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July/August 2019 ISSUE

What Happened to the American Century?

What’s Inside

An Autopsy of the Last Decades of American Global Leadership

A generation ago, the United States was confidently leading the world into what was supposed to be a new millennium of peace, prosperity, freedom, and community. Now, the globe is heading into turbulence, and the United States is a Leonard Cohen song; that’s how it goes, and everybody knows. How could things fall apart so quickly?

In retrospect, the decline appears inevitable. What seems to need explaining today are Washington’s fin-de-siècle fever dreams of lasting benign U.S. hegemony, not the current reality of perpetual conflict at home and abroad. But those who lived through the era know that nothing was written, that history could have played out differently. So we decided to offer an autopsy of the last decades of American global leadership—the years when U.S. elites squandered the inheritance and good name bequeathed to them.

Fareed Zakaria starts by tracing the course of the United States’ post–Cold War hegemony—rising from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of Baghdad, sinking ever since. External shocks and challenges hurt, poor strategic choices hurt even more, and indifference most of all. Larry Diamond follows with a look at trends in democratization, showing how the undertow of the third wave sucked the world into a new era of personalized authoritarianism.

Dani Rodrik and Gillian Tett assess Washington’s management of globalization and finance, respectively. The apotheosis of neoliberalism and the push for hyperglobalization produced greater economic integration between countries but also political disintegration within them—and thus led to a populist backlash. The culture of American finance, meanwhile, colonized the world and then dragged it into crisis—and it will do so again, unless the financial system becomes the servant of the broader economy rather than its master.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson turn their focus inward, examining Washington’s declining capacity to use government to provide broad public goods. They call out not just rising inequality, changing demographics, and regional economic divergence but also changes in the Republican Party and its agenda. Julia Azari looks at domestic dysfunction, too, but spreads the blame further, arguing that today’s problems stem from earlier bungled, incomplete reforms that produced a democracy at once broadly inclusive and utterly ineffective.

In the early 1990s, the era of American postwar dominance segued into an era of American post–Cold War dominance. Now that era is segueing into something else, as yet unknown. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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