US post-Cold War triumphalism masks a manifest uncertainty about its destiny in the 21st century
In late April 1945, on one of the final days of WWII, a poignant scene
unfolded on the banks of the River Elbe some miles southwest of
Berlin. US troops moving eastward met Soviet troops whose advance
had begun in Stalingrad. When the two armies met, a spontaneous
excitement erupted. Amid the last dead of the war came relief and hope
— a glimpse, these soldiers thought, of a different future. ‘You get a
feeling of exuberance,’ a US correspondent wrote that day, ‘of a great
new world opening up.’
It never did. The brief dream of a world order in which differences
were recognised, respected and then transcended was shared by many
millions. But it gave way by 1947 to the nightmare decades of the Cold
War – those 42 years during which the matter of difference froze the
world in a grotesque state of hostility and division.
The Cold War was not inevitable: it was the intended consequence of
political judgments that began even before the Third Reich collapsed.
We know this now, even if we have not yet accustomed ourselves to the
implications of this fact of history. And we know that the most
fundamental of these judgments were made not in Moscow, as we long
supposed, but in Washington.
This assertion would have been heresy only a few short years ago. But
the notion that the USA was the prime mover in shaping the Cold War
world is not so difficult to grasp. For one thing, scholars are beginning to
revise all that never-quite-credible Cold War history. An important
example is Carolyn Eisenberg’s 1996 work, Drawing the Line: The
American Decision to Divide Germany, from which I have drawn the above
account of that spring day long ago on the Elbe.
For another, the US response to the Cold War’s end is very like its
reaction to the Allied victory in 1945. The 1990s resemble the 1950s in
this important respect: as the USA divided the world then, so it seeks to
divide it again now. As the peace of 1945 rapidly evolved into half a
century of reckless East-West tension, so has the ‘peace dividend’
promised when Germans dismantled their Wall in 1989 eluded us ever
To cast’this comparison more generally, now as in the 1950s,
Americans can be fairly described as lost in their own sense of triumph.
Now as then, we – we Americans – look out upon the world and
consider it somehow ours to be remade in our own image.
Triumphalism: the charge is familiar enough. What is the substance
of it? What are its consequences?
At this point, it is refracted throughout US politics, culture and
attitudes. Subtly or otherwise, it is evident in everything from movies
and advertising to humour, eating habits, athletic competitions, stock
market strategies, trade policy — it would be difficult to complete the list.
It is the new US ethos; its dimensions are psychological as well as
political – individual as well as national. To borrow a phrase from the US
writer Tom Engelhardt, triumphalism is our updated, post-Cold War
version of the ‘victory culture’ that arose in the aftermath of WWII.
Its most important manifestations are several. In the name of our
triumph, Americans have closed down their public discourse, or – better,
perhaps — prevented it from opening up at a moment when it is urgent
that it should. This is producing an alarming corrosion of America’s
political life. Urgent questions go undebated. A widespread complacency
– both in and out of government – threatens the institutions of
democracy by encouraging Americans to assume that their common
inheritance is eternal, requires no vigilance, and can withstand any
In turn, this has produced a dedication to globalism that borders on
religious belief. We may define globalism as the spread of neo-liberal
economic principles around the world: deregulation, the wholesale
privatisation of public institutions, an unshakable faith in the primacy of
unfettered markets. But let us understand the term as it is actually meant.
As even its most convinced advocates acknowledge, globalisation
amounts to Americanisation. And in this it is not terribly new: it is
merely a restatement of the West’s Cold War notion of human progress:
to modernise means to westernise; to advance you must emulate us. To
modernise means to Americanise, we say now. We have even attached a
certain finality to this proposition: history has ended; the Hegelian
process has run its course, and its end result is the US model.
So have Americans again divided the world – in the name of making
it one. We distinguish today between those who conform to the
principles of Anglo-American neo-liberalism and those who do not –
those who submit and those who hesitate or refuse. At the one extreme,
there are the ‘rogue states’, nations demonised for their outright denial
of US supremacy. At the other there is Britain, a logical ally as the
birthplace of the principles of free exchange, the logic of the
marketplace. In between, one finds the vast majority: nations eager to
participate in the global economy but unwilling to sacrifice all social
coherence — all sense of community, identity and belonging — to the
There is in America’s post-Cold War thinking an immense,
potentially fatal flaw. It has to do not only with what Americans assert
about themselves and the rest of the world, but with what they miss in
the course of making their shrill assertions. The problem is immense
because it involves America’s place in the global order; potentially fatal in
that, left unattended, it could well inflict fundamental damage upon US
relations with the rest of the world in the coming century.
Americans today suffer a kind of narcissism, a failure of vision. As we
did after WWII, we have chosen not to see others as they are, or to see
ourselves as we are — or finally to see ourselves among others. This is the
true meaning of US triumphalism. Wherever we look, we see only
reflections of ourselves.
Narcissus was not an unhappy god – though he met a tragic end.
While he lived he was content enough to contemplate his own visage.
But as the wise Greeks understood, his was a superficial beauty, for there
is nothing attractive about self-absorption. And as the myth implies in
every version that comes down to us, Narcissus had two problems: not
only did he see himself reflected everywhere, he blotted from his vision
This is America’s most fundamental failing in the post-Cold War era.
As a nation, we do not see the rest of the world as it is. To a greater or
lesser degree, the problem has been the same for the 100 years that have
passed since the USA, with its invasion of the Philippines, effectively
chose empire over democracy. It is a problem of leadership, of the view
of the world our institutions — political, cultural, social, economic —
encourage us to cultivate.
Everyone knows the world is changing. But the neo-liberal version
of the process we all witness is wholly inadequate — a distorted picture.
The irony here is simple: it is the USA that is stuck in the past, even as it
proclaims itself herald of the planet’s future.
What would Americans see if they could see straight? The question is
as important now as it was in the early postwar era. Now as then, the
world seeks to redefine itself. It is not, certainly, awaiting new
instructions from the United States. Rather, in one nation after another
one finds people endeavouring to become themselves again — that is, to
define themselves according to their own pasts and aspirations, as
opposed to a global conflict not of their making, in which the frames of
reference — East-West, left-right, for-against — were not their own.
‘Become who you are!’ Nietzsche once admonished. It is as if
humanity is finally undertaking the realisation of this extraordinarily
insightful piece of advice. History did not end when the Berlin Wall fell:
on the contrary, it began again. And among the remarkable aspects of
this phenomenon is how, in one nation after another, it has picked up
precisely where it stopped, frozen in time, at the Cold War’s onset in the
There is evidence of this impulse on every continent. It can be seen
in Germany, in South Africa, in Iran, in numerous Latin American
nations, in Japan, in Indonesia. The project is different in each case — this
could hardly be otherwise — but we can call it by a single name. We can
call it reinvention. It reaches far beyond the question of post-Cold War
identity. It also involves a revaluation of the very ideals that were so long
presumed to emanate from the West: democracy, self-determination,
progress and so on. This is salutary — a turn of potentially great moment.
It means that the human community again proposes to live not by
obliterating difference — an impossible task — but by acknowledging
difference precisely to transcend it.
It is disheartening to recognise how at odds Americans are with this
undertaking, this collective recovery process. Certain leaders embody
this thinking: Havel in the Czech Republic, Mandela in South Africa,
Khatami in Iran (plO). There are others. They are, fair to say, the
Nehrus, Nassers, Nkrumahs and Arbenzes of their time. But does the
USA understand them? Even when these figures have managed friendly
relations with Washington, that is doubtful. The next question is what
the United States will do as this new generation of leaders begins to
realise its vision. Consider how many of those of that earlier era were
subverted because they did not conform.
It is highly debatable whether the USA won the Cold War. It borders
on hubris for Americans to suppose that they were primarily responsible
for the Soviet collapse. ‘Any suggestion that any United States
administration has the power to influence decisively the course of a
tremendous domestic political upheaval in another great country is
simply childish.’ That is George Kennan, the architect of Cold War
containment, writing in 1992. Kennan, who was hardly soft on the
Soviets, went on to assert that the Reagan and Bush administrations,
which claimed that their hard line toward Moscow ended the Cold War,
prolonged it by encouraging conservatives in the Kremlin: ‘The general
effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great
change that overtook the Soviet Union.’
What does Kennan bring to the argument? The core notion should
be clear: it has to do with human agency, the inner dynamics of a society
as the primary source of change. The US ignored this during the Cold
War and ignores it today. But to acknowledge the internal dynamics of
other societies is an act large in its import: it is to acknowledge the
autonomy of others. And to recognise that as an attribute of the post-
Cold War era is to understand that US power has passed its zenith.
Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former secretary-general of the United
Nations, made this point succinctly in his recent book, Unvanquished.
‘Single-superpower hegemony is a transitory phenomenon,’ he wrote.
To resist this truth is a regrettable impulse, of course, but it is also
understandable. Facing the new reality requires a fundamental alteration
of America’s idea of itself — an idea that has prevailed for more than a
century and one shared by many others, it must be said. But the
inevitable decline of US power – relatively and absolutely – raises
questions Americans cannot avoid forever: can the US live in an
undivided world? Can it live without an enemy?
These are not new questions. But they are frighteningly relevant –
frightening because one now suspects more strongly than ever that the
answer is: ‘No, not as Americans now think of themselves.’ And no
nation has ever changed its idea of itself easily, or without great upheaval.
There is one saving grace to be found in America’s current thinking.
It is difficult to discern, but it is there beneath the surface of all that
Americans say and do. In all the apparent self-confidence and bluster one
detects a deep uncertainty as to our future — and, indeed, even our
present circumstances. It is as if the true inner life of the United States
now unfolds behind a facade – as if Americans do not quite believe
themselves as they trumpet their triumph. It is as if we hear our own
voices, and gaze at our own image, with a deep suspicion that our time,
our ‘American century,’ is drawing to a close.
And in that suspicion is our ray of hope.