In 1941, prior to the U.S.'s entry into World War II, the co-founder of this magazine, Henry Luce, penned an essay in LIFE that exhorted "unhappy" Americans, "[distracted] with lifeless arguments about isolationism," to "create the first great American century" the first, mind you, not the last. We are now entering the second decade of what will be an even more markedly American century; in fact, the Americanization of the world will characterize the foreseeable future far more than the past.
It's true that Brand America took a hit this decade. The global superpower botched an election at home and an occupation overseas. Its vaunted financial markets were roiled by sketchy accounting early in the decade, then triggered a global economic crisis later on, thanks to Wall Street's leveraged gamble that it had conquered risk once and for all. All these missteps dented the U.S.'s credibility but were also a reminder that, fairly or not, the U.S. retains an enviably large margin of error. And times of economic dislocation only accentuate America's competitive advantage its nimbleness and adaptability.
With only 5% of the world's population, the U.S. produces a quarter of the world's economic output. Even as the global economic crisis led to the expansion of the G-7 (or G-8, depending on who's counting) into the G-20, none of the newcomers offer a compelling challenge to the American way. If anything, they want to make sure the U.S. abides by its own rules. The dollar's status as the world's reserve currency has only been bolstered as the Greek debt crisis unveils the perils of a monetary union that lacks political and fiscal coherence. China, ostensibly the next big thing, continues its long march toward Western notions of private property, while Beijing bets on America's future by stocking up on billions of dollars' worth of Treasury bills. The rise of a consumerist middle-class society in nations like China, Brazil and India creates a more stable world, not to mention new markets for American products and culture.
And yet doomsayers continue to decry America's decline. This isn't new. As far back as 1988, when Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was a best seller, the commentariat latched onto his (more hedged than remembered) warning that America ran the risk of "imperial overstretch" "the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend all simultaneously."
So, what happened next? Well, the Berlin Wall collapsed, much of the world embraced market capitalism, and the U.S. shrank the globe and took it online with a revolutionary new technology that strengthens its cultural dominance. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping the Pax Americana has become far lighter. Despite the nation's two long-running commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 288,000 American service members posted or deployed overseas and a defense budget of 4.6% of GDP are near postWorld War II lows (in 1987 the corresponding figures were 524,000 service members overseas and a defense budget in excess of 6% of GDP). And this historically modest investment dwarfs the military spending of the next nine powers combined.
Still, we fret and we fret about our status. This is partly a good thing, because it beats complacency, but a bad thing when it begrudges the newfound wealth of others. The fact that millions of people in India and China are getting their first taste of prosperity shouldn't make Americans feel poorer.
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