America from afar — (III) Eureka

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

Victory in the Cold War opened a new phase in America and for the country in the rest of the world, writes Tarek Osman

 

America took some time to internalise the significance of its victory in the Cold War. In the last years of the Presidency of George Bush Senior after the fall of the Soviet Union, America still retained the mindset of the Cold War, acting quite cautiously around the world and primarily within a geopolitical framework.

Soon, however, the eureka moment arrived. America realised the enormity of its victory. Not only had its arch-rival for four decades, the Soviet Union, collapsed, but also most of the countries that had earlier been parts of that union or under its direct sway were longing to become closer to America. Some were even longing to Americanise themselves.

In different parts of the world – including in parts of Asia and Africa that a few decades before had been ardent opponents of American policies – America was seen as not only powerful and victorious, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as inherently possessing the ingredients of success.

Success is often more compelling than power, especially for societies sensing new opportunities to change their present and evolve towards a better future.

That was the early 1990s. America’s success at that moment was correctly seen across almost the entire world as a triumph of the ideas upon which America was built and through which it functioned, prospered, and had created its empire.

With the eureka moment of its success, America itself opted for a new beginning. Like other societies elsewhere in the world, America wanted to move beyond the confrontations of the Cold War. A prevailing feeling in America was that “our ideas” and “our model” had won the war and that “we” ought to reap the fruits of victory.

A part of the new beginning was to ditch the old and embrace the new. George Bush Senior lost the 1992 presidential elections to a Democratic Party governor from a small southern state without any prior experience in international relations.

It was not just “the economy, stupid,” as the campaign of this governor, Bill Clinton, put it. At a deeper level, America wanted to move beyond Cold War thinking and beyond its atmosphere and personalities. Victory and success opened up a new phase in America as much as they opened up a new phase for America in the world.

For many in America, it was “the end of history.” The title of political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s famous book from 1992 put forward the idea that liberal democracy was the ultimate form of government. It was an idea that went beyond political thinking and ideological evolution. Key decision-making circles in America came to believe and behave as if the country’s victory in the Cold War was a watershed moment in history precisely because they interpreted that victory as the success of American socio-politics and the ultimate vindication of the ideas inherent in the American experience.

Technology gave momentum to this view. The rapid spread of the Internet and of satellite technology across the world shrank the cultural separation that had divided the planet throughout human history. For the first time in recorded history, societies were beginning to see each other on a mass scale and in real time. Ideas were beginning to be transmitted across borders at unprecedented speeds. The success of America could not have come at a more propitious moment for its ideas.

Interestingly, politics benefitted least from the exposure the world was having to American culture. The end of the Cold War, and the belief at the time that this was the “end of history” with regard to political evolution, turned attention elsewhere and towards the aspirations of the middle classes across the world.

China was already two decades into its economic opening; India was emerging from the socialism that had dominated its politics for five decades since its independence from Britain; and large parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were waking up to the new world after the Cold War.

Middle classes across the world were increasingly seeing different angles of America’s power. Universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT, banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan, consulting firms such as McKinsey and Bain, technological-industrial complexes from Massachusetts to Silicon Valley, and other names and institutions in America’s educational, professional, business, and industrial pantheon fuelled the imaginations of tens of millions of bright young people across the world.

Brand America was transcending the apprehensions associated with America’s military power, and it was increasingly benefitting from a global fascination with America’s industrial, intellectual, and creative might.

Technology also presented America to the world in a different way. For decades, Hollywood had been America’s most successful foreign ambassador. But with the Internet and satellite communications, American sitcoms became almost ubiquitous forms of entertainment across the globe, gradually familiarising billions of non-Americans with ways of living, thinking, and behaving that were rooted in the American dream of prosperity in a vast, rich, and detached continent.    

The post-Cold War moment was a victory for America, not for the West. Europe emerged from the Cold War undergoing major transformations, most notably in Britain, the European country closest to America. Like America, the UK also opted to turn the page on the Cold War, and so replaced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with John Major, a man who seemed to be a bridge to a different future.

Germany and France were busy with how the European Union – Europe’s quintessential sociopolitical project – would incorporate the European countries that had just emerged from the cloak of Communism.

However, these Central and Eastern European countries were hardly joining the European Union as obedient students of Western Europe. Most joined it with their hearts and minds set on the American political model. As much as the subsequent expansion of the European Union was a success for the European project, it was also at least equally a success for America, which saw its reach being deepened.  

These factors effected a transformation in how America saw the world. Gone were the trepidations and cautiousness of the Cold War. America began to see the world as its oyster: open and often waiting for it. It began to change its positioning in almost every region of global geopolitical importance.

 

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 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: