America from afar — (II) Victory

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

America came to the world in three distinct phases, the last after its overwhelming victory in World War II, writes Tarek Osman


America came to the world gradually. It took quite a long time, and quite calamitous events, to convince America, or large segments of its population, to leave their isolationism behind and engage with the world.

This engagement evolved through three cycles. The first was almost immediately after America’s victory in its War of Independence against the British Empire.

Founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton had no doubts about what they saw as the superiority of the political project that their nascent republic embodied.

In their view, America was to be built on true freedom – of the mind, before anything else, and subsequently of the will. In the thinking of several of America’s founding fathers, this meant that the republic that they were building was to be endowed with the utmost human achievements in science, the arts, and in what they considered to be the refined domains of knowledge.

The founding fathers, and several of those who carried their ideas forward, had immense respect for ancient civilisations, particularly the Egyptian. It was not a coincidence that the capital, Washington DC, was to be built on geometric shapes evoking ancient Egyptian concepts, let alone that the Washington Monument was shaped like an ancient Egyptian obelisk with a pyramidical capstone in order to represent the American Republic’s ascent towards greatness and the founding fathers’ quest for eternity and absoluteness.

However, despite having built their Republic and escaped from European control, America’s early founders appreciated that they needed to learn from Europe, so as to give the country its chance at the greatness they sought.

Dozens of key American figures in the 18th and 19th centuries spent months, and in some cases years, in London, Paris, and Rome, not only as ambassadors, tradesmen, and wanderers in the Old World, but also as scholars whose task was to learn and observe.

Some of their writings, such as Benjamin Franklin’s on the cause of American freedom, most of which were actually written during his years in London, demonstrate the intellectual wealth that these men internalised from their time in the Old World.

This first cycle of engaging with the world cemented in the American psyche the idea that the new republic was to become a “city on the hill” whose light would illuminate its people, and perhaps also others across the oceans, and lead them towards genuine freedom and the realisation of human potential.

For some, this was an idealistic view of the nascent republic. For others, this engagement with the world helped to develop some of the most refined thought-patterns in American philosophy and literature.

The second cycle of engagement was different. In the early 20th century, scores of America’s wealthy, at a time when the country’s industrial and financial circles were rapidly growing, began crossing the Atlantic Ocean towards Europe.

The vast majority of them were going to Europe as tourists, leisure-seekers, and often as large-scale buyers of property, land, and art. American wealth was seeking to experience Old World glamour, and often that wealth was trying to acquire facades of centuries-old prestige, in many cases through marriage.

Whereas in its first cycle of engaging with the world, America, arguably through its greatest political minds, came to learn from and to convince Europe, this time it came to buy and to acquire.

However, in neither cycle did America stay. Isolationism was too attractive to abandon. For almost 200 years after its founding, America was content to take from the world the knowledge it sought and to sparingly indulge in its joys.

However, in the third cycle of its engagement with the rest of the world America came to stay.

The country was hesitant about entering World War II. It took the Japanese attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbour to convince the American public, and crucially importantly also a Congress that was highly sceptical about America’s engaging in a war in Europe and Asia, to commit to the war effort.

World War II devastated Europe and Asia. Even the victorious nations of Britain, the Soviet Union, and France finished the war having lost colossal numbers of their best men, and Britain and France were almost bankrupt. America was effectively the sole true victor in World War II.

Victorious and rich to a bewildering degree, America came to different parts of the world in the 1950s and 1960s with two clear objectives. The first was to deny Communism – the ideology that challenged American liberal capitalism – access to regions outside the Soviet Union’s direct control. The second was to open up world markets to American corporations.  

This was a cycle of fighting. Militarily, ideologically, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s economically, the Soviet Union was an important competitor of America.

Knowing what we do today about the true economic condition of the Soviet Union, some might argue that the Soviets never had a reasonable chance at winning the Cold War. But that was far from certain at its height, and so America went to Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and of course also the Middle East to fight what seemed to be a mighty Communist empire that was aiming, like America, to build influence across the globe.

There were military confrontations, although always through proxies, and most of the fighting was political and economic. In those domains, America was able to shape the structure, the legal framework, and the institutions of global trade and finance according to its views and to serve its purposes in the world. Even those parts of the world that were under Communist rule or were part of the Soviet sphere of influence were strongly affected by the international economic system that America had designed.

As much as the US State Department – and often also the Pentagon – were key arms of the fight after World War II, the US dollar, and so also the US Treasury and Federal Reserve, were also fundamental in the struggle.

America made colossal miscalculations during the Cold War. In Vietnam, as well as in other parts of the world, it often deployed its colossal military might in wars that it defined as being against Communism but that at the time and later seemed largely meaningless.

However, whether in Vietnam or elsewhere, the costs and consequences of these strategic mistakes paled compared to the strategic gains in politics and economics that America secured in almost all the regions of the world in the four decades after World War II.

By the 1980s, America was not merely winning the Cold War in terms of its political influence in different parts of the world, but also in terms of access to markets, trade volumes, the attraction of American markets and especially its treasury bills and the power of the dollar. Equally important, America was winning psychologically, as most of the middle classes across the globe wanted to experience elements of its prosperity.

A key part of that prosperity transcended financial abundance. As the next article in this series will show, the softer sides of America’s power were increasingly fascinating hundreds of millions across the globe, especially after the country became the world’s sole superpower in the early 1990s.


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 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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