America from afar — (IV) Dominion

Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

The period from the mid-1990s to a decade ago saw America cement its dominion over the rest of the world, writes Tarek Osman


Full of conviction that the victory of its liberal model in the Cold War with the former Soviet Union constituted the “end of history” in terms of political evolution, America began its dominion over the rest of the world in a benevolent way.

America wanted to shape the world in its own image. This was not out of hubris, but because from its perspective America’s shape had proven itself to be the most suitable in the past and the most promising for the future.

In both the Republican and Democratic Parties, and within many of America’s most influential intellectual circles, the idea that the country’s victory in the Cold War was tantamount to a vindication of its global role was gaining major ground. Ideas from the writings of the founding fathers of the Republic about America’s mission and destiny became common references in the political rhetoric of the time.

Indeed, as was presented in the previous article in this series, the world was looking with fascination at America, not merely at its military power and political success, but also as a contrast to the weakness that had engulfed the successors of the Soviet Union. There was also America’s soft power in areas from science to entertainment and the technology that it was showcasing to the rest of the world at unprecedented scale and speed.

Many in the world wanted America, perhaps as much as America at the time wanted the rest of the world. There was a meeting of minds between those who were touting the supremacy of the American model within the country and those outside it who wanted to copy, internalise, and in many cases partake in the American model themselves.  

America’s expansionism in the 1990s began with its so-called multinational companies, banks, and other financial institutions entering new markets, quickly establishing a strong presence, and gradually assuming significant economic and political influence in different parts of the world.

At the simplest level, the arrival of the McDonald’s fast-food franchise in other countries signalled a change in the economic outlook elsewhere. In cities all over the world, thousands of consumers waited for hours for the opening of the first branch of McDonald’s, not particularly to taste the food, but to undergo what they felt was a quintessential American experience.

Arms followed money. Many in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s were at least as keen as the US on expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) eastwards. For many in America and Europe at the time, the expansion of NATO meant much more than just building a military presence in the Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Slovenia, and other countries. It also meant integrating the defence of these countries into the military, industrial, economic, and financial structure that America had created and sustained since World War II.

In this sense, NATO’s expansion in the 1990s was a victory of the foundational political ideas with which America had led the West since the early 1940s. America’s military presence, political influence, and economic prevalence were seen as facets of the city on a hill radiating its light far and wide.

America’s expansionism in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in the same decade was not much different. There was also a strong military component. American military bases began popping up across these regions, though without the dramatic signalling that came with NATO’s expansion in Europe.

Gone was the selective military presence that concentrated on North America and Europe, and in its place there was a new network of American military commands covering the entire planet. This was a transformation in American thinking from the defender of the “free world” in the decades from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War to the keeper of a new world order secured by the reach and might of a global empire.

Arms also came in the wake of economics in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. But it was not only American companies and banks that were building their presence and acquiring notable market shares in different economic sectors. Perhaps more importantly, the more economically open these countries became, and the more their markets were connected to global supply chains and investment circles, the more they came to be integrated into the global economy.

This entailed a major increase in the importance of US dollar-based trading for almost all the world’s countries, as well as increased dependence on the US dollar-dominated global sovereign bond market. Often the power of that market was at least as compelling as that of American military might.

Modernisation theory seemed to have won the argument about how countries could develop. In its most basic form, this holds that the more the middle classes grow and become richer, the more a country will develop economically and then politically towards democracy, and it inspired development experiences in many parts of the world.

The American model became an inspiration and often a yardstick of development. As America rapidly spread its influence across the rest of the world, along with its economic model and financial investments, there came America as the solution provider, arbiter, or adjudicator on political and economic progress.

As the world entered the second millennium, this 200-year-old country seemed to be the centre not only of the mightiest empire the world had ever known, but also a model and an inspiration for many people the world over.

But as had happened repeatedly with empires before, challengers then started to emerge at the periphery, along with partners who had seen their power diluted by the dominion of the global hegemon, and these appeared to be determined to stop the new order – the Pax Americana – from prevailing.


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 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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