There is an undeniable air of melancholy in America today. Everywhere it seems there is a growing sense that our best days are behind us, that the American Century is coming to an end, with the inevitable rise of China and a concomitant Chinese Century. There is also, of course, much in the way of punditry regarding how fast this will happen, or whether it will happen at all. My own feeling is that regardless of the details, the transition is inevitable. China, despite its non-trivial challenges and problems, is unstoppable (and if it weren’t, should it be stopped, given the likely millions who will be lifted out of poverty by its rise?), and thus regardless of whether it will happen in 2020 or 2050, many of us will live to see the day when the United States is no longer the world’s preeminent superpower.
Setting aside the geopolitical ramifications, this raises the question of what it would mean be to an American in such an age. For many of us who grew up during the American Century, Americanness seemed inseparably linked to the status of being a member of the world’s ruling class. While we may not have had the best healthcare in the world or the highest per capita GDP, Americans could take it for granted that their collective will, reflected as much as it realistically is in the democratic process that elects their governing representatives, always prevailed on the world stage. We called the shots and sculpted the world to our liking.
This position of unrivalled power will soon end, if it has not already. The question is, is unrivaled power an intrinsic part of the American character? Or is it a transient feature of it, one that we may have come to take for granted, but that is ultimately secondary to a more fundamental definition of Americanness?
I think that reality far more closely resembles the latter. American superpower is a recent phenomenon, having by most accounts started in the second half of the twentieth century. For a long time the United States was far from being a powerful country, and so it seems that global power is not a quintessentially American feature. Something else is. Many have proffered an answer; mine is the following: it is the idea, and the associated national project that animates this idea, that out of peoples of diverse and disparate backgrounds, of different histories, ethnicities, and religions, the very qualities that define a nation in most other countries, a nation can be forged by virtue of these peoples’commitment to a set of ideals. America is an idealistic nation in the most fundamental sense of the word, in that what makes one culturally American, legal citizenship notwithstanding, is their commitment to her founding principles, ones that have been enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The United States, as an infamous prime minister once said, is a country created by philosophy, not by history.
This is what makes America unique. Her founding values still hold universal appeal, centuries after they were articulated. The opportunity to participate in our national experiment, in a great synthesis of world cultures through which a nation is born out of the collisions of conflicting and diverse traditions, is a wondrous thing to be a part of. I say so out of personal experience, being an immigrant myself whose life has been profoundly shaped by the clash and synthesis of conflicting cultures. But it is also something that can be attested to by virtue of the millions of other immigrants who have chosen to make the United States their home. If their experience is anything like mine, then their choice is based not merely on economic opportunity, but also on the opportunity to integrate and be a part of something greater than themselves. A part of, indeed, an experiment in human society in which the threads that bind us are not based on where we come from but on what we believe. To the futurist in me, American society is a window into what global society will be like in decades or centuries. It is the asking and the answering of the question of whether humanity can have a single humanistic identity. When our national boundaries become meaningless, when our world becomes so globally and intricately connected that the millennial-old limits of language and culture fade away, what we will be left with is something that much resembles what America is today and strives to be tomorrow. That is the defining character of the American Experiment, and so long as it remains so, then what we are as a people, and what makes this country special, will remain fundamentally unchanged, regardless of whether we have the world’s largest GDP or not.