having traveled around the world on behalf of the State Department for the past three years, I can promise you that governments do not worry that America is too engaged—they worry when we disengage. And wherever we may disengage around the world, we are never replaced by a better actor. The president’s vision of putting up our national drawbridge and hunkering down mirrors the transformation of Great Britain to Little England after the end of World War II. The American Century was a term of pride for many and it represented the flowering not only of American power but American values.
That seems to have ended beginning last Friday.
The American Century, RIP.