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The Sun Sets on American Empire

Throughout the campaign season, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama alike insisted that the 21st century must be another American century—that the U.S. should continue to be the world’s predominant military, economic, and political power for generations to come. After ten years of shattered hegemonic dreams, leaders of both parties still feel compelled to declare their loyalty to the vision that inspired the follies of the Bush era. Foreign-policy debate continues to turn on the question of how to preserve American hegemony, rather than how to secure U.S. interests once America is no longer so dominant. What nobody in Washington can acknowledge is the subject that this book addresses: the American Century, to the extent that it ever was real, is now definitely at an end.

Henry Luce famously coined the phrase in a 1941 issue of Life. He declared that America’s role was to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit by such means as we see fit.” As Luce imagined it, that influence would extend to economic and cultural dominance as well as political. His missionary vision took for granted that America had not only the right but the obligation to propagate its values and exercise leadership throughout the world. Seventy years later, Luce’s idea is still part of Washington’s bipartisan consensus, but in recent years it has collided with the practical limits of American power.

As editor Andrew Bacevich explains in his introductory remarks, the purpose of the essays assembled in this volume is not “to decry or to mourn the passing of the Short American Century (much less to promote it resurrection) but to assess its significance.” Each chapter is a study of different aspects of this era of American preeminence, reflecting on matters of race, consumerism, and globalization, as well as reviewing the history of the last 70 years with special attention to the critics of U.S. policies abroad. Though often sharply critical of the moral and political failings of this epoch, the contributors—a distinguished collection of historians and international-relations scholars—are also judicious in their interpretations. The book aspires to be much more than a series of polemics, and it is very successful.

If the American Century is at an end and the contributors are performing a postmortem, what do they identify as the patient’s cause of death? One answer is that American economic and political strength have been abused and run down through mismanagement. As Emily Rosenberg discusses in her chapter on consumerism, America’s culture of mass consumption cultivated habits that have sapped American wealth and power through the accumulation of enormous private and public debt, while the spread of the consumerist ethos around the world has further eroded America’s earlier economic advantages.


American economic and political strength are also victims of the American Century’s own successes. As Jeffry Frieden explains in his chapter on globalization, the success of the United States in leading the rebuilding of the global economy in the wake of World War II produced a competitive economic order that has hastened the end of American preeminence. Viewed this way, the American Century ended because it is no longer needed. Likewise, Akira Iriye argues that the world has become so integrated economically and culturally that the global order that is replacing the U.S.-led one will not be dominated by any one nation.

Proponents of continued U.S. hegemony sometimes attempt to scare Americans with visions of a world led by Russia or China, but what comes after the American Century will be nothing like that. According to Iriye, “it will not be a Chinese century or an Indian century or a Brazilian century. It will be a long transnational century.” This is a useful reminder that it is extremely unusual for any one nation to be hegemon over the globe, and it is not something that will be quickly or easily repeated.

While this book is a “dissenter’s guide” to the period of “putative American dominion,” the contributors’ judgments of the American Century are not always negative. At least one, David Kennedy, sees its early conclusion as the result of a disastrous departure from the postwar American legacy abroad during the Bush administration. Kennedy is offended that the Bush administration “trashed” the achievements of presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman and weakened some of the major international institutions created after World War II. Instead of seeing the Bush era as the logical conclusion of decades of American triumphalism, Kennedy views it as a betrayal of the creators of the American Century.

At the other end of the spectrum, Walter LaFeber dismisses the idea of an American Century as a fantasy, a “dream” that Luce “conjured up in order to persuade” Americans to go to war. As LaFeber sees it, the pretensions to an American Century were exploded by the postwar division of Europe and the Cold War and have been mocked once again by the recent failures of the “freedom agenda.” Yet he concludes on the grim note that this fantasy will continue to distort U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future, as long as Americans ignore its consequences.

Pragmatic realists have been among the strongest critics of America’s abuses of its power abroad. T.J. Jackson Lears recounts the evolving views of George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Sen. William Fulbright in his study of the pragmatic realist tradition in the 20th century. Lears traces the tradition back to its anti-imperialist roots in the thought of William James, who was among the foremost opponents of American expansion overseas at the turn of the last century, especially the annexation of the Philippines. James’s respect for pluralism informed his hostility to any political project aimed at denying the self-determination of other nations, and his pragmatism led him to prefer the instruction of experience over the abstractions used to agitate for war.

The careers of Kennan and Niebuhr best reflect the tensions in this tradition between accepting a significant American political and military role abroad and recoiling from abuses of power, ideological enthusiasm, and the militarization of foreign policy. Lears says of Niebuhr and his support for U.S. entry into World War II that the “Jamesian tradition might be anti-imperial but not necessarily anti-interventionist—if this interventionist argument was grounded in a convincing assessment of consequences.” It was in response to the consequences of abuses of the containment doctrine Kennan had defined that he became what Lears calls “a prophet of discriminating restraint,” as he showed in his criticism of the superpowers’ nuclear arms build-up and in his opposition to the Vietnam War. Although Niebuhr recognized the need for U.S. involvement in World War II, the theologian was appalled by Luce’s call for an “American Century,” which he dismissed as a new “white man’s burden.”

Politicians still use the phrase “American Century” as shorthand for U.S. global preeminence, and there continue to be demands for a new one. The neoconservative Project for a New American Century—which disbanded in 2006 only to be reorganized as the Foreign Policy Initiative in 2009—is one well-known example, but it would be wrong to see a fixation on another American Century as something confined to that faction of the Republican Party. The dream of perpetual power is based on much more widely shared assumptions that America is not subject to the same limitations that have constrained all other great powers in the past.

[1]Calls for another American Century are closely linked to an emphasis on a peculiar, distorted understanding of American exceptionalism. At their best, recent references to this idea have been expressions of respect for America’s tradition of constitutional government, but more typically they have been little more than appeals to what was once called “national greatness conservatism,” which defines America’s worth in terms of its commitment to global hegemony and military supremacy. Just as often, these references have been clumsy appeals to a form of American nationalism in which the country is conceived of as an ideological project. When proponents of continued U.S. hegemony invoke American exceptionalism, it is usually an idea of America as a crusading power regularly interfering in the affairs of other nations that they have in mind.

Rejecting the ambitions of the American Century is to some extent “to concede that American Exceptionalism is an illusion or an outright fraud,” as Bacevich says in the concluding chapter. As long as most Americans imagine that there is a necessary link between our country’s unique and admirable qualities and an activist, hegemonic role around the world, the fantasy will persist that the American Century has never ended and can continue indefinitely. The last 70 years have been a transformative time in our history, but they do not define the whole of the American experience, nor should we mistake America’s role during this period for our country’s natural or destined role. The Short American Century serves as a timely and necessary corrective to the illusion that American global pre-eminence is unending, an empire to last, if not a thousand years, at least another hundred.

Daniel Larison is a TAC senior editor. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/Larison [2].

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "The Sun Sets on American Empire"

#1 Comment By paul On November 7, 2012 @ 12:30 am

What will Israel do if the US isn’t the empire protecting them

#2 Comment By TommyJeff On November 7, 2012 @ 8:56 am

The American Century was not given an extension because America never set out to be an empire. Had we wielded – and used – atomic weapons the way, say, Harry V’s England wielded the longbow; had we left Europe scrounging in the dirt rather than rebuilding it; had we thrown our weight around much more in the world economically, we might be sitting prettily atop a hegemony which was not vulnerable to crashes in the stock market.

On the other hand, Europe and Asia might have gone all-Communist, and we might have had complete nuclear annihilation by now. No, instead of ruling the world like a cackling b-movie villain, we chose the course dictated by our history: we became, collectively, *Cincinnati*, returning to our farms and other tasks rather than going through the bother of world conquest.

Our reward is a world that is rapidly becoming more like us. Our friends in Europe are attempting – with mixed success – to emulate our free-nation-building. We have friends and influence throughout the world. More of humanity lives in freedom today than under tyranny. Say what you want about America, detractors, but there is little question that we brought all this about through our leaders’ prudent choices in the 20th century.

Like it or not, we have built – and are still building – a ‘novus ordo seclorum.’ That term might scare some, for whom it conjures images of an Illuminati-run, Antichrist-led empire of oppression, but it is a term that was coined by the fans and promoters of democracy and republicanism, long before they even knew such a system as ours was possible, let alone destined for long-term success.

It’s time we owned the new world order we have created.

#3 Comment By celtthedog On November 7, 2012 @ 10:27 am

TommyJeff’s comments above represent so much of what is wrong with US thinking.

Had the US wielded atomic weapons like the longbow? The US monopoly on nuclear weapons was very brief — and the US only had the atomic bomb in 1945 because Britain handed over all its know-how on the bomb to the US. I also think it would have been a lot harder to defeat the much stronger Red Army (whose troops were cheek-to-cheek) with your own in Europe with the limited supply of non-precision nukes of 1945.

Rebuilt Europe? Well, parts of it.

And spare me the Cincinnatus malarky — the US became a continental empire through wars of aggression against weaker states (hello Mexico!) and genocidal wars against the original inhabitants. Like Russia, your rise to power came through continental imperialism.

The best aspects of the world today, modern capitalism, democracy, classic liberalism, industrialism, higher literacy rates, decent sanitation, modern medicine, were not brought into being by the US — indeed, the US’s role as the major contributor to the shape of the world only dates to 1945.

American exceptionalism, novus ordo seclorum, the American century are all terms of hubris.

And that is followed by nemesis as sure as night follows day.

#4 Comment By Jay On November 7, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

Paul – They’ll grow a pair of their own.

#5 Comment By Alex W On November 7, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

Wow TommyJeff, the fact that there are probably a lot of people out there that agree with you scares the living s%$# out of me…

#6 Comment By James Canning On November 7, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

Some of the calls for an “American century”, since the collapse of the USSR, were propaganda for continuingsquandering of vast sums on unnecessary weapons, foreign troop deployments, etc etc etc.

#7 Comment By James Canning On November 7, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

paul – – Israel needs to make a fair deal with the Palestinians. Foolish American “support” is preventing this from taking place.

#8 Comment By sglover On November 7, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

TommyJeff hallucinates:

“The American Century was not given an extension because America never set out to be an empire. Had we wielded – and used – atomic weapons the way, say, Harry V’s England wielded the longbow; had we left Europe scrounging in the dirt rather than rebuilding it; had we thrown our weight around much more in the world economically, we might be sitting prettily atop a hegemony which was not vulnerable to crashes in the stock market.”

The total absence of imagination and adult empathy here is stunning. Given the history of the first half of the 20th Century, Americans would somehow be better off by reprising it during the second?!?!?

We were very very fortunate to have actual statesmen, strategists, at the beginning of the postwar era. Those guys actually learned from history. Ever since, Americans seem to have almost consciously chosen the opposite course.

#9 Comment By Rossbach On November 7, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

Imperialism (by any name) has never helped any nation to either prosper or preserve itself over the long term. It didn’t save Rome, it didn’t help Britain, France, or Italy. Why do we imagine that it could help us?

#10 Comment By goldhoarder On November 8, 2012 @ 7:54 am

Because this time it’s different. Again.

#11 Comment By dan On November 8, 2012 @ 11:45 am

This should be a warning to the entire world about american imperialism under the hawkish neo-conservatives: “You are surrounded by a ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence…….building a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.” John Kennedy, 1961

#12 Comment By James Canning On November 8, 2012 @ 2:27 pm


Great Britain and France were richer and more powerful thanks to their empires in the 18th C.

Britain’s empire was vital to winning the First World War. And the Second W W too.

US does not have an “empire” intended to increase the wealth and power of the nation. Idea is to help Israel oppress the Palestinians, among other things.

#13 Comment By john On November 8, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

America has both hard power in the form of its militaary might and a more formidable soft power in the strength of its principles. Both have been squandered.

The hard power was misapplie,. when it turned from defense to attacking nations illegally and getting involved in unwinnable fourth generation warfare that sapped the morale of the armed services and wasted billions of dollars

Then there were the kidnappings, the torture, the non judicial assassinations The Patriot Act, and complete disregard for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth amendments along with haneas corpus, making a hypocrisy of our soft power.

Unfortunately the political class and a good many American citizens still live in that fatasy world of America as an indipensable nation.

#14 Comment By J Garbo On November 8, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

Bravo. At last, a sensible evaluation of America’s rampage across the world. And as history has shown, we weaker nations must wait patiently for the Beast to exhaust itself into self-destruction, then bewildered incomprehension, dawning realization, and finally humble transformation into a self-pitying, weaker nation. Amen.

#15 Comment By Clint On November 9, 2012 @ 12:06 am

Special interest that skew democracy are to blame for our downfall: please, one person one vote not one dollar one vote.

#16 Comment By Augustbrhm On November 9, 2012 @ 5:27 am

Rampaging and murdering since 1776 I am relieved that it is coming to a ognominius end.

#17 Comment By Old Whig On November 9, 2012 @ 8:17 am

I’ll not mourn the fall of something that should have never existed. To hell with empire.

#18 Comment By John S On November 9, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

I served under Col. Bacevich in Fulda, Germany, in the late 80’s and I’ve kept up with his articles and publications ever since. I’ve not read this one yet but I already know he’s right on the mark and doesn’t pull any punches. I look forward to this read.

#19 Comment By Jim Houghton On November 9, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

The end of the American Century is great news for us all. We’ve been like a fussy old lady going around the neighborhood spying on people, leaving them notes to clean up their yard and chasing children off our lawn. In the process, we’ve neglected our own interests at home. The place is falling apart. Too much of our energy and treasure has been spent trying to boss around the rest of the world while our roads and schools and other infrastructure have started to collapse. We haven’t kept up our leadership role in manufacturing except when it comes to military hardware. We don’t do pure research unless it has military value. Thank god we’re thinking about giving up the job of being the biggest busybody on the planet. Now maybe we can enjoy life a little.

#20 Comment By Publicus On November 9, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

Actually, it really isn’t a very good idea for just one nation to exercise hegemony over everyone else – you end up being hated by your foes and clandestinely despised by your allies.
America squandered its power to advance the interests of a handful of corporatists and fat, balding middle-aged chicken hawks who want to play Roman proconsul. Also, American power was built on the wreakage of 1945 – who, seriously, could have contested it? A bankrupt British Empire? A Soviet Union that had experienced over 20 million deaths? In the long run, a return to the balance had before 1914 – when there were multiple “great powers” – is better for the globe. The British have accepted the demise of the Pax Britannica – it’s time we Americans accept the ending of the Pax Americana and use our resources for our own people.

#21 Comment By DanDeMan On November 9, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

We are an imperial power in decline. Our elite, both the political and monied class, have sold the nation out for short-term profits. I fear a situation similar to what is happening in Greece, the rise of radical right-wing extremest like the Golden Dawn, not but Hellenic Brown Shirts. History is replete with this degenerative process that precipitates when an economy races to the bottom. The decline is just starting. And, no electable pol in this country will do anything to stop it in the near future because it would be political suicide.

Finally, we have the elected officials we, as a country, deserve. The seething anger of far to many in this country, along with unfathomable levels of ignorance and idiocy, is breath taking. I interact with some of the most delusional of the right-wing on a regular basis. They are stunning to behold.

#22 Comment By Jim Houghton On November 9, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

Dan — the point isn’t to “stop” the decline. Nor is it to think of “decline” as tragic. The point is to accept that history is a thing in motion, that we are no longer the only big kid on the block, and accept that graciously and willingly. It’s been a lot of work, being the BKotB, there is a life after empire. There are of course those whose sexual inadequacies require absolutely that they feel “exceptional” on the world stage and those people will go down fighting (or, if they can, sending other people’s children to do their fighting for them). The most we can do is our part to move on gracefully and thoughtfully.

#23 Comment By David On November 9, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

One side of my family arrived from Norway in 1867,the other from Denmark in 1901.
Had a Great Uncle in Dewey’s Fleet in Manilla Bay in 1898 (He was one of the few Americans wounded the day the Spanish Fleet was destroyed there)
An uncle enlisted in the US Navy in 1919 and was washed overboard in the South China Sea in 1927 during “the” era of Gunboat Diplomacy.
Another uncle graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1927, had a long and varied Navy career, and died in a plane crash in 1948 (?)while serving on MacArthur’s Occupation Force of Japan Staff.
In WWII my father and all fit cousins and uncles enlisted.
During the “peace time”Draft (1953-1972?) all my brothers, cousins, second cousins, and I enlisted in the Armed Forces.
Since the end of the Vietnam War no son, daughter niece, nephew, grandson/daughter, or grandniece/nephew that I know of has enlisted. The general consensus in the family is that if America were facing any real threat the sons and daughters of the wealthy and well-connected elite would rush to fill the military ranks at all levels. This we will never see. (America increasingly in fact is relying on mercenary forces to do it’s bidding.)
Another New American Century?What a joke.
(I personally believe real Patriots ought to be doing their level best to drive a stake through the heart of Pax Americana and restore the now totally dead Republic.)

#24 Comment By Andrew John On November 13, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

As a lifelong admirer of so much noble American history and people, from Washington to Kennan, it has been a tragedy to watch the sad decline of this Empire. Watching George W. Bush hop out of a fighter plane (piloted by a hidden other) and stroll about a flight deck filled with real American soldiers with a sign reading “Mission Accomplished!” was political buffoonery of the highest order, an embarrassment to the country that gave the world someone like Abraham Lincoln. But this always happens doesn’t it? The rich and powerful mistake their own self-interest (and that of their children) with the interests of the nation (they must be the same thing!). Few great leaders emerge from such circumstances. And so, like Rome, a corrupt and delusional minority distort truth and throw other people’s children into the firing line for profit, exhausting through such cynicism some very great ideals.

#25 Comment By Jim Dooley On November 14, 2012 @ 9:49 am

The American Nomenklatura will persist in their faith out of habit and economic necessity long after reality has posted the words on the wall. Observed from any distance, our interventions overseas these past 15 years are aptly characterized as the floundering of Nixon’s “pitiful helpless giant.” Only willful blindness or base self-interest can explain how our government institutions propagandize these operations as beneficial to our national interests.
Of course it can not go on forever. The questions are when and how it goes under, with a bang or with a whimper.

#26 Comment By Peter On November 15, 2012 @ 12:13 am

The article says ‘Although Niebuhr recognized the need for U.S. involvement in World War II, the theologian was appalled by Luce’s call for an “American Century,” which he dismissed as a new “white man’s burden.”’

There was no need for the USA to get involved in WW II against Germany. FDR was a liar and a fool. On October 27, 1941 he spoke as a fool when he claimed Germany was planning to take over South America. Germany was already having difficulty outside Moscow in October 1941 where the bloodiest war in history was being fought.

The English created a map they claimed they took from the “NAZIS” that supposedly showed the Germans plans to turn the continent into “five vassal states” . It was all part of the propaganda being pushed to plunge the country into war against Germany.

Jews were actively working on Churchill and FDR to push both countries into creating a world war against Germany and these countries were putting forth the most ridiculous lies in their speeches about Germany’s desire for “world conquest”.

Germany wanted the land stolen from it back when the allies created the new countries Poland and Czechoslovakia from land stolen from Austria and Germany in 1919 and placed millions of Germans under foreign rule.

#27 Comment By Jon Slater On September 28, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

I found this artistic expression of the demise of the usa empire – [3]