Where Did the American Century Go?

Vladimir Putin recently manned up and admitted it. The United States remains
the planet’s sole superpower, as it has been since the Soviet Union collapsed
in 1991. “America,” the Russian president said,
“is a great power. Today, probably, the only superpower. We accept that.”

Think of us, in fact, as the default superpower in an ever more recalcitrant

Seventy-five years ago, at the edge of a global conflagration among rival great
powers and empires, Henry Luce first suggested that the next century could be
ours. In February 1941, in his magazine LIFE, he wrote a famous
entitled “The American Century.” In it, he proclaimed
that if only Americans would think internationally, surge into the world, and
accept that they were already at war, the next hundred years would be theirs.
Just over nine months later, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor,
plunging the country into World War II. At the time, however, Americans
were still riven and confused about how to deal with spreading regional conflicts
in Europe and Asia, as well as the rise of fascism and the Nazis.

That moment was indeed a horrific one, and yet it was also just a heightened
version of what had gone before. For the previous half-millennium, there
had seldom been a moment when at least two (and often three or more) European
powers had not been in contention, often armed and violent, for domination and
for control of significant parts of the planet. In those many centuries,
great powers rose and fell and new ones, including Germany and Japan, came on
the scene girded for imperial battle. In the process, a modern global arms race
was launched to create ever more advanced and devastating weaponry based on
the latest breakthroughs in the science of war. By August 1945, this had
led to the release of an awesome form of primal energy in the first (and thus
far only) use
nuclear weapons in wartime.

In the years that followed, the United States and the Soviet Union grew ever
more “super” and took possession of destructive capabilities once
left, at least in the human imagination, to the gods: the power to annihilate
not just one enemy on one battlefield or one armada on one sea but everything.
In the nearly half-century of the Cold War, the rivalry between them became
apocalyptic in nature as their nuclear
grew to monstrous proportions. As a result, with the exception
of the Cuban
Missile Crisis
, they faced off against each other indirectly in “limited”
proxy wars that, especially in Korea and Indochina, were of unparalleled technological

Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and, for the first time in historical
memory, there was only one power that mattered. This was a reality even
Henry Luce might have found farfetched. Previously, the…

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