In June 2017, Martin S. Kaplan, Humanity in Action Board member, gave the following speech at the Eighth Annual Humanity in Action International Conference in Berlin, Germany.
“This coming Monday, June 26, 2017 will be the 100th anniversary of American troops landing in Europe for the first time in history, with 14,000 soldiers disembarking at Ste. Nazaire, France, entering what was then known as The World War. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 promising not to enter the European war, and hoped to negotiate peace based on his Fourteen Points. Unsuccessful, and hoping to create a new peaceful world order, Wilson led the U.S. into war, and borrowing from H.G. Wells, called it “A War to End All Wars”, reflecting the idealistic, moralistic, almost messianic stream sometimes evident in American history.
To me, America’s entry into the First World War, which decided its outcome, marks the commencement of the American Century.
A decade earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt invited the world to take note of American power and influence. The U.S. economy was already the largest in the world, and the population was greater than that of any other industrialized nation. In spite of that status, foreign affairs had not been a major concern of prior presidents. Roosevelt took a different course. He negotiated the end of the two-year war between Japan and Russia in 1905, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Roosevelt then organized the Great White Fleet, consisting of 14 full battleships, which sailed to major ports around the world, making clear to all nations the arrival on the scene of a naval power that could rival even Great Britain’s command of the seas.
The American forces broke the stalemate of the war in Europe, and led to the defeat of Germany and the November 11, 1918 Armistice. While the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke in Sarajevo had ignited the fuse of conflict, the Great War was unleashed by the miscalculations, bad judgement and confidence of quick and easy victory by the leaders of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and Great Britain, all of whom were at fault, as analyzed so well by Christopher Clark in Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914. The war instead led to the destruction of a stable existing order, with the demise of the Czarist Russian Empire, the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the temporary end to the expansionist goals of Germany, whose Kaiser was exiled, in addition to over 30 million civilian and military deaths and vast destruction. (Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers—How Europe Went to War in 1914) The Versailles Conference of 1919 was a failure. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, calling for freedom and independence for most peoples, were mostly disregarded by Great Britain, France and Italy, which carved up Europe and the mid-east as they wished. In exchange for giving up many of the Fourteen Points, Wilson succeeded in getting his League of Nations at Versailles, but in the end, the United States did not join it. An ill, declining and petulant Wilson refused to accept modest changes insisted upon by Republican leaders of the U.S. Senate.
Thus, the United States, having become the undisputed world power after the immense losses suffered by all the other major nations in the War, reverted to its traditional isolationism. Despite its vast industrial and agricultural power, financial wealth and large population, the most powerful nation in the world departed the field of international leadership – perhaps, as we will see, not for the last time.
With the power to be the dominant force in world affairs, the U.S. created a vacuum—the purposeful negation of power and leadership, which helped lead to the ensuing chaos.
The Versailles Treaty’s onerous terms taking lands from Germany and imposing vast war reparations, as if Germany alone caused the war, fueled German nationalism and revenge in the 1930s. The First World War’s destruction of the existing international order was followed by the rise of Communism, Fascism and Nazism, and the Second World War in less than two decades. Great Britain was a spent power, no longer able to enforce Pax Britannica. Britain and France had lost many of the next generation’s future leaders. Both nations were too exhausted for more war, and the League of Nations too weak, to resist the aggressive nationalism of Nazi Germany.
Coupled with the crippling depression of the 1930s, the U.S. played no significant role as the world fell apart. Japan conquered Manchuria in 1931, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the Nationalist rebellion against the Spanish Republic in 1936, Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and by September 1939, all of Europe was aflame, as Germany and Italy attacked all their neighbors, and commenced the Second World War.
Only when the U.S. was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941, more than two years later, did the sleeping American giant awake.
An energized America, under the decisive leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt, became the economic engine supporting the immense war efforts of the Soviet Union and Great Britain, commencing with FDR’s Lend-Lease Program, and in 1942 the U.S. finally joined in fighting the war in Europe, while also fighting Japan in the Pacific. Roosevelt returned the mantle of global leadership to the United States, building on the goals of his Uncle Theodore Roosevelt and of his mentor Wilson, leading the Big Three with Stalin and Churchill to achieve the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945. Like Wilson, FDR sought to create an international structure to prevent future wars.
On January 6, 1941, eleven months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt addressed Congress in an effort to move the nation away from a foreign policy of neutrality. He insisted that people in all nations of the world should share in the Americans entitlement to Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. FDR thus returned to the idealistic, moralistic and humanitarian goals and belief system present in much of American thinking, earlier expressed by Wilson.
The United States took the lead in creating the new post-war international order: The World Bank (1944), the International Monetary Fund (1945), and the United Nations (1945), organized six months after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, whose commitment to creating a stronger successor to the League of Nations was completed by President Harry Truman.
The victorious and resurgent Soviet Union, having suffered staggering losses in the war, saw no need to continue cooperation with the U.S. and Britain, and took control of every nation that it had liberated from Germany, creating the Eastern Bloc of Stalinist regimes. Winston Churchill spoke in 1946 of the Soviet Union building an Iron Curtain across Europe, as the Cold War began.
The United States was far and away the wealthiest and most powerful nation, with over 40% of the total world economic output in the 1940s and ‘50s. Truman, with the support of both political parties, then launched the Marshall Plan (1947) to rebuild the economies and nations of desperately war-torn and virtually bankrupt Europe, including defeated Germany. Truman and his advisors were steeped in history, and took the opposite approach from that of Britain and France at Versailles, and American leadership succeeded in strengthening the European economies and countering the strong Communist parties in France and Italy. United States goals were as much geo-political in intent as well as humanitarian.
Germany was divided into four zones—American, British, French and Soviet, with Berlin, located in the middle of the Soviet zone, subdivided into four sections. The Soviet Union tried to take over all of Berlin by starting a blockade so that no food supplies could reach the Western sections. Truman countered with the Berlin Airlift, providing all the supplies Berlin needed for almost a year until the blockade was lifted. In 1949, the Soviet Union organized their sector as East Germany, and in the same year the U.S. and Western Europe organized NATO, as the linchpin of European unity with the goal of preventing Soviet aggression, which many considered highly possible.
Truman’s assertive foreign policy also succeeded in preventing Iran, Greece and Turkey from falling under the control of the Soviet Union. U.S. efforts to support the Nationalist government of China, however, failed and in 1949, Communist forces won control of that nation. The next year, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Truman immediately turned to the United Nations, and the U.S. obtained Security Council approval for a United Nations military response. General Douglas MacArthur, who had been Allied Commander in the Pacific in the Second World War, became commander, and he conceived and directed brilliant military actions that forced the North Korean forces far back into their country within a year, almost to the border with China, against the advice of others.
His misjudgment led to the Chinese Army pouring across the Yalu River and pushing the Allies back almost to the original border between the two Koreas. MacArthur, and others. urged the use of nuclear weapons and an invasion of China, but Truman and other cooler heads prevailed, and an armistice was reached. That is an example of how one arrogant leader, MacArthur, literally a loose cannon, if he had his way, could have led to war and disaster.
Not too many years later, Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, urged use of nuclear weapons against Communist China in the dispute over the Quemoy and Matsu Islands, but that was squashed promptly by President Dwight Eisenhower.
We must wonder (and worry) what President Donald Trump would decide under similar circumstances. Seeing Soviet and Chinese Communism as a monolithic force seeking to conquer the world, the U.S. determined to counter it everywhere. That led under subsequent presidents to unjustified actions, overthrowing legitimate governments that the U.S. believed might lean toward communism—-in Iran, the former Belgian Congo, Guatemala and Chile. The U.S. also supported repressive undemocratic governments in many nations, simply because they were anti-Communist.
Fearing the spread of Communism throughout South East Asia, the U.S. was determined to defend South Vietnam from being conquered by North Vietnam, and basically took over the war in the mid-1960s. Later the U.S. expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos, with disastrous consequences for all nations involved, certainly including the United States, where fervent opposition and protests ripped the nation apart.
East Germany could not keep up with the progress in the West, and built the Berlin Wall in 1961, dividing the city, in order to prevent people from leaving the country. Two years later President John Kennedy spoke at the Wall and reassured Western Europe of the American commitment with the moving statement “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Gradually, from Khrushchev’s admission of Stalin’s despotism to Gorbachev’s attempts at liberalization, the failing Communist economic system and the tyrannical Soviet system began to fall apart. President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, and famously demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Both Kennedy and Reagan were reflecting the geo-political hostility to the Soviet Union but also the American ideals of freedom and democracy. The final death knell came two years later as East and West Germans destroyed the hated Wall and soon West and East Germany reunited, becoming perhaps the most important democracy in Europe.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire was brought home to me in 1991 when I bought peaked caps of Soviet generals and admirals from Turkish sellers at the Brandenburg Gate. I remember thinking of T.S. Eliot’s line: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” (The Hollow Men, 1925). It did not take a war to bring down the Soviet Empire and the Communist system. The economic and tyrannical system was destroyed from within. Other nations should take note.
The United States does not always live up to the hype of so many politicians, left and right, of the U.S. being an “Exceptional Nation”, with supposedly fair treatment of all, clean elections, protection of human rights, and a perfect capitalist system. Nevertheless, the U.S. lectures other nations on their practices, oblivious to its own failings in implementing the strong American belief system of democracy and human rights.
On balance however, the major theme of American leaders in the 20th century has been to seek peace, demonstrated by Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and also President Jimmy Carter with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, and several presidents seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians and elsewhere in the world. President Richard Nixon’s leadership led to détente with the Soviet Union and the opening of peaceful relations with Communist China, and several presidents have taken action to prevent aggression or take action to end conflicts, as President Bill Clinton did in the former Yugoslavia. But all too frequently, the U.S. has interfered too much in other nation’s affairs, making the situation worse. American interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have been disastrous. At the same time, taking a back seat in Rwanda and Syria has been a failed policy as well.
On social issues, the United States was the only so-called civilized nation that required a major war to end slavery, and it was a hundred more years before laws were adopted to insure the rights of African-Americans. And unlike virtually every Western nation, the U.S. still has very inadequate social welfare and health systems, which were first initiated by Chancellor Bismarck in Germany in 1889. Economic inequality in America continues to plague our nation, a threat to social cohesion. Full equality in treatment of African Americans is still not the norm, racism is a major issue in the U.S., and the Civil Rights movement still has a great deal to accomplish. But in certain other social matters, the U.S. has been in the forefront: women were granted full suffrage in 1920, eight years before Great Britain, and 25 years before France. The gay rights movement became powerful in the U.S. at the same time as in many other Western Nations, with full gay marital rights within the last few years.
Human rights are deeply ingrained in American law and philosophy, and every recent U.S. administration has forcefully encouraged other nations to improve their records in human rights issues, though quite modestly with dictatorial regimes that are pro-American.
I define the American Century as being announced by Theodore Roosevelt, and brought to realization by Woodrow Wilson in entering the First World War. The American giant then slumbered, mostly in disregard of what was happening abroad, until attacked at Pearl Harbor. But since that time the United States has been the dominant force in the world, not only in international diplomacy and military actions, but also in economic power, cultural impact, and certainly in the stated commitment to human rights and democracy as values to be encouraged, strengthened, and perhaps even enforced, although certainly not perfectly implemented back home in the United States.
The United States has been in a position to be the dominant power of the world from the time it entered the First World War in 1917. Only since entering the Second World War in 1941, however, has the United States exercised that power and fulfilled the responsibility of leadership. The failure to do just that during the inter-war years constitutes the negative exercise of power; the United States had vast strengths and the potential to be the dominant world leader, but it was absent. I regard this as the purposeful negation of power and leadership. Isolationism in the interwar years created a vacuum, which led to the Second World War.
Thus, the question now is: Will the United States leave the field of leadership again and create a vacuum to be filled by others? George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And this takes us to Donald Trump and the populism engulfing Western Democracies.
In spite of the economic issues deeply affecting rust belt regions of the United States voting decisively for Trump in the 2016 election, his winning the presidency was greeted everywhere in the world with disbelief, including in the United States Throughout his campaign, he had made clear his lack of commitment to traditional American values, and his endorsement of authoritarianism as a model. He stated that only he could solve our nation’s problems, posing as the strong-man he claimed the U.S. needed. He expressed high admiration for Vladimir Putin and urged Russia and WikiLeaks to hack American records, including those of Hilary Clinton’s campaign.
He raised fear-mongering in politics to a level not seen in America in decades, attacking Mexicans, other Latino-Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims, in the most vile terms. He quoted Mussolini with approval. He accepted the support of the Ku Klux Klan, saying he didn’t know they were a bad group. He encouraged violence at his rallies against hecklers. He stated that the election was rigged against him and if he lost, there would be violence.
He and his surrogates adopted outrageous slogans and name-calling of other candidates, bringing the election campaign into a sewer of insult. He controlled the Republican primary debates like the Reality Television star he is, describing his rivals as Crooked Ted, Lying Ted, Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco, Crooked Hilary – apparently to the delight of his TV audience. He single-handedly made it safe and common for Americans to openly hate again, resulting in countless acts of aggression, intimidation and scathing insults hurled at people often simply because they looked foreign. This happened even in New York City, where an older white woman snapped “Go back home!”—-to a Chinese American New York Times reporter walking on the Upper East Side of the city; who happened to have been born in the U.S.
He tapped into an underbelly of American people: Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, members of the alt-right movements. None of those categories of people would have had any reason to vote for prior Republican candidates for president – not Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, none of whom played the hate card, and most famously, certainly not George W. Bush, who did not hold Islam responsible for the 9/11 attack and reached out to Muslims with respect. I believe many new voters came to the polls to vote for Trump in order to demonstrate their hatred of others—immigrants, descendants of immigrants, and anyone deemed ‘other’. But of course, the haters are all descended from immigrants too. American history would suggest that many of those also qualify as being descendants of illegal immigrants, an irony lost on them as well as on Trump.
The election was a perfect storm, with many mistakes of Clinton, her husband President Bill Clinton, as well as the Attorney General, the Director of the FBI all contributing to her defeat. The Republican party had also effectively suppressed voting in minority and poor neighborhoods in states they control, from the deep South to Ohio and Wisconsin, limiting polling hours, registration and early voting periods, and reducing the number of polling places in those neighborhoods. This was made possible by a recent-year Supreme Court decision eliminating the Federal government’s oversight of state election standards since that was supposedly no longer needed to prevent discrimination in voting.
Since his election, and against the expectation of many who hoped for better, Trump has continued his assault on American values and policies, evidenced by the character of his cabinet appointments, most of them intent on dismantling the departments to which they have been appointed and reversing the progress of recent decades in health care, the environment, education, social welfare, labor and civil rights, and of course immigration –even transferring national park lands back to states for development.
I doubt that many Americans or people anywhere, however, expected that Trump as President would almost immediately embrace the authoritarian leadership of Turkey’s Erdogan, the Philippines’ Duterte, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Egypt’s el-Sisi, and at the same time dismiss and insult long-time democratic allies: Mexico, Canada, Germany and the other democracies of Europe. He has demonstrated his lack of commitment to NATO, and has also made clear his strategically and morally inexplicable admiration for the authoritarian rule of Putin.
In his inaugural address, President Trump announced “From now on, it’s going to be America First”, a major rejection of multilateralism and international collaborative leadership. This dramatic change in American policy has been re-emphasized by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohen. Within the past few weeks, they have written major op-ed articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I will read you one: “The President embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
They thus made crystal clear that human rights is no longer a fundamental part of international policy of the United States under the Trump administration. That led to a strong response in the Times from Senator John McCain, who emphasized the importance of human rights as a keystone of American values and policy.
The United States has fulfilled the role of leader of the Free World without pause under every president since the Second World War, sometimes very well and sometimes not, but usually with a strong commitment to human rights and democracy. The alliance with the free nations of Europe and NATO has been a bedrock principle of American policy under every president since then, of both parties—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, all with the unanimous support of both Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress. No American leader has been on Russia’s side. There is almost no time in history that the United States and Russia have shared the same values – and now? We have never before elected a president who clearly believes in an authoritarian government rather than a democracy.
You have heard the moving words spoken by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, making clear their commitment to democratic values and human rights, and their opposition to Soviet tyranny. I don’t believe you will ever hear such words from President Trump.
His power as president is vast. He has already demonstrated that with his impact on all people everywhere by withdrawing from the Paris Accord, perhaps humankind’s most significant effort to address climate change, a singular achievement of the United States, China, India and Europe, as well as the developing nations of the world. He has done that for narrow partisan and political reasons, supposedly to strengthen the economic interests of certain workers and industries in America, with a total disregard of the health and safety of future generations. He allies himself with the large number of Republican leaders and voters who not only deny the importance of climate change, but do not even acknowledge the accepted scientific truth of its existence.
Trump has also taken action to reverse the U.S. détente with Cuba, and is taking steps to reverse U.S. progress in relations with Iran. He has taken credit for our ally Saudi Arabia’s commercial and diplomatic attack on Qatar, another of our allies. Trump is literally the bull in the china shop of international relations, breaking as many dishes as possible. But pity the bull, for at least he lacks intent.
His belief in alternative facts; his ignorance of so many areas of importance from economics to international and military affairs, from culture to the needs of most people; his propaganda and lies; and his almost uncontrollable practice of making public statements on important matters without thinking about their impact, or not caring about their impact, make him the most dangerous president in American history. He governs with his thought or whim of the moment, communicated daily by Twitter to his followers and the media. His worldview is circumscribed by his own lifetime as dictator of a family business, and even more as a reality television star. I share the belief of many that Trump cannot distinguish between what comes out of his own imagination and reality.
Can this possibly mean the end of the American Century, sadly? I believe so –because there is the increasing recognition by other nations that they can no longer trust the United States to provide the world with a leader, the president, who will govern in a manner consistent with the gravitas and responsibilities of historical American leadership in world affairs.
All nations should now be concerned as to whether America in the future will reassert its leadership role in a responsible fashion. Even if the next president is an internationalist in the mold of our recent presidents of both parties, how long will that person serve before being replaced by another in the mold of a Donald Trump?—- an authoritarian, a leader who is all for America First and opposes globalization, a nativist, a racist, and a president who apparently believes that family members, his adult children, should have influence in foreign affairs above the Secretary of State. Do Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster report to Jared Kushner? It is as if we have a Mafia family running the White House and the U.S. government.
I give you no promise of what kind of leader America will bring forth in the future. If American voters could elect Trump when his values and abominable personal history were well-known to all, how can we and you trust them in the future? After all, most major Republican newspapers, Republican foreign policy elder statesmen, and most of the prominent American historians, warned of the danger in electing him.
In his recent book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, How Democracy is Defeating Itself, Edward Luce, of The Financial Times, wrote “Western liberal democracy is not yet dead, but is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”
Luce points out that Trump’s election is part of larger trends on the world stage, including the failure of two dozen democracies since the turn of the millennium, including three in Europe… Russia, Turkey and Hungary. He places heavy responsibility on the failure of Western political and business elites to foresee or respond to the decline of jobs, income and dignity among many formerly well-paid workers due to the forces of globalization and automation that are fomenting nationalism and populist revolts.
These developments represent a repudiation of the naïve hopes after the fall of the Berlin wall that liberal democracy was on an inevitable march across the planet and pose a challenge to the West’s Enlightenment faith in reason and linear progress. That belief was vividly captured by Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, in which he wrote: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such. That is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government.”
But I don’t put all the responsibility for Trump’s election victory on the middle class, people who lost their jobs, income status and dignity in the towns that are dying. Republican voters in many well-to-do suburbs gave the same voting margin to Trump as they did to the centrist Mitt Romney four years ago. Perhaps they believed they were voting for lower taxes, less regulation to help the economy, and because they couldn’t stand Clinton, who failed to pay attention to the key northern states that she lost.
Almost immediately following the recent meeting of NATO leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated “The times in which we could rely fully on others—-they are somewhat over.” Even more to the point, Canada’s Foreign Minister recently announced to its Parliament: “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course.”
Perhaps on many issues the members of NATO other than the U.S. will now assert their own combined leadership to protect themselves from a dangerous and aggressive Russia, and play an even more assertive role in international affairs. And perhaps an alliance of European nations together with China and India will collaborate to address climate change. The democratic nations of the European Union have combined population and economies far greater than that of Russia, and economies of a scale that can rival those of the United States and China. Under President Trump, the United States is going from being the indispensable nation to the unreliable. Hopefully other nations will provide the much-needed leadership to counter increasing authoritarianism in Europe and around the world, and to seek peaceful resolution of conflicts.
But, can Europe get its act together? It certainly failed in the breakup of Yugoslavia. And as opposed to the humanitarian and generous Marshall plan provided by the United States, Europe, led by Germany, insisted on more austerity to solve the problems of Greece, which many American economists criticized as counter-productive. Was this done in order that German and French banks could be paid in full?
At home in America, there is great concern at the internal damage done by Trump to the fabric of our society. The nation is literally being ripped apart by polarization of attitudes and the rise of hate. During the entire era following the Second World War, not only was there the unifying fact of an existential rivalry with Soviet and Chinese Communism, but all Americans read and heard the same news and opinions. There was both the unifying and defining impact of the Cold War, but also all news was provided by a small number of television and radio networks, and centrist newspapers and magazines.
This unity has been upended over the past 20 years; with a technological explosion leading to a profusion of cable channels, websites, and myriad other sources of opinions, many based on ideology and narrow viewpoints. Americans are no longer reading from the same playbook. Everyone follows the news source that reflects his or her own viewpoints and biases, with little regard to seeking fact or truth, leading to the deepest polarization among Americans since the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights conflicts of the 1960s.
Of even greater concern are the attacks by Trump not only on constitutional rights but on the norms of our civil society. He habitually attacks journalists and convinces his followers that he is the only source of fact, contending that the mainstream media delivers “fake news”, except of course for the Fox Network. He regularly attacks judges who rule against his positions; decries Congress for following its own democratic systems; and is now even attacking his own Justice Department, Intelligence Services and the FBI. He seeks all power in his own hands and those blindly loyal to him, like a Mafia Don.
Perhaps you saw the pathetic first 10 minutes of a recent staged Cabinet meeting at which a gloating Trump listened as each of his Cabinet members dutifully stated how honored they were to serve with him (for him) and to follow his vision for the country. We are in the hands of a narcissist, whose ignorance is exceeded only by his arrogance. Having lost the election by almost 3 million votes to Hillary Clinton, and without even counting the several million votes for other candidates, he governs as if he has a vast mandate—solely with regard for his 20 or 30 million most fervent followers, who receive his constant tweets as their only source of ‘real news’. The core values and structure of our democracy and constitutional protections are being challenged and debased by our duly elected leader.
We all must respond to the unexpected and depressing challenge of the United States forsaking its historical democratic and human rights leadership, both internationally and within the United States. Much of this burden will fall on your generation, and a major challenge, both in the U.S. and Europe, will be to reverse the disinterest that too many of the millennial generation have shown by their failure to participate in civic life and even to vote. The election of President Macron of France and of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, both members of a new generation of leaders, should give hope for the future. And both have demonstrated by word and handshakes that they will not be bullied by either Putin or Trump — as has Chancellor Merkel.
But a full century of American greatness –interrupted as it was by mistakes and miscalculations – must not be undone, but only interrupted. There is hope, one of the better American traits, out of which will rise again a different and better set of American impulses and actions; such as the generosity of the Marshall Plan, the humanitarianism of the Berlin airlift, the promotion of human rights and development in the establishment and generous support of the United Nations and World Bank.
With your generation’s activism, leadership and yes, responsible populism, you and we can all join together to reassert a new and better direction for this century, a human century that can build on our best impulses as citizens of the world as well as of our own countries. Carl von Clausewitz stated “victory is simply the creation of a better political reality”, and I believe that must include our addressing the gross economic inequalities of our time, and a return to American commitment to international collaboration. A better day for all of us and the world is available, and achievable.
We need more than ever the new leaders of society that all of you are capable of becoming. The world needs you. I wish you much success.
PRELUDE TO THE AMERICAN CENTURY
Note: “Prelude to the American Century” is background reading for Martin S. Kaplan’s presentation, “Trump and the End of the American Century” at the Humanity in Action International Conference in Berlin on June 23.
Perhaps it is arrogant to define any era with the name of one nation or civilization. And perhaps it is judgmental to define at this point the end of an era. But surely the United States has been “the indispensable nation” since the end of the Second World War, in the words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and had vast power and influence since the beginning of the 20th Century.
The pre-existing mindset of American non-involvement in foreign conflicts began with the warning from President George Washington against entangling alliances with European nations, set forth in his 1796 Farewell Address. Protected by the vast Atlantic Ocean, requiring weeks-long sailing voyages to and from Europe, the 13 States focused on the continent to the west to take over and settle.
But the American Revolution, based on claims of the inalienable rights of man, defined in the Declaration of Independence (1776) as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” had impact around the world. That expression of the concept of human rights became an inspiration for the ensuing French Revolution (1789) and the Latin American wars for independence from Spain and Portugal (1808-33).
President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, warning European nations against any further colonization in the Western Hemisphere, a policy followed ever since by both the United States and European nations, with rare exceptions.
The British historian Eric Hobsbawm, in three volumes of history, defines The Long Nineteenth Century as commencing with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with the beginning of the World War in 1914. That was an era of growing industrialization, as well as social transformation with the expansion of certain human rights by Napoleonic France. The first part of the 19th Century was dominated by Europe-wide conflict as Napoleon sought to conquer all of Europe.
Following Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Great Britain became the dominant power for the next 100 years, a relatively peaceful period known as the Pax Britannica, with no major conflicts within Europe except the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. During that 100-year period, Britain dominated the seas, massively expanded its empire throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East, while France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal continued to expand their colonies in the same regions. Only the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to European colonization, due to the Monroe Doctrine.
European aggression destroyed the social, economic and governing structures of entire regions, creating colonies with boundaries that often combined or divided ethnic and cultural groups, creating conflicts arising after independence. Colonialism also changed forms of art to reflect European taste and desires.
We do not know how those regions may have developed if left to themselves. It is said that the French left language and culture to their colonies; while the British left the English language and laws, and knowledge of human rights and self-government already embedded in Britain’s former colonies—-Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I doubt that Belgium, Portugal, and Germany left little, if anything, of lasting value. All the European colonies finally obtained independence, mostly after suppression and brutal wars, but well over 100 years after the independence of South and Central America.
In the Nineteenth Century, the United States focused on internal economic development and continental expansion to the Pacific, including President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase (1803) from France of the vast lands west of the Mississippi; settlement of border disputes with Great Britain (1846) adding the Pacific Northwest; and war with Mexico in the late 1840s, obtaining the territories of California, Texas and four other states to complete the continental expansion.
Consumed for many years by internal conflict over slavery, the United States then endured the bloodiest war in world history until that time—the Civil War of 1861-65, during which over 600,000 combatants died, 2% of the entire nation’s population. The success of the North was followed by rapid industrialization and economic growth, fueled by immigration from Europe of large numbers of people of sufficient age to be ready, able and willing to work in the factories and farms of a burgeoning America. The immigration of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries of many people of different ethnicity and culture led to social tensions, with hostility and prejudice against Irish, Italians, Jews and others from Eastern Europe.
While European nations had ceased the African slave trade and freed all slaves in their colonies by 1850, emancipation of slaves did not end in the South of the United States until the end of the Civil War. At that time the entire population of the South was approximately 10 million people, including 4 million former slaves. Following the surrender of the South, the United States Government took full control of the rebel states pursuant to Reconstruction (1867-77). Many in the South engaged in guerilla warfare against U.S. troops, while former slaves participated in political activities for the first time in their lives.
After the U.S. withdrew troops and returned control to the rebel states in 1877, the South adopted economic and political suppression of freed slaves and their descendants, in fact virtual subjugation of African-Americans—free mostly in name. Many Americans refer to that period as one of ‘segregation’, but that is white-washing reality—the subjugation lasted until the 1960s, and inspired many African-Americans to migrate north.
In 1899, the United States went to war with Spain, helping the last of its colonies to gain freedom, including Cuba. The U.S. also took control of the Philippines from Spain, brutally suppressing its people’s hopes for independence, which was not granted until after the Second World War.
Even after the Spanish-American War, the United States retained an isolationist mindset, and President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 promising to keep America out of the World War raging in Europe. In January 1917 Wilson set forth the Fourteen Points, which he proposed as a basis for settling the war. His efforts failed, leading Wilson to seek Congressional approval to enter the war in April 1917. Wilson had set forth democracy and independence for most peoples as international goals of the United State. The American commitment to those values has grown and receded from time to time ever since in the policies and actions of the United States.”