[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
In The Short American Century, Andrew Bacevich and a group of distinguished contributors take apart the idea of the American Century. Although Henry Luce was not the first “American Exceptionalist,” his 1941 essay on the role that the United States ought to play in the world provides the contributors with a useful touchstone for modern conceptions of America’s messianic role in the world. Appearing in the February 1941 edition of Life magazine, sandwiched between an advertisement for Havoline motor oil and a profile of Betty Carstair’s private island, Luce’s editorial argued that the path to US hegemony was now open. While the United States had enjoyed the world’s largest economy since the late 1890s and was widely recognized to have the greatest latent military capability of any industrialized country, the US political system had self-consciously rejected a global leadership role after World War I. Luce wanted to make certain that a new generation of US policymakers would not make a similar “mistake” in the wake of the Second World War.
Bacevich and the other contributors to the volume probe the historical, social, intellectual, economic, and political foundations of modern American exceptionalism, investigating how beliefs about a unique American place in the world developed, and how those beliefs affected American foreign policy. While the contributors disagree about the nature and foundations of American exceptionalism, they concur that the American Century, to the extent that it existed, has effectively come to an end. Walter LaFeber contends that the United States never played as dominant a role in global politics as the term “American Century” would suggest. Jeffrey Frieden argues that the United States effectively fell victim to its own “success,” with globalization eventually undermining the foundations of American power.
As with all such projects, The Short American Century runs into definitional issues. What exactly does it mean to say that there was an “American century?” Surely it does not mean that the United States was able to unproblematically achieve every one of its foreign policy goals. Similarly, the “American century” would not seem necessarily to mean that the United States had consistently acted in accordance with all of its professed values, under all situations. Rather, suggesting that an “American century” has a beginning and end would seem to imply that the United States was particularly influential, perhaps overwhelmingly influential, during some specific period of time, with the “Short” meaning that the time has ended. Presumably (the contributors aren’t completely clear), the American dominated system has been replaced with something more closely resembling a concert of powers, with China, India, and the European Union all playing major roles. However, the contributors do not present a clear concept of what has followed the presumed end of the short American Century.
We shouldn’t expect that such a diverse group of contributors would have precisely the same appreciation of the causes and consequences of American exceptionalism, or even the time frame of the Short American Century. The Luce essay plays a very effective role as a device for tying these diverse contributions together. I thought that there was occasionally some sloppiness in linking a diversity of phenomenon to the central thesis; for example, the origins of the United States Army Air Force’s focus on strategic bombing are a good deal more complicated than David Kennedy presents, and Walter Lafeber’s implicit definition of US influence is perhaps a touch too ambiguous. Nevertheless, The Short American Century is a useful history of how the exceptionalist idea has played out since the 1940s, and especially of the linkage between religious, military, economic, and social understandings of exceptionalism.