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America returns to history

By Sigurd Neubauer


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged victorious as the world’s preeminent global superpower. 

A new era emerged; it is commonly referred to by scholars and Washington policymakers alike as the “End of History.” It stipulated that American-style liberal democracy – coupled with adopting a market economy – would transform the world for the better. Conflicts and disputes would be settled by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and international law would govern multilateral institutions. 

At the time, a consorted push was made for extending Western-style prosperity to the developing world through generous financing provided by the Bretton Wood Institutions – namely The World Bank Group, International Monitory Fund (IMF), International Finance Corporation (IFC), The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) and The World Trade Organization (WTO).

Poverty would be eliminated, and humanity would prosper. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” the thinking went. 

Towards that end, Washington successfully pushed in 2001 for Beijing’s inclusion into the WTO believing that the two economic juggernauts could collectively transform the global economy while reaping unprecedented wealth and prosperity for their peoples in the process. 

In response to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the administration of President George W. Bush believed that international terrorism could be defeated through nation-building by transforming Afghanistan – and later Iraq – into American-style liberal democracies. 

Two decades later, the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan while Iraq is for all practical purposes a failed state. The rise of China – coupled with its desire to surpass the U.S. as the world’s greatest power – has ushered in a rare-bipartisan consensus in Washington: Beijing has become a formidable adversary, which in diplomatic language is referred to as “a strategic competitor.”

America’s global supremacy was first challenged in 2007 through the Great Recession. With the benefit of hindsight, it has become clear that the Iraq war of 2003 – as well as the 2011 military intervention of Libya – became conflicts of choice rather than of necessity as the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan had been. 

It can be argued that from 1991 through 2007, Washington enjoyed 16 years of unprecedented excess, which helps explain the seductive belief in its own inevitability as the architect of what “the End of History” would entail.

As part of the “End of History” narrative, some of America’s self-appointed elites also came to believe that societal progress was inevitable on all fronts, which arguably helps explain how they came to equate their own preferences with “progress.” These dynamics explain America’s unique phenomenon: the perpetual “Culture Wars.”

Economic excess stemming from America’s preeminent standing as a global power enabled some of the elites to extend their grip from academia, media, and big government to the country’s major cultural institutions, including museums, opera companies, and symphony orchestras and so forth. Big business has naturally followed suit.

While America’s contemporary elites are not very different from their predecessors or from their counterparts elsewhere when it comes to equating their interests with that of the broader society, many of them have chosen to identify with the Democratic Party. 

That is not to say that all of the wealthy support the Democrats, but America’s elite historically identified with the Republicans. The fact that many of the elites identify with the American Left – as opposed to with the Right – contribute to the increasing resentment Republicans harbor towards Democrats. Some of it is arguably also motivated by “jalousie” because of the significant sway the Left holds over culture and increasingly big business. 

Income inequalities are only fueling these divisions. Elements on the Right have their own problems as they have openly embraced anti-intellectualism and a worldview anchored in conspiracy theories. Some on the Left no longer pretend to hide their contempt for those on the opposing side of the political spectrum. 

This imbalance has contributed to America’s irrational state of affairs, which we have previously examined on these pages

Fast forward, with Russia’s unfolding war in Ukraine, which is growing increasingly unpredictable, coupled with Beijing’s desired objective to eclipse Washington as the world’s dominant power, it has become clear that America is returning to history.

History is written by the vectors as the legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) once observed. History is also marked by war and conflict – and at times – by periods where enlightened leaderships allow for peace and prosperity.

Power competition is part of history. 

It was, of course, only a matter of time before China – as the world’s oldest living civilization – would reclaim its rightful place as a leading power in the world. But the rise of China may very well have an unintended consequence: it could forge greater unity among Americans who over the past decades have drifted apart over cultural polarization. 

George H. W. Bush was America's last great president. He represented, decency, civility, public service, and was a World War II hero
George H.W. Bush was sworn in as America's 41st President on January 20, 1989. Photo credit: The White House
President George H.W. Bush spearheaded an international coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraq's Saddam Hussein. He subsequently presided over the collapse of the Soviet-Union
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