America from afar — (I) Charm

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

America’s success in the world in the seven decades since World War II has always been a function of how well its brand is perceived abroad, writes Tarek Osman in the first in a series of articles


The brand had wonderful ambassadors. Those who were attracted by ideals found in the ideas of America’s Founding Fathers nobility, refinement, and a unique mix of spiritual transcendence and material practicality.

The design on the current US dollar note signifies the epitome of material power, while also invoking symbols of ancient knowledge and wisdom. In the US Bill of Rights, and behind it in the thinking upon which the country was created, those inspired by ideals saw the intellectual foundations of one of the most ambitious political and social projects in human history – a project to build not just a tremendously rich country, but also a realm anchored on genuine freedom of thought and action.

This would be a society, according to the country’s Founding Fathers, that would ascend as much as possible to true respect for human agency and potential.  

Those inspired by the struggle against social ills and the endeavour towards righteousness saw in America’s 19th-century struggles, and particularly its Civil War, a society’s attempts to correct its path, to redeem itself from the sin of slavery, and to reorient itself towards its potential.

It was not a coincidence that for many scholars of the United States, president Abraham Lincoln was more than just the victor in the country’s Civil War. He was also the hero of a nascent Republic whose thoughts and actions salvaged its political project from sinking into the depravity of slavery that would have destroyed its meaning and potential.

By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, as America began to emerge from its isolation across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the story of the country was already one of escaping from colonial tyranny, fighting for freedom, envisioning a republic of and for greatness, expanding across one of the richest continents on the planet, descending into degeneracy, and then redeeming itself and seeking new ways forward.

In a world that was then dominated by the European colonial powers that seemed to have succumbed to the debasements of wealth through the theft and exploitation of others, the US emerged as a land of promise both for those living in it and for those who looked at it from afar and admired its might as well as its righteousness.

But brand America offered even more than this, and admirers the world over saw wealth that at times seemed unlimited. Names such as those of US billionaires Carnegie, Rockefeller, Mellon, Astor, Getty, Morgan, and others have entered popular parlance in different parts of the world, symbolising the colossal wealth to be made in America.

 In the minds of scores of people across the world, these names were much more than those of ultra-high net worth families. They also symbolised America’s abundance. The allure of such wealth resonated not only in poorer countries in Africa and Asia, but also at least as strongly in Europe. Whether after World War I or World War II, many individuals in the highest social echelons of London and Paris or Vienna and Rome bent over backwards to welcome the scions of America’s wealthy families.

This was partly owing to the power that money bestows, but at heart it was also the result of the attraction of what then seemed to be America’s opulence. In the world’s imagination, America came to signify plenty.

It also came to signify power. The country emerged from World War II as one of the world’s two superpowers. But unlike the former Soviet Union, which came across draped in Communist Party garb and carrying with it the heavy problems of a multitude of poor countries, America appeared luscious and vibrant, having inherited and absorbed the old colonial empires of the British, the French, and the Spanish.

But America’s power was as menacing as it was seductive. It was the first, and so far the only, country to have used nuclear weapons. To ensure Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the US was willing to deploy the deadliest weapon that humanity has ever developed. Then US president Harry Truman, and US military commanders such as Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, showed the world another facet of America – one of a power that would use extreme force to secure its demands.

Nevertheless, there was also intrigue and enchantment in America’s unveiling of its power to the world. In the 1942 film Casablanca, for example, America comes to North Africa, in this case Morocco, in the midst of World War II not as an antiquated colonial power like France, or a brute aggressor like Germany, but as a daring liberator.

For those who were slow to get the message, Hollywood gave them the seductive combination of actors Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart – a strong-willed, gorgeous, and courageous woman and a roguish, but chivalrous and daring man, each indicating facets of America itself. The country was casting its spell over the world.

The world was also waiting for America. It was inevitable that its unrivalled hard and soft power would dominate in different parts of the world – from Western Europe, emerging impoverished and destroyed after World War II, to almost the whole of Asia, and of course also to South America, which the US has seen since the mid-19th century as its own backyard. America also came to the Middle East, the region of the Holy Land, oil, and orientalist fantasies.

Across the globe, America was expected to arrive, always with interest and anticipation and often with riveting enthrallment. The unknown then was how it would behave. What did it want? And what would the American Age entail?


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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