The United States’ influence in the world is due, not primarily to its military strength, but to the attractiveness of its culture.
Three months after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the acrid smoke from Ground Zero apparently still permeates Lower Manhattan. In the same way, September 11th insinuates its way into every issue of consequence or triviality. Be the occasion an affair of state, a Major League baseball game or a water-cooler chat, those tragic events cannot be ignored, even if sometimes perhaps they should be. While not of central importance to all matters, “9/11” is certainly germane to the question of the nature, origin and future of American global hegemony—the topic here—although the danger remains that it will assume greater importance than it actually merits. The terrorist attacks are only the most extreme manifestation of and rarest exception to the more rational anti-American resentment that has been increasingly widespread over many years.
Long before the planning of the September attacks, the shield of American military, economic and cultural supremacy behind which the free world has remained free was becoming less appreciated, even, arguably, under-appreciated. Particularly since the end of the Soviet threat, the still-emerging European Union had been gearing up to pull more of its own weight, whether politically, economically or militarily. An emergent U.S. unilateralism in recent international affairs—the abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the rejection of the idea of an international court to which its citizens would be subject, the hard sell of National Missile Defense (NMD), continuing contempt for the authority of the United Nations and recent opposition to the Small Arms Conference’s efforts to limit traffic in these weapons—had prompted many observers to complain that America had grown arrogant in its dominance and pugnacious with its power. As if trying to prove them right, in his speech to Congress after 9/11 President Bush challenged the world: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” The Americans’ relentless prosecution of the Afghan war is now adding more ammunition to these critics’ arsenals, even if sympathy for the U.S. as victim has muted their criticism.
All this shows just how enduring the questions and controversies surrounding unchecked American power will be. Why does America dominate? What is the basis of its power? If America and its doings in the world are ultimately to be judged, these are the first questions that will need to be asked.
Answers to these questions are complicated. But to establish one fact from the outset: America has never really been an imperial power—despite flirting with the idea at times. As a bumptious advocate of its own freedoms and ideals, an aggressive free-marketer and the most powerful economy in the world, America can certainly seem imperialistic but, strictly speaking, it is not. However impressive its smart bombs, the main constituents of American success are, not its military prowess, but rather:
- an abundance of land and natural resources;
- Protestantism and a powerful sense of practical and moral purpose;
- a British empirical-pragmatic approach to progress and the large-scale application, development and promotion of British liberty;
- a national foundation built not on ancient custom or dynastic rivalry but on the idealistic concept of a continual quest for “life, liberty and happiness.”
America’s brawny geography is God-given, and America has used this gift to make its own success. But there was British munificence too: It was Britain’s dominance, defeat or overpowering of its rivals in the 16th to 18th centuries that gave American colonists a free hand in exploiting the land. Britain and Britishness has been integral to America and its development, however much this fact is overlooked. One could almost say that in its seminal institutions and dominant modes of thought America will remain a British country or it will cease to be America, notwithstanding shifting ethnic demographics, and that instead of a Pax Americana we should really be speaking of “Pax Britannica II.” Almost. Thanks to its physical resources and open-ended idealism, America cannot be labelled British in perpetuity. America exists in the realm of possibility, in a state of continual becoming. In all of history, nothing short of art or religion has been so magnetic to so many people.
Among the earliest immigrants were English, Scottish and Ulster-Irish Calvinists who had left their homes in search of religious freedom or economic opportunity or both. Significantly for the future of America, their Protestantism was more muscular than the Catholic-tinted “High Church” Anglicanism of the English establishment. Their theology was harsh, emphasizing a personal and transcendent God who had commanded man to conquer nature and bend her to his will under the threat of the most ghastly penalties. The doctrine of “double predestination” had it that because man was irredeemable on his own merits and efforts God had pre-deteirmined that the majority of men be damned. Under Calvin’s rigid logic, if most people were predestined for hellfire, a few at least, “the Elect,” were just as surely marked for salvation. The natural corollary was that if one dedicated oneself to work (both practical and spiritual), not only would nature be humbled and God served, but one might become rich as well—and prosperity, surely, was a sign of God’s predisposed grace?
Calvinism was just the most striking example of an early American Protestant (generically small-p “puritan”) ethic that emphasized a devotion to vocation and worldly activity, self-reliance, thrift, and above all, individual responsibility before God. America’s first Europeans believed that not only their homesteads but their nation would shine as examples to neighbours and to the world: beacons of righteousness, as God had directed. This intense practical purposefulness and moral earnestness still animates the American spirit today. Later immigrants of other ethnicities or religions readily bought into these ideas, substituting America’s implicit promise of freedom and opportunity for the Protestant theology, and becoming Americans by doing so. The scale of the land itself required such qualities even where they were not freely offered.
America needed more than just elbow room and a work ethic, however. It inherited a kind of blueprint for political and economic success in the form of British Empiricism. As influenced by Francis Bacon, John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and other thinkers, the British have taken a very concrete approach to epistemological problems in the areas of politics, economics and jurisprudence. Thomas Carlyle explained that the English were a “dumb” people, meaning that they didn’t speak very much, that they weren’t much inclined to theorize or systematize but rather worked with the facts at hand while looking to experience and precedent for guidance when needed. (So much so, in fact, that they have been reluctant even to codify their Constitution, which remains mostly unwritten to this day.) Only the tangible and the measurable meant very much to poor limited Brindley, Carlyle’s representative Englishman: “The ineloquent Brindley, behold he has chained seas together; his ships do visibly float over valleys, invisibly through the hearts of mountains… [His] epic, unsung in words, is written in huge characters on the face of this Planet,—sea-moles, cotton trades, railways, fleets and cities, Indian Empires, Americas, New Hollands; legible throughout the Solar System!” (Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843), Book III, chapter v). Focusing pragmatically on the real problems of people and institutions with an eye to practical results created a progressive dynamic, which helped immeasurably to spur the development of capitalism, science and technology, but also kept one foot in the past and the tested habits and “prejudices” so vital to political, economic and social stability. Without this British empirical calm, revolutionary America might have gone as mad as revolutionary France. Stability allowed for further progress—for evolution not revolution—and so on. This strong mixture of both conservative and innovative impulses, Carlyle argued, made “the English,” by which he meant the British, a great people. Of course Britain’s preoccupation with politics, economics, jurisprudence and science has meant that most achievements in metaphysics and the fine and (especially) culinary arts have been left to other countries.
From 1066 through the next 700 years until the birth of America, thanks to the English Channel and the Royal Navy, Britain remained in relative isolation, incubating the whole evolving system of principles, rights and freedoms that, sadly, is the exception rather than the rule and the free world now mostly takes as its model for justice in human affairs. These include: a respect for human life; the supremacy of the individual; the rule of law; due process of law; the protection of the individual from the state (not vice versa); responsible government; the preservation and promotion of civil liberties; the right to property and to its security; the securing of contracts; habeas corpus; the presumption of innocence; the right to a speedy trial and the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers, among others. These principles and practices developed slowly, to be sure, but neither did they take many backward steps—British liberty had a way of securing what it had acquired. All of them, inchoate if not fully formed, were carried across the Atlantic as a birthright by the first Americans, and were used against the British themselves in the propaganda war preceding the Revolution. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, the British had sought a degree of control over them which, as the Philadelphia Congress put it, “they know to be peculiarly reprobated by the very constitution of that Kingdom.” These principles and approaches were applied, extended and elaborated, painted in vivid colours on the broad canvas of the new world. British Empiricism was distilled into American Pragmatism, the philosophical tradition so typically and recognizably American. Perhaps most notably, America took 18thand 19th-century British economic liberties for its starting point and developed the freest of free market systems. Laissez-faire capitalism and freer trade have been the knife-edge of American dominance.
America dominates and is largely, if grudgingly, accepted in that role, not only because it has demonstrated, empirically, the greater utility of its habits and institutions for the fostering and securing of individual rights, economic prosperity, freedom, stability, opportunity and above all happiness, but also because in a sense it had won the war of ideas from the beginning, by default. Just as the U.S. greenback sets the tone in international finance, American culture is now manifestly—and really always has been—the human cultural standard. The speed with which virtually all civilized nations and some not so civilized fell in step behind America and its leadership after Sept. 11th was a recognition, not just of American strength and ability to get things done, but also of its natural leaderly qualities and widely perceived authority to speak and act on behalf of others.
When at the height of the Age of Enlightenment America declared itself independent for the purposes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it embodied just the right combination of resources, ideals and inheritances to tap into a kind of human historical-cultural imperative. This imperative is the “experiment” on which, uniquely in the history of nations, America was founded: that people and societies should be free to make their own way as it were, untethered, unimpeded and unprodded by long-established, deep-rooted customs, prohibitions and suspicions, unnannied by paternalistic governments. America is humanity in a Petri dish, propagating itself almost as if under laboratory conditions, seemingly impervious to outside factors, making its way forward as it can.
American culture therefore exhibits—in great abundance—everything that occurs naturally in this context of freedom. If America were psychoanalyzed as a person might be, the diagnosis would be bipolar personality disorder, maybe even schizophrenia. America has the most democratized society on earth, and a presidency festooned with regal trappings; unabashed capitalist greed and the highest levels of private philanthropy; the highest First-World percentages of regular churchgoers and fundamentalist Christians together with Hollywood amorality and grotesquery; America is the home of both the hippy movement and the KKK; a haven for anti-intellectualism and couchpotatoism and a hotbed of vigorous academic and public debate; the world leader in obesity but a nation of sport-loving recreationists, fitness freaks and body-sculpting narcissists; a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” that yet suffered systemic racial segregation right up until the 1960s; there is appalling litigiousness at home and one-voiced, flag-waving jingoism abroad; wrenching urban disintegration and bucolic rural peace; American ambivalence is the dualism of man.
This is the source of America’s greatness and its ridicule both. Much is made of American self-absorption and ignorance of the outside world, but ignorance goes both ways. To many foreigners, and to Islamic fundamentalists particularly, America is a cardboard-cutout, latter-day Sodom & Gomorrah. That it has long engaged in fierce “culture wars” within its own borders is not well understood. And when its disparate components come together with characteristic purposefulness in the face of an enemy that threatens its cherished freedoms, understanding is not likely to be increased. At such times America can seem to the undiscriminating eye like a monolithic representation of its most obvious external manifestation, Hollywood permissiveness and “liberal decadence.”
Acts of terrorism directed at America from the Middle East are only earthquake-rumblings at the faultline between the religious-authoritarian-ascetic and the secular-permissive-decadent that runs through the heart of humanity. This schism is often over-simplified as “Islam vs. the West,” or “Eastern collectivism vs. Western individualism.” But separate out the psychopathic mass murder, if that were possible, and many Westerners, and especially Americans, would find common ground even with the “9/11” terrorists. Fundamentally, this battle is cultural and religious more than political. That it is also extra-national befits its current intensity and likely lengthy duration.
What most worries people like those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon is the attractiveness of American culture. Fertile America was the source of all the seismic social movements of the 20th century that so vex the authoritarian: mass popular culture; the cult of the automobile and mobility; fast food, convenience, multiplicity of consumer choice and consumerism; rock & roll, self-expressiveness, individualism and populism; the sexual revolution, feminism and divorce. American culture influences but is not influenced, except insofar as it absorbs, Borg-like, other cultural totems and makes them American. By way of illustration, a short while ago it was reported, on the basis of a tiny and over-hyped uptick of American interest in Indian food and clothing fashions, that Indian culture was poised to invade the United States by storm. Where cultures and their relative strengths and attractions are concerned however, what people eat and wear is not important, indeed is laughably unimportant: Culture is a repository of ideas governing the way people think and act in a society. At bottom, it is neither gastronomic nor sartorial, but rather political, social and economic. Indians eating at American-style fast food restaurants is significant and Americans eating curry dishes is not, because in the former case a lifestyle is implicit. Indian or other cultures may be very appealing to many people, but they simply don’t move the masses the way American culture does. This is why it is McDonald’s golden arches that blight the landscape the world over rather than some symbol for chicken curry (which in any case is now in danger of becoming an American food, like enchiladas or wonton soup). It was not American political, economic or cultural imperialism that did this, but something much more basic. Call it human cultural determinism.
American culture comes naturally to people. Fast food comes naturally to America, and to other cultures if given the chance, because of the American lifestyle it represents, but also because of the food itself. The high fat and salt contents appeal across the taste spectrum like nothing else. Japanese and Korean children grow up eating all varieties of seafood, and love to munch on dried squid as a treat. Give them the choice of squid or french fries though, and they choose fries every time. Of course capitalism comes naturally, too—it is the most natural and efficacious economic arrangement, Ayn Rand could have said—and it brings with it all the political-democratic and social-individualistic freedoms that follow implicitly. Communism has to be enforced by repressive regimes, while socialist systems produce anemic economies and dissatisfied publics because they work against the grain of human nature. American culture runs decidedly with the grain, with profound and profoundly mixed results.
Ever since the world started connecting to America through movies, television, music, advanced communications technology and global trade, all cultures, consciously or otherwise, have been shedding the old clothing of their traditions and becoming increasingly American. Often the instigator is perceived to be economic necessity, though that is usually a sign that the society is already receptive to American influence. France, a self-styled resister of “Anglo-Saxon” ways for so many years, has in fact been borrowing more and more from the American capitalist model as it liberalizes its dirigiste political-economic infrastructure. Scandinavians have finally started grumbling, loudly, about their high tax burdens. Most remarkable is the speed with which developing or non-Western cultures catch up in consumerism, acquisitiveness and—following not far behind—individualism.
In Korea, there is an almost bizarre juxtaposition of ancient and modern. In old-style tiny houses there are the latest-model huge double-barn-door refrigerators, mammoth big-screen televisions, and Pentium IIIs and IVs. High-quality and economical second-hand merchandise generates very little interest. Faddish consumer behaviour is hyper-faddish. American culture is like a very potent drug: with the least exposure peoples are “hooked,” transfixed and enthralled. Across East Asia and the globe, young people suddenly are almost indistinguishable from their American counterparts in styles, postures and attitudes. Generation gaps are stretched and social fabrics are torn, heralding further, still faster change. It has all happened so fast in fact, that it is clear the major catalyst was not so much American influence per se as freedom and opportunity themselves.
There is a retroactively telling BBC2 documentary episode, “Tea With the Taliban,” originally aired early this year as part of Sean Langan’s “Langan Behind the Lines” series. In one scene, Taliban soldiers enjoy a few moments of candour out of sight and earshot of their overlords, cavorting with a supposedly forbidden camera, excitedly snapping photos and gleefully surveying the results: “Look how handsome Allah has made me!” shouts one.
“Americanization” is not the aim of an imperialist America but is a self-actualizing, deterministic process, made inevitable by human nature and the natural affinities of all cultures for what is mislabelled as uniquely American. Because this process is natural and inevitable, a better name would be “modernization”—which simply means economic, social and political liberalization. The native intelligence, curiosity, creativity and pride of any individual will tolerate no less if freed to any degree from cultural or authoritarian constraints. National differences should always be respected—even promoted—and cherished as the spice of international life; but “Americanization” shouldn’t be scorned or resisted out of false or facile apprehensions or self-contempt. The lurid or merely tacky excesses of American culture are potent reminders to every human being of their own personal moral or aesthetic failings. Even an ascetic like bin Laden has not rejected worldly charms but continuously resists them, successfully or not as the occasion has it. Most of the anti-American’s bigotry is a combination of envy, jealousy and the uncomfortable sense of recognition at the glimpse of himself in the mirror that is American culture. Maybe this is why anti-Americanism is almost the only anti-anything that no one thinks intolerant.
After the American, the three largest militaries are the Russian, the Chinese and the Indian, while the two most powerful economies are the Japanese and the German. Which of us would have any of these countries replace the U.S. tomorrow so that we might all live under a Pax Russiana, Chinensa, Indiana, Nipponica or even Germanica? Germany might be greener on environmental issues but, even were it endowed with America’s military muscle, it would still lack the tradition of liberty and the fundamental idealism that to a significant extent continues, uniquely and of course with lapses, to drive U.S. foreign policy. The image of the world’s strongest power responding to tyrants with shoulder-shrugging Continental insouciance is enough to make even a European shudder. The aggressiveness and collateral lethality with which the current war is being conducted is probably all the greater for America’s consciousness that it wages this “struggle for freedom from fear” on the whole world’s behalf. America nowadays is too often the bully in its dealings with the world, and this is a problem that needs to be addressed with some urgency. But American arrogance is an unpleasant reality we can live with for the time being and happily, given the alternatives.