Is this the end of the ‘American Century’?

By and

“Gradually, then suddenly.” Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises reveals to us something about how the world can suddenly collapse beneath us. Looking back, the signs may have been there all along. For the American republic, vaunted as the greatest power in human history, the sudden chaotic collapse of its military operation in Afghanistan signalled to many a much larger collapse of its global power and dominance. Is the ‘American Century’ coming to an end? What is the meaning of this term — does it deserve a significant place in our political lexicon or is it just meaningless tautology?

The term ‘American Century’ was first coined by publishing tycoon Henry Luce in 1941. He argued emphatically that the twentieth century could be the ‘American Century’ if only the United States government would drop its isolationist approach and intervene in World War Two, in the process spreading democracy and other ideals. The D-Day landings in June 1944 marked a commitment from America to international intervention, and the US’s economic superiority was cemented in the immediate post-war when the country represented close to half of the world economy.

If economic superiority is judged to be a fair measurement of global dominance, the ‘American Century’ started at the dawn of the twentieth century. However, the US did not possess great influence and power globally until it invested heavily in its military and was prepared to intervene abroad. As China is projected by 2026 to have 89% of America’s current-dollar GDP, this does not equal a definite shift in global relations.

More recently, the failure of America to win the military conflict in Afghanistan has been pointed out as the end of America’s hegemonic leadership of the world order. However, American withdrawal from Afghanistan is not the beginning of the end for the United States. Many commentators have irresistibly compared Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon. In Vietnam, America was globally embarrassed but not cast aside, and continued to call the shots on foreign affairs, often to a similar end.

The critical question remains – what do the Americans think?

One way to highlight the continual importance of the US is the realisation that for every single important geo-political event of the last century, the critical question was and remains — what do the Americans think? Combine economic and military positions with soft power, including cultural and political hegemony, and it is immediately clear that the collapse in Afghanistan far from guarantees an end to America’s position as the world’s hegemon. The ideological dominance of the ‘Washington Consensus’ and Hollywood’s global culture preeminence illustrate this.

This brings us one threat facing American hegemony: internal political discord. Some argue the storming of the United States Capitol by insurrectionists on January 6th at the behest of former President Trump signalled the decline of the American republic. Although shocking and calamitous, January 6th represented a ramshackle group of lost souls whipped into a delusional fever by an equally unhinged president with a total lack of grip on the ship of state. These people had no national backing, organisation or consistency — the American state swiftly acted and restored order, the election certified and Mr Trump was removed from office.

America’s greatest threat to global hegemony undoubtedly comes from China, which has flourished economically from exports, a market economy and private enterprise. The hegemon and the pretender sizing each other up and cautiously testing one another: this will be the dominant overtone of the international order in the 21st century. Questions must be asked. What does China’s hold on global politics look like? What does China possess now that the US does not? How do they seize the new century, if at all possible?

Examining China as a political actor produces interesting similarities and striking differences with America. Take Afghanistan as a case study, the US’s attitude to involvement was not particularly inconspicuous. It dominated the country for over two decades. Now American withdrawal is complete, the Chinese have filled the vacuum in a different manner, their influence less obvious and more muted. Chinese ministers did not immediately refuse to acknowledge the new state, and money flows between borders and their embassy in Kabul remains open.

America’s greatest threat to global hegemony undoubtedly comes from China

The Americans in their final moments in Afghanistan were deeply concerned with image because for them the liberal democratic model needs constant justification. Chinese influence is less concerned or centred around ‘image-consciousness’. It is not fair that open societies face more scrutiny than closed ones, but this is the fate of democratic societies — they must constantly justify their governance structures. As such potential Chinese hegemony and American hegemony are different things because as political actors they are different.

China’s rise will be concerned with forging their own path and ideological development. As such, we can expect the Chinese to decouple themselves from the American-led international order and instead attempt to create a Chinese-led order. This is already evident from their founding and leadership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank that creates liquidity for developing nations in Asia. More impactful, however, the colossal ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ will see Beijing wrap its arms around much of the developing world. Already, billions have flown from China to the developing world and the influence that Xi Jinping now exerts cannot be understated.

This is therefore a different form of hegemonic exercise. China could dominate in an international system they have created, while leaving the Americans to run the ancien régime. It is therefore an exaggeration to suggest the Americans will be superseded by China in their own backyard. More likely, the Americans will remain dominant within the post-WW2 global institutional order (take: the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund). Concurrently, we can expect a parallel Chinese institutional order to emerge where the AIIB is merely the beginning. This will diminish the importance and influence of the American-led Bretton Woods global governance system.

The liberal democratic model needs constant justification

Minxin Pei, in The Economist’s series ‘The Future of American Power’, argues that China’s rise is ultimately constrained by internal factors including a restrictive domestic political regime that stifles growth, wasteful state-run enterprises and the fact that China has a much faster ageing population than the US. The trend towards autocratic, personality-based rule under Xi Jinping leaves the Chinese system unaware of their blind spots and therefore susceptible to challenges. Healthy democracies with competitive elections do not face this problem.

In the next hundred years, we could see a new Chinese-led order, or multipolar world with a diminished America, but this century remains very much an American one — for now. The question for political commentators is just how long they can cling on for. 

Illustration: Verity Laycock

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