I am reading the current issue of the scholarly journal Diplomatic History (June 2019), which leads with the Stuart L. Bernath Lecture, delivered last year by Jay Sexton, professor of US and global history at the University of Missouri. One of the points being made by Professor Sexton is that American crises tend to quickly follow periods of economic and/or national boom. To name some examples, the height of British power in North America following the Seven Years’ War in which it defeated France was followed in less than two decades by the American Revolution. The rapid and overpowering expansionist victory by the US in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was followed in thirteen years by Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency, the secession of southern states, and the start of the American Civil War. The victory in World War I and the triumph of capitalism in the 1920’s preceded the economic disaster of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. And, as professor Sexton argues, these historical cases did not just magically appear in the annals of time, but they were a product of economics, of government policies, of immigration and technological injections, and of societal changes brought on by – or exacerbated because of – the heights of power observed during the booms.
Which leads to the question: what of the relative lack of bust following the great gains in the mid-twentieth century with the World War II victory and the creation of the post-war world order? And, if the longevity of the post-WWII boom can be considered an anomaly, should we be expecting an imminent crisis that has yet to follow the post-end of Cold War US eclipse? While attempting to give the appearance of calm assuredness, it is not a foregone truth that this period in which we currently live won’t result in some sort of national inflection point that could determine the fates of American citizens and power alike. I leave the reader to make their own conclusions, but it is worth quoting Sexton at length:
“A strong geopolitical case can be made [that the US is entering a post-boom crisis phase]. It would go something like this. The disruptively liberating globalization of capitalism began well before America’s Cold War triumph – just as British North America boomed before the Seven Years’ War. Then came the stunning collapse of communism in 1989, which set off a transformative shift in the tectonic plates of the geopolitical system.
The frenzied boom of neoliberal globalization that followed skewed the distribution of wealth in favor of the holders of capital, as Thomas Picketty has so persuasively demonstrated. Immigration to the United States also surged, with the percentage of the population that is foreign born now within striking distance of its all-time high (13.5% in 2016, 14.8% in 1890). New technologies of communication accelerated these trends, in the process placing unanticipated strains on old ways of life. Meanwhile, as America’s wealthiest voters received generous Cold War dividends in the form of tax cuts, its public services, national finances, and military power began to buckle under budgetary pressures.
The domestic results of this volatile, post-Cold War boom are readily apparent for all to see today: resurgent nativism, protectionism, and even isolationism; widening social inequality and intensified culture wars; looming fiscal crisis; and unexpected, contingent turns in finance and politics – not least the 2007-8 financial crisis and the 2016 election. The nationalist political system created in that peculiar age of the mid-twentieth century has struggled to adapt to the post-Cold War context in which the United States has returned to its traditional position of importing, rather than projecting, power. The nation has lost the insulations that cushioned it from the shocks of global integration during the heyday of the ‘American century.’ Meanwhile, new security vulnerabilities have emerged in the forms of terrorism, cyberwarfare, renewed international rivalry, and climate change. It is no surprise that nostalgia dominates contemporary public life.
What lies around the corner is anyone’s guess. I ended my recent book by emphasizing the stamina and resilience of the political and economic establishments that had taken root during the ‘American Century.’ They so far have weathered the storm, which might be breaking on the horizon: Trump’s insurgency has lost steam, and even Brexit is now in doubt. Even so, the challenges of our era require more than a simple rearranging of the deck chairs of the ship of state. The sputtering engines below deck that power our political economy and ballast our social structure need a thorough overhaul. Maybe a crisis is necessary. After all, U.S. history shows us that crises have their upsides.”