Forging the American Century: World War II and the Transformation of U.S. Internationalism
Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, October 27-28, 2016
The intersection of contemporary debates about the future of American power and recent developments in the field of diplomatic history compel us to reconsider the foundations and contours of the American Century.
“Forging the American Century”, seeks to combine the current concern for America’s changing role in the world with new and developing insights into the nature of international relations to revisit the origins of the American Century: World War II and its aftermath. The conference is not about the high diplomacy of the war, nor is it necessarily about the start of the Cold War. Instead, it will address the ways in which the World War and America’s rise to global power drove Americans in different fields, both inside and outside the sphere of formal diplomacy, to forge new connections with the world. We will also address the many ways in which people around the world responded to the new or changing American presence.
By invoking the term “American Century”, we do not intend to link up to Henry Luce’s original arguments. With its confusing mix of jingoism, democratic idealisms, free market enthusiasm, nationalism, and naiveté, Luce’s “American Century” has rarely been taken seriously as a blueprint for American internationalism. However, the concept of an “American Century” has recently made a comeback in discussions about the United States’ relative decline. Can the United States maintain its international economic position in the face of Chinese competition? Have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq caused irreparable damage to its role as an international leader? Will rising powers, especially the much-discussed BRICS countries, challenge the liberal world order that the United States has built and sustained?
In a recent anthology that he described as a “dissenter’s guide to the American Century”, Andrew Bacevich argues that:
“the conditions that once lent plausibility to visions of an American Century [have] ceased to exist…Contemporary reality no longer accommodate[s] the notion of a single nation arrogating to itself the role of a Good Samaritan, especially a nation with dirty hands…The utility of Luce’s formulation as a description of the contemporary international order or as a guide to future U.S. policy has been exhausted.”
Others have been more optimistic, both about the nature of the American Century and its future. Joseph Nye defines it as “the extraordinary period of American preeminence in military, economic, and soft power resources that have made the United States central to the workings of the global balance of power, and to the provision of global public goods”. While the international environment will become more complicated in the future, he announces simply that “the American century is not over”.
The running debates over the future of American power make this an opportune moment to reconsider the foundations of U.S. internationalism, especially in the light of recent innovations in the field of diplomatic history. Over the past fifteen years, terms such as empire, soft power, and anti-Americanism have become commonplace in discussions of America’s role in the world. Foreign policy, power politics, and the work of statesmen and professional diplomats no longer dominate histories of U.S. foreign relations. Current scholarly interest in soft power, public diplomacy, and Americanization have opened the field to the study of culture. “New” diplomatic historians study the role of individuals, networks, musicians, athletes, transnational movements and a wide variety of other forms of “informal” diplomacy. A focus on American action has made room for the study of interaction: the ways in which peoples throughout the world have resisted, negotiated, or welcomed the American presence.
The conference will take place at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, on October 27-28, 2016. This conference is an initiative of the North American Studies Program at the Radboud University. For more information about our program and our staff please visit www.ru.nl/nas.