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American Century: the Sequel : GRAND ILLUSION: Critics and Champions of the American Century, By John Judis (Farrar Straus and Giroux: $24.95; 314 pp.)

August 16, 1992|Tad Szulc | Szulc's most recent book, "Then and Now: How The World Has Changed Since World War II" (Morrow), won the 1991 Overseas Press Club of America award for the best book on foreign affairs

If, indeed, the "American Century" has already ended (even before the 20th Century has actually run its course), the inevitable question must be: What, if anything, will replace it in world relationships? And what about the American Dream?

Despite breathless proclamations from instant historians that history has "ended" with the collapse of the Soviet empire, international politics today actually has become infinitely more complex and even dangerous than in the days when foreign policies and nuclear armaments could be targeted at a single opponent.

To be able to grasp this new reality is the greatest challenge for the next President of the United States, whether it is the supposedly experienced George Bush, so wedded to conventional wisdom, or the supposedly inexperienced Bill Clinton, who at least has a "vision thing" to compensate for his apparent weakness in international affairs.

In any event, the President in office during most of the '90s will play as crucial a role in defining the character of the new global century and determining America's place in it as William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt did in launching the "American Century."

The 20th Century presumably was the "American Century" because it marked American geographic expansion in the wake of the Spanish-American War (our conquest of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and, virtually, Cuba); explosive economic growth through the absorption of masses of European immigrants and the American genius in adapting the Industrial Revolution to our needs; hemispheric interventions by the Marines and a decisive role in winning two world wars; and, in the second half of the century, victory in the Cold War (it was victory because it wasn't defeat), despite very questionable "hot war" involvements in Korea and Indochina.

President Bush's promises notwithstanding, though, do we really know where to go from here? Domestically, the economy is in grievous disarray and inevitably, this will affect America's world influence. We are experiencing enormous problems in our trade relations with the European Community and Japan, which today are strong enough to reject American dicta in international economics. We have a huge foreign commercial deficit, the dollar is weak, and we depend on imports for over one-half of our oil requirements. All of this has dimmed our voice in global policy-making as the Cold War shifts from an East-West conflict to one in which the increasingly impoverished countries of the South are pitted against the industrialized nations of the North.

The breakdown in Third World societies not only means the loss of markets for U.S. exports (our principal markets nowadays) and an even deeper domestic recession, it also will lead huge waves of migrants to seek food and jobs in the North. In a thickening nightmare of peace following the end of the Cold War, we live the politics of "Catch 22."

Clearly, world and domestic situations have changed beyond belief since the tranquil days of the "Manifest Destiny" and even since the hopes for a "New World Order" and the "peace dividend" we entertained briefly at the end of the 1980s. But life goes on and the United States must position itself intelligently in the new context, formulating a leadership stance consistent with existing American power and responsibilities, and, one hopes, with our residual traditions of morality. Without a moral (not moralistic) attitude, world leadership tends to wither away or to be destroyed altogether in the long run.

Because history is a continuum, it is useful to look back to see what we might learn from the past, and most notably from the origins and the ups and downs of this "American Century." This is when we turn to "Grand Illusion" by John Judis, a book whose subtitle, "Critics and Champions of the American Century," promises stimulating analysis and provocative hints for the new century. Alas, I regret to report, "Grand Illusion" is a grand disappointment. Basically, it offers few fresh insights, concentrating numbingly on quotations from the "Critics" and the "Champions."

Judis' main problem is that he starts out with a set of preconceptions about history and then strives to make facts, events and personalities fit his mind-set. His first assumption is that the "American Century" was an unceasing battle between American "evangelism" and American "realism." The notion has its merits when placed in proper perspective, but it cannot be presented as a solid overview of the century-long period in United States history.

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