The American Century

The following is a paper submitted as part of my Master’s degree in History. The paper is a ‘historiographical study’, a paper which considers the viewpoints of historians and how arguments have developed. Regardless, I am hoping you get something out of it as the topic it covers is extremely important. Since it is an academic paper it is properly researched, referenced and footnoted. The references can be found at the foot of this page.

On the 26th April 2016, then-American-presidential hopeful Donald Trump claimed during a foreign policy address that his prospective administration would ‘no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism’.[1] For many this was a sudden and brazen attack on a world system that had become too intrinsic to be challenged. However, the work of historians has chronicled a process spanning the decades following the Second World War, coined ‘The American Century’, and has produced a case for the argument that Trump’s attack on globalisation is not as spontaneous as it seems.[2] For some, globalisation has been the driving force of progress and represents the endgame for society. For others, globalisation has overruled the sovereignty of the nation-state and has overzealously imposed itself on people content to live without it. The real-world implications of this topic are therefore self-evident as, of the turn of the twenty-first century, the globalist world system is in a state of crisis through the nature of its own ideology – one that the pioneer of world systems theory, Immanuel Wallerstein, deliberated on.[3] If, in the ideological vein of Edward Carr, the purpose of studying history is to find causality, to bring clarity to current events, then studying how historians have assessed the cause-and-effect decline of globalisation is a fruitful effort.[4] This essay will assess the two periods of American history where historians argue the American Century, and the globalisation inherent to it, began and ended. This essay also aims to acknowledge historiography and emphasise significant events. Ultimately, through assessing key events and the viewpoints surrounding them, this essay will conclude that through its efforts to implement globalisation the American Century achieved less than it wanted and more than it bargained for, creating a flawed world system and ensuring the end of its own hegemony.[5]

Before proceeding it is necessary to establish the main historiographical and ideological battle-lines around the subject of globalisation. The central debate around globalisation is whether it is a force for progress or a force for oppression. The two issues of many in this debate revolve around interdependency and economics. Martin Wolf, in defence of the globalist system, points to historical events such as the Second World War and the sequence of conflicts that followed it as being an example of why the interdependent, interconnected world system globalisation preaches is a necessary inhibition; ‘if one raises their eyes and looks at the history of the world over the last century, one sees corrupt, incompetent, brutal and, depressingly often murderous governments everywhere. The history of the twentieth century is the story of crimes inflicted by those in power upon innocent people’.[6] This is a view supported by other historians like Harry Blutstein who, again pointing to history, say that the rise of the globalist world system was the ‘last best hope for peace’.[7] However, these two views only take into consideration the political aspects of a much wider debate. The arguments being offered by Wolf and Blutstein are common ones based on the idea that dependency of nations upon one another would in turn lead to the end of global conflict. While their argument has some merit it completely fails to account for the slew of, admittedly smaller scale but nonetheless tragic, conflicts in the latter half of the twentieth century that broke out as a direct cause of this dependency. This is the case John Milbank makes where he claims that the imposition of a globalist world system has been a consistent challenge for the nation-state throughout recent history, that hegemony will always invite dissent at best and conflict at worst.[8] Francis Fukuyama goes further in his assessment of this issue when he addresses the adverse effects that interdependency has, using America as an appropriate example, on domestic feeling; ‘the deeper problem lies in the fact that Americans are not, at heart, an imperialistic people. Benevolent hegemonies need a staying power that does not come easily to people who are reasonably content with their society as it is’.[9] Milbank’s and Fukuyama’s points are logically sound in the context of history as empires which committed, in the famous words of Paul Kennedy, ‘imperial overstretch’ were not empires for long afterword.[10] Imperial overstretch is a term used to describe the historical process when an empire overexerts itself either geographically, economically or militarily to the extent that it exhausts its resources and domestic support for the empire collapses.[11] One could counter this point by claiming that interdependency implies that one nation would not be permitted to collapse in this manner but that only raises yet another issue in that modern globalisation is widely considered to be synonymous with ‘Americanisation’, that America as the root genus of modern globalisation has become the metropole of a cultural and economic empire – the centre of an American Century.[12]

The second issue is that of economics, specifically on the debate surrounding whether a globalised economic world system is beneficial for many or for a few. Some historians, typically those with Marxist leanings, place the woes of the present day at the feet of neoliberal advocates of globalisation, pointing to the steep economic disparity between nations being a direct result of a capitalist world system allowed to run amok throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.[13] While facts such as comparative studies of gross domestic product and currency exchange rates are evidence of economic disparity other historians like Niall Ferguson decry the claim that globalisation is culpable as a flawed argument.[14] Ferguson’s counter argument, an intriguing one at that, is that ‘the real problem is not globalization but its absence or inhibition. Indeed, the sad truth about globalization is that it is not truly global’.[15] This argument is somewhat idealistic if not completely implausible because it implies that if globalisation was universally practiced the issues it is alleged to bring would vanish. Implementing this would entail direct intervention as imposing a world system on the entire world without resistance is a pipedream. Whether disparity-by-design is an intentional element of globalisation is very much open for debate. In profound summation of the economical debate Andrew Bacevich delivers an assessment of the concept in that ‘globalization, in the first instance, was an economic phenomenon, but it was not only that. It’s political, social and cultural implications were no less profound. Though in an immediate sense about economics, globalization was ultimately about political power. It promised a new economic order to benefit all but beneath the surface it implied a reconfiguring of the international political order as well’.[16] Bacevich’s argument is one that connects the many themes of globalisation, including the aforementioned themes of interdependency, hegemony and economics. It is an argument further validated by the key events of globalisation’s twentieth century history.

The term ‘The American Century’ was coined in 1941 by the magazine magnate Henry Luce who, writing in Life, the sister editorial of Time magazine claimed that ‘the twentieth century is the American Century’ and that it was the duty of Americans to become the ‘missionaries of the world’.[17] In accordance with this globalisation’s current incarnation began in the wake of the Second World War, in 1947. The war had many effects on the world but the most significant among these effects was the emergence of the Soviet Union as a superpower to rival the United States. As Ernest Van Beugel summarises, the main characteristic of American foreign policy until the war had been one of isolationism – a strategy that  sheltered it from the worst effects of the conflict but would later prove to be the strategy that enabled the conflict to escalate.[18] Believing that America could not afford to repeat this policy the Truman administration began considering how it could bring stability to a shattered Europe and stave off Soviet expansion which Truman concluded thrived on economic uncertainty.[19] The result of this deliberation was the two dichotomously opposed systems of America and the Soviet Union coming into an indirect war known as The Cold War. While the Truman administration and the political elite of America reached a consensus on its course of action, financial aid for beleaguered European nations in the form of the Marshall Plan, it needed to garner popular support for the same. For this to work it required putting America on a course that broke extraordinarily sharply with its isolationist history. To Stephen Ambrose, this was the single biggest issue the Truman administration faced; convincing American taxpayers to shore up large swathes of Europe through financial aid.[20]

Two figures need addressing to illustrate just how remarkable and arduous this process was. The first is George Kennan, historian and diplomat of the Truman administration. Kennan’s claim to historical fame is him being a ‘chief architect of the containment policy’ through his Long Telegram in 1946 and subsequent article The Sources of Soviet Conduct the following year, a role prominent Cold War historians like John Gaddis credit him for.[21] What is interesting about Kennan however is that he quickly changed his stance on the very policy he was instrumental in forming when the National Security Council Report No.68 (NSC-68) was adopted in 1950. The NSC-68 proposed a major escalation of American military spending and direct military aid to American allies facing alleged Soviet encroachment, alarmed Kennan who feared such actions could lead to open warfare.[22] The second figure is the theologian, public figure and renowned political commentator Reinhold Niebuhr who published The Irony of American History in 1952 where he claimed that ‘Americans view themselves as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection’.[23]  Marxist and revisionist historians could be eager to seize the chance, upon reading that one quotation from Niebuhr, to decry him as an imperialist but they would be wrong. Niebuhr, in the same work, warned of this moral pilgrimage potentially causing the demise of America in that ‘should the United States perish the ruthlessness of the foe would only be the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident or history but by hatred and vainglory’.[24] Kennan and Niebuhr both saw the need for America to become a pillar of the post-war world, but not the only pillar, as they also saw the dangers of meeting the same fate as many empires before them. In an historical context, what Luce, Kennan and Niebuhr were proposing was an ‘Informal Empire’.[25] This term, originally coined by the British historian Charles Rayle Fay, describes imperialism that is passive in nature, such as the exertion of financial power or cultural influence. It’s counterpart, the formal or traditional empire, possesses the traits of the opposite such as outright military force, occupation and political subjugation being used to achieve the same ends.[26] The Marshall Plan, originally intended as a policy of Soviet containment, has been considered the origin of the American Century and globalisation where financial, military, and political interdependency became the operating method for a western world at odds with its ideological nemesis. Luce got his wish in that the Marshall Plan provided the bedrock for the American Century he desired.

The process in which the American Century declined began shortly after the term was coined. Following Fay’s definition of an informal empire the decline of the same would be when a formal, or traditional, empire takes its place. Try as though it might, the policy of containment could not prevent the Korean War of 1950 and the Vietnam War of 1955 from breaking out and forcing America into a proxy war with the Soviet Union. The military, political and cultural legacies of these two conflicts are immense in their respective ways but for the purposes of this study the crucial aspect of them is that these two conflicts effectively forced what was intended to be an informal empire to transform into a formal one. Following its calamitous invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and a brutal occupation which lasted a decade and sapped the public desire to maintain its influence, the Soviet Union capitulated and dissolved in 1991. While hailed as a resounding victory for the American Century it is likely that future histories will come to depict 1991 as the year when the Soviet Union died and the American Century contracted a terminal illness. This illness was one borne out of exertion, or to repeat Kennedy’s term, borne of imperial overstretch. With the fall of the Soviet Union the containment policy formulated to combat it had become obsolete, but throughout the experiments of its formal empire had come to take on a new life and meaning of its own.[27] A crucial event following the immediate collapse of the Soviet Union took place in American political and academic circles: the emergence of a new wave of neoconservatives and a new wave of new leftists. The first generation of the new left, as Michael Lang summarises it, emerged largely from the counter culture movement that itself was formed in response to the actions of the formal empire in the Vietnam War.[28] The second generation of new leftists were responsible for the propagation of the ’borderless world’ and ‘retreat of the nation state’ arguments which sought to evolve the idea of interdependency to what their perceived to be its final form, a multipolar world inclusive to all.[29] Meeting their challenge came the second wave of neoconservatives. Neoconservatives originally fought the cause of aggressive containment with great zeal but with the fall of the Soviet Union the second generation posited that the world was no longer bipolar or even multipolar for that matter, they believed that America was the unipolar force of the world. This is succinctly expressed by Charles Krauthammer, who like Luce before him, shot to notoriety for publishing an article in Time magazine. Krauthammer’s seminal work was The Unipolar Moment, where he stated that ‘the immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar, it is unipolar. The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States. The internationalist consensus is under renewed assault from a resurgence of 1930s conservative isolationism’.[30] Enthused by the defeat of the Soviet Union and, in an historical echo of Luce, it is probable that Krauthammer wrote in the hopes of influencing George H. W. Bush, attempting to convey to the republican president that Americans sought to expand the empire. However, as Maria Ryan claims, Krauthammer’s efforts were in vain as the neoconservatives of this era, in their efforts to rally behind the idea of unipolarity, ultimately failed; evidenced by the election of the democrat Bill Clinton in 1993 being a result of the American right failing to establish an identity all within it could accept.[31]

As a staunch advocate of the globalist world system Clinton was instrumental in bringing America into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, a move that he defended despite immense opposition from neoconservatives and more importantly the very democrats who had elected him.[32] Clinton, evidenced by the state of the union address he gave in the year 2000, declared ‘globalization is the central reality of our time but it is about more than economics. Our purpose must be to bring together the world around freedom and democracy and peace and to oppose those who would tear it apart’.[33] Ambrose pondered on what Clinton meant by ‘those who would tear it apart’ and came to the conclusion that if the Cold War enemy of the American Century was communism then the post-war enemy was protectionist isolationism, an daunting opponent considering a proportionately lengthier period of American history had arguably revolved around it.[34] Cohen went further in his own assessment of the Clinton presidency and came to the conclusion that actions such as the signing of NAFTA was a pivotal moment in the beginning of the end for the American Century. NAFTA alienated democrats and conservatives between each other and themselves as, for all the gesturing economists could make, unchecked globalisation was beneficial for participating nations economies but it also ‘created a disproportional amount of winners to losers’.[35] This complete breakdown of bipartisan co-operation is further contextualised through the neoconservative John Bolton who coined a term to categorise those who he felt had been left behind by globalisation, Americanists: ‘when Americanists speak out people often assume they are the great unlettered and unwashed, whom the cultured and educated globalists simply have not yet gotten under control. These times are over, clashes in the senate indicate that this hegemony is over. The Americanists have awoken’.[36] Despite his clear disdain for bipartisan politics and his advocating for populism some historians have ultimately come down on Bolton’s side. Alfred Eckes and Thomas Zeiler, foreshadowing Fukuyama, say that ‘Americans have little enthusiasm for either American-style globalization or for world leadership. The residual appeal of isolationism endures, after all this time’.[37] The appeal of isolationism is evident, as Americans regardless of ideology fear the economic inequality and cultural diminution the alternative is alleged to bring. Politicians and by extension the globalist world system and business interests they created, emboldened by the defeat of communism, disregarded the caution and moderation that enabled the American Century to initially flourish. James Harold, in spectacular foreshadowing of the Trump presidency, reiterates this in that the ‘old political movements of the 20th century are exhausted. Classic conservatism is dead – classic socialism has disappeared. The bankruptcy of these two respectable but outmoded positions leaves the path open for a new populism, based on an anti-globalization groundswell’.[38]

In conclusion, historians have demonstrated that the American Century began in the wake of the Second World War; when America stood in direct opposition to an external enemy it could rally itself against on common ground and with public support. They have proven that the American Century began in the form of an informal empire, one that would preserve itself and help encourage its system in others. However, with the defeat of its enemy the informal empire completed its transition to a formal empire with no external power to challenge it. They have shown that they American Century’s leaders, in succession, failed to learn from history and glean the misfortunes of previous empires and in doing so committed the terminal mistake of any empire, imperial overstretch. If the study of history is the study of causality as Carr said it was, then it is safe to conclude that the American Century failed its test. The failure of the American Century’s leaders to restrain themselves and acknowledge the people its world system abandoned meant that, in concurrence with Kennedy’s thesis, popular support for the empire collapsed. In this vein the advent of the Trump presidency, a populist president who based a sizeable portion of his campaign rhetoric on anti-globalisation sentiment, is not surprising. Historians like John Rapley explicitly warned of populist politics, bordering on the fundamental zeal witnessed in fundamentalist theocracies, replacing bipartisan discourse.[39] How America moves forward from the Trump presidency and the damage, or outright destruction, it inflicts on globalisation is uncertain but regardless of the outcome the American Century as history knows it cannot survive in its current capacity. On a concluding note, historian David Mason has words of encouragement about looking to history for the ideals of the future, words that this study finds itself pertinent to end on.

‘Dealing with the end of the American Century will require many adjustments for Americans, both citizens and leaders. It will require a humbler America, and the transition will require changes in the values of citizens and wise leadership in Washington. The result however, need not be catastrophic. It might allow a revival of other strains of the country’s traditions, such as compassion, tolerance, participation and community’.[40]


[1] Julian Hattem, ‘Trump warns against “false song of globalism”, The Hill (April, 2016).

[2] Inderjeet Paramar, Foundations of the American Century (Columbia University Press, 2012), p.2.

[3] Immanuel Wallerstein, Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century (New York, 1998), p.32.

[4] Edward Hewlett Carr, What Is History? (Cambridge University Press, 1968), p.81.

[5] John Ikenberry, Liberal Order & Imperial Ambition (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.3.

[6] Martin Wolf, Why Globalization Works (Yale University Press, 2004), p.70.

[7] Harry Blutstein, The Ascent of Globalisation (Manchester University Press, 2015), p.24.

[8] John Milbank, Sovereignty, Empire, Capital and Terror in Andrew Bacevich, The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire (Chicago, 2003), p.159.

[9] Francis Fukuyama, After the NeoCons (London, 2006), pp.112-113.

[10] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500 to 2000 (New York, 1987), p.488.

[11] Ibid, pp.490-496.

[12] Mark Sheetz, US Hegemony and Globalization (Geneva, 2006), p.5.

[13] Warren Cohen, America’s Failing Empire: US Foreign Relations since the Cold War (Glasgow, 2005), p.11.

[14] Niall Ferguson, Colossus: Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London, 2004), p.176.

[15] Ibid, p.177.

[16] Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S Diplomacy (Massachusetts, 2002), p.39.

[17] Henry Luce, ‘The American Century’, Life (February, 1941), pp.64-65.

[18] Ernest Van Der Beugel, From Marshall Aid to Atlantic Partnership (New York, 1966), p.6.

[19] Stephen Ambrose, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938 – 9th Edition (New York, 2011), p.77

[20] Ibid, p.82.

[21] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1982), p.24

[22] Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War: 1945 – 1996 (Boston, 1997), p.96.

[23] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York, 1952), p.77.

[24] Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, p.174.

[25] Charles Ryle Fay, Cambridge History of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1940), p.399.

[26] Ibid, p.400.

[27] Bacevich, American Empire, p.35.

[28] Michael Lang, ‘Globalization and its History’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol.78, No.4 (December, 2006), p.898.

[29] Ibid, p.900.

[30] Charles Krauthammer, ‘The Unipolar Moment’, Foreign Affairs, Vol.70, No.1 (September, 1990), pp.1-2.

[31] Maria Ryan, Neoconservatism and the New American Century (Basingstoke, 2010), p.2.

[32] Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, p.411.

[33] Gerhard Peters & John Woolley; William Clinton, ‘Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union’, The American Presidency Project (January, 2000).

[34] Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, p.412.

[35] Cohen, America’s Failing Empire, p.107.

[36] John Bolton, ‘Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?’, Chicago Journal of International Law, 1: Article 2 (April, 2000), pp.205-206.

[37] Alfred Eckes & Thomas Zeiler, Globalization and the American Century (Cambridge, 2003), p.239.

[38] James Harold, ‘Lessons from History: Globalization Then and Now’ in Nayan Chanda & Susan Froetschel, A World Connected: Globalization in the 21st Century (Yale University Press, 2012), p.294.

[39] John Rapley, Globalization and Inequality: Neoliberalism’s Downward Spiral (Colorado, 2004), p.108.

[40] David Mason, The End of the American Century (Maryland, 2009), p.10.


Ambrose, Stephen, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938 – 9th Edition (New York, 2011).

Bacevich, Andrew, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S Diplomacy (Massachusetts, 2002).

Bacevich, Andrew, The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire (Chicago, 2003).

Beugel, Ernest Van Der, From Marshall Aid to Atlantic Partnership (New York, 1966).

Blutstein, Harry, The Ascent of Globalisation (Manchester University Press, 2015).

Bolton, John, ‘Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?’, Chicago Journal of International Law, 1: Article 2 (April, 2000).

Carr, Edward Hewlett, What Is History? (Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Cohen, Warren, America’s Failing Empire: US Foreign Relations since the Cold War (Glasgow, 2005).

Chanda, Nayan & Froetschel, Susan, A World Connected: Globalization in the 21st Century (Yale University Press, 2012).

Eckes, Alfred & Zeiler, Thomas, Globalization and the American Century (Cambridge, 2003).

Fay, Charles Ryle, Cambridge History of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1940).

Ferguson, Niall, Colossus: Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London, 2004).

Fukuyama, Francis, After the NeoCons (London, 2006).

Gaddis, John Lewis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1982).

Hattem, Julian, ‘Trump warns against “false song of globalism”, The Hill (April, 2016)
Available at: (Last Accessed: 02/02/2017).

Ikenberry, John, Liberal Order & Imperial Ambition (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500 to 2000 (New York, 1987).

Krauthammer, Charles, ‘The Unipolar Moment’, Foreign Affairs, Vol.70, No.1 (September, 1990).

Lang, Michael, ‘Globalization and its History’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol.78, No.4 (December, 2006).

LaFeber, Walter, America, Russia, and the Cold War: 1945 – 1996 (Boston, 1997).

Luce, Henry, ‘The American Century’, Life (February, 1941).

Mason, David, The End of the American Century (Maryland, 2009).

Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Irony of American History (New York, 1952).

Paramar, Inderjeet, Foundations of the American Century (Columbia University Press, 2012).

Peters, Gerhard & Woolley, John; William Clinton, ‘Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union’, The American Presidency Project (January, 2000).

Rapley, John, Globalization and Inequality: Neoliberalism’s Downward Spiral (Colorado, 2004).

Ryan, Maria, Neoconservatism and the New American Century (Basingstoke, 2010).

Sheetz, Mark, US Hegemony and Globalization (Geneva, 2006).

Wolf, Martin, Why Globalization Works (Yale University Press, 2004).

Wallerstein, Immanuel, Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century (New York, 1998).



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