Governance in the United States is at a standoff. The crisis over the federal budget has led many people around the world to wonder if Americans haven't lost their minds. Ultimately, as Winston Churchill infamously observed, they may be counted on to do the right thing after exhausting all other options. But this hardly is sound policy with every new vote in Congress. Maybe the latest crisis is symptomatic of a deeper and even more serious problem.
The future of the United States - and the American experiment - seems bleak. The optimism for which Americans are known comes less readily. While pessimism is nothing unique in American history - widespread since the time of the Puritans - its prevalence today is spread by the realization that the country's position of global superpower may soon be lost.
This realization, regarded as a "post-hegemonic" fact, is no longer controversial. All empires vanish eventually. Hegemony indeed may be a form of imperial rule - it's been called an empire with good manners - but that's beside the point. American hegemony may be giving way to some other post-hegemonic condition. It is hard to say where it will lead, or what it signifies.
"After forty, all life is a matter of saving face," Thomas Heise has written. "For those whose successes have run out early, the years are measured less by the decreasing increments of honors achieved, than by the humiliations staved off and the reversals slowed." This diagnosis for America itself, increasingly difficult to refute, raises the simple question: Will life go on as before, only with less ostensible concern for the rest of the world, or more?
Some may say this would make the US a more "normal" nation. Normality resides in the eye of the beholder. Each nation is as normal or as abnormal as its people and observers imagine it to be. Many Americans still regard superpower status as being normal, however unpopular the burdens of global leadership are at times. The power of the US dollar, visa-free travel throughout much of the world and the global prevalence of English are still widely taken for granted, despite the country's difficulties.
Yet this moment may represent a major psychological, even metaphysical, shift in the way that Americans relate to the rest of the world. To understand the change we must begin with perceptions.
The sheer size of America's military and economy, its commercial and technological success, and the global penetration of its culture have underwritten a high standard of living and influence over others. Earlier, its reputation as a dynamic, free, prosperous nation - in the words of William Penn, a "good poor man's country" - allowed some people to champion a special destiny for the proverbial people of plenty. This was later matched by the growth of the nation's physical power.
Anyone who seeks to understand this history must start with the centrality of dichotomies in American life. It is still common to speak of "America and the world" as though the two exist separately in space and time. This can be traced back to the first such dichotomy: the New World and the Old. Related to it was one between civilization and barbarism. As Jay Sexton has shown in his recent history of the Monroe Doctrine, it did not take long for the two to merge into another defined more by latitude than by longitude, that is, a "North vs. South distinction of ‘civilized' and ‘uncivilized' peoples." No longer was the United States merely a good poor man's country, no longer just a refuge and a symbol of hope for those who endure oppression and poverty. It also had, collectively, a civilizing mission of its own.