The End of the “American Century”

This week, the current occupant of the Oval Office announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.   His rationale was that the agreement harmed the U.S. more than it helped and was costing our nation too much in terms of money and jobs.   America First seems to be the theme.

White House storm clouds

I was struck by the timing of this withdrawal, just one hundred years after the U.S. stepped onto the world stage when it entered the Great War.  In 1917, according to journalist Walter Lippman, the U.S. entered what he termed “the American Century.” Up until 1917, the U.S. had shied away from “foreign entanglements” (the term used by President George Washington), reluctant to be sucked into foreign conflicts.   Yet, despite a great deal of opposition, in the spring of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, citing the interests of the nation.   The U.S. depended heavily on foreign trade, and in an age before transatlantic air travel, foreign trade was conducted on the high seas;  the Germans, desperate to limit the resources of France and Great Britain, released their U-boat (submarine) commanders to attack neutral shipping (particularly U.S. ships).  Wilson, and most of Congress, saw this as a direct threat to national security, and entered the “war to end all wars”.

But Wilson had loftier goals than just protecting trade;  a trained historian and political scientist, as well as a politician, he truly believed that the U.S. could provide the moral leadership the world so desperately seemed to need at that time.   Yes, the U.S. participation in the war could “make the world safe for democracy”, but it also could serve as a beacon of hope and integrity in a time when those two qualities seemed lacking.   Wilson also had a longer view – he wanted the U.S. to have a say in the post-war world.   Thus, after the Armistice, he left the White House to sail to Paris for six months of intense negotiations with many (not all) of the combatants, and the resulting document, the Versailles Treaty, met two of Wilson’s most dearly held goals:  to create a world forum to handle disputes (the League of Nations), and to establish the leadership of the U.S. in foreign affairs.

Woodrow Wilson in Paris 1919
Woodrow Wilson in Paris, 1919

Of course, we know that the League failed, and a second world war began just twenty years after the Versailles Treaty was signed in Paris, but many historians argue that the failure of the League, and the rise of tyrants such as Mussolini and Hitler, could have been avoided, or minimized, if the U.S. had not tried to turn its back on the world in the 1920s and 1930s.    The U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty (a failure as much Wilson’s fault as the fault of isolationists in Congress), and thus the U.S. never joined the League of Nations.   It merely acted as an observer as Mussolini seized control of Italy, as Japan gobbled up Manchuria, and as Hitler blatantly ignored the Versailles Treaty.   The U.S. also failed to offer advice or caution to Britain and France when they scrambled about to respond to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938.    The U.S. came out of the Great War the most powerful – and arguably, the most respected – nation in the world.  Our economy boomed during and after the war, bringing up living standards in the U.S. and in other nations;  the importance of our economic stability was so important that when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the effects of that debacle were felt throughout the world.  But U.S. leaders, for various reasons, were reluctant to fulfill the obligations of leadership.

Compare this to American policies after World War II:  when famine and unrest threatened the economic, social, and political stability of Europe in the 1940s, the U.S. instituted the Marshall Plan (which while costing over $13 billion, created thousands of jobs in the U.S. and created economic growth lasting twenty-five years).   When the Soviets tried to take over all of Berlin, the U.S. began a massive airlift to the western sectors of Berlin, and then created NATO as a tool to fight Communist expansion; we recognized that the safety and security of the U.S. depended on the safety and security of other nations.

Europe devastation 1945

Skipping ahead to the 1970s and 1980s, American Presidents negotiated arms limitation deals with the Soviet Union that ultimately bankrupted the Soviets.     All of these policies took time, attention to detail, and a willingness to recognize the interdependence of nations.

Being a leader means more than just shoving aside less powerful nations;  it means learning to cooperate and recognize the validity of others’ viewpoints while also staying focused on your own interests;  leadership on the world stage demands an understanding of history and politics.  Sadly, the U.S. leadership in 2017 doesn’t see value in those things, nor in getting along with others (apparently they never went to kindergarten), and is like a spoiled child who demands friendship but doesn’t want to share toys.  Is it the end of the American Century?   I fear that the U.S. abandonment of a leadership role in climate change creates a vacancy that other nations, such as China, India or even Russia, will rush in to fill.  The U.S. won’t have a voice in an issue that affects the quality of life of all humans, and instead will leave the decision-making to other nations that we already fear.


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