The End of a Short-Lived American Century

Image courtesy Robert Scarth/Flickr

Image courtesy Robert Scarth/Flickr

Click on the ‘What’s New’ page on the website of the Project for the New American Century and you’ll notice that the Washington DC-based neo-conservative thinktank hasn’t published anything for a while. Not since December 2006, in fact. Yet five years earlier - a decade ago - the Project for the New American Century was the most influential thinktank in the US. Founded during Bill Clinton’s second presidency, its mission was to advocate that what was good for America was good for the world, and it came into its own at the start of the first Bush presidency, particularly in pushing for a war in Iraq.

The apogee of PNAC’s power came in in September 2000 - a year before 9/11 - with the publication of a report called Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century. It was a hawkish American call to arms: “America should seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the preeminence of U.S. military forces,” it said.

A little more than a decade later, the Project exists in name only. The US is in terminal decline, economically, militarily and diplomatically. It will struggle to emerge from its recent military adventures with any semblance of victory. How did the American century end so quickly?

It was a theme weighing heavily on the mind of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last Friday at the Melbourne Town Hall. Never a neo-con, Friedman has over the years assumed the mantle of the voice of American liberalism.

In an extended presentation, Friedman explained why US domestic politics are so central to its adventures in foreign policy, and what he means when he says that the American dream is now “in play and in peril”.

Friedman read from his latest book (co-authored with Michael Mandelbaum), That Used to be Us: What Went Wrong With America? And How it Can Come Back. The book is a kind of call to arms for a broken and demoralised America, describing everyday signs and comparisons that signal the nation’s struggle to keep up with new powers like China. Friedman outlined what he reads as the four great challenges facing his country.

Friedman summed up his idea of the importance of America to the world with a joke he attributed to his grandmother: “never cede a century to a country that censors Google”. He closed the event as he started it, with an exhortation to Americans that, in order to progress, America must look inward.

(Click to watch video.)

(Click to watch video.)

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