2009: On the Idea of America
What is the origin of “the American idea”, how has it been shaped by history, and where is it heading? In this conference, we tried to gain a clearer understanding of the original ideas and sources for what is known as the American idea, examine how this idea is nurtured in the US today and received elsewhere in the world, and consider the question of whether we are now approaching a “post-American world”. Who, in that case, will take over the US role as global leader – China, Russia or India; what kind of world would we then live in, and what ideals would we thus be guided by in the future?
The fate of the US is inextricably linked to Europe, and its inhabitants are without a doubt Europe’s most successful colonists. As early as the late 18th century, Americans had liberated themselves from the mother nation Great Britain and through clever moves managed to gradually eliminate competing colonial powers in North America; for instance, Louisiana was purchased from France and Alaska from Russia, the Spanish were expelled in 1898, and only a weak Canada remained under the British crown. America became the home of freedom, especially religious freedom, a place of refuge for those who were persecuted for their beliefs, and the country of free enterprise. Not only that – as the historian Thomas P. Hughes writes in American Genesis, “Men and women assumed, as never before, that they had the power to create a world of their own design.”
The US was already on par with Britain in many respects by around 1900, but it was the mistakes that the Europeans them- selves made, in the form of the First and Second World Wars, that prepared the ground for the US, allowing it to become a real global power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US finally emerged as the undisputed winner of the Cold War. Despite America’s positive self-image, the world has never really perceived American ambitions in the same way as the US evidently does. Instead of being seen as a liberator, the US rather has in general been viewed since the Vietnam War as an imperialist nation acting in sheer self-interest.
Today, following America’s efforts in Iraq, which have been less than successful and have had little backing, and with a financial crisis predominating in the midst of a recession, there are once again suggestions, like during the 1980s, that the American era is over: back then, it was Japan; today it is China and India that will probably take over from the US. But Russia’s Prime Minister Putin has also long entertained hopes of re-creating Russia’s pride and glory. War in Georgia, among other places, has clearly filled this function, as have various forms of threatening manoeuvres against some of its tiny neighbours. The energy weapon in Putin’s hands may come to have great significance for Russia’s future ambitions for world power.
Fareed Zakaria writes in The Post-American World that “It is an accident of history that, for the last several centuries, the richest countries in the world have all happened to have small populations.” Now, he argues, nations with large populations are instead rapidly on the rise. “It is these two factors – a low starting point and a large population – that guarantee the magnitude and long-term nature of the global power shift.”
Do a low starting point and a large population really guarantee this global shift in power, and is it an accident that small countries have historically been more successful than large ones in creating prosperity? History will show whether Zakaria is right in his claim.
What then are the founding myths of the United States, how have the Puritans and the idea of the New World shaped American history and the country’s destiny, and how are these reflected in the American Constitution and present-day politics? How have key events in American history, like the American Civil War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, FDR and the New Deal, the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam etc., influenced the American idea?
Furthermore, how does the influence of American national myths colour today’s American national consciousness, and how is this reflected in the American economy, in literature, art, and film? How is the idea of America reflected in the country’s reputation around the globe – in the Arab world, Europe, Russia, Asia, South America?
Can America remain the top dog and should it? Are we beginning to see the beginning of the end or is it still only the beginning of the American era?
Pauline Maier: The Founding Myths of America in the 18th Century
Professor, MIT, USA
Daniel Walker Howe: What Hath God Wrought: Rival Visions of America’s Mission in the 19th Century
Professor Emeritus, Oxford University and UCLA, USA
David Reynolds: The Founding Myths in the 20th Century
Professor, Cambridge University, UK
Philippe Roger: The Impact of the Idea of America on Europe
Research Programme Director, CNRS, France
Kathleen Burk: The Impact of the Idea of America on Britain
Professor, University College London, UK
Reinhold Wagnleitner: The Empire of Fun
Associate Professor, Salzburg University, Austria
David Ellwood: America and the Politics of Modernisation in Europe
Associate Professor, University of Bologna, Italy
Anatol Lieven: American Nationalism: Sleeping or Dead
Professor, King’s College, London, UK
Godfrey Hodgson: American Exceptionalism
Journalist and Historian, UK
James Carroll: Messiah Nation
Author and Columnist for the Boston Globe, USA
Deepak Lal: The View from India
Professor, UCLA, USA
Jong-Yil Ra: The View from Korea
President, Woosuk University, South Korea
Peter Baldwin: A Reality Check
Professor, UCLA, USA
Robert J. Shapiro: American Markets
Chairman and Co-Founder, Sonecon, USA
Oliver Kamm: On the Decline of the US Influence in Global Markets and The US and Europe: How Not to Improve Relations
Editorial Writer, The Times, UK
Edward Luce: On the Continuing Power of the US Economy
Bureau Chief, Financial Times, Washington, USA
Göran Rosenberg: Is the Future of the American Idea Possible?
Anders Stephanson: America as the End of History
Professor, Columbia University, USA
Alan Wolfe: The Future of Liberal Interventionism
Professor, Boston College, USA
Peter Beinart: The Solvency Doctrine: Understanding Obama’s Foreign Policy
Senior Fellow, Council of Foreign Relations, UK
Douglas Murray: Interventionism Post-Iraq
Author, Director, Centre for Social Cohesion, UK