The End of the American CenturyRoundup
tags: foreign policy, democracy, Pax Americana
George Packer is a staff writer for The Atlantic. He is the author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America and the forthcoming Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.
What’s called the American century was really just a little more than half a century, and that was the span of Richard Holbrooke’s life. It began with the Second World War and the creative burst that followed—the United Nations, the Atlantic alliance, containment, the free world—and it went through dizzying lows and highs, until it expired the day before yesterday. The thing that brings on doom to great powers—is it simple hubris, or decadence and squander, a kind of inattention, loss of faith, or just the passage of years? At some point that thing set in, and so we are talking about an age gone by. It wasn’t a golden age—there was plenty of folly and wrong—but I already miss it. The best about us was inseparable from the worst. Our feeling that we could do anything gave us the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the peace at Dayton and the endless Afghan War. Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness—they were not so different from Holbrooke’s. He was our man. That’s the reason to tell you this story.
He served as a diplomat under every Democratic president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. But his egotism alienated superiors and colleagues, and he never reached his lifelong goal of becoming secretary of state. He wasn’t a grand strategist, but his frenetic public presence made him the embodiment of certain ideas in action. His views, like everyone’s, emerged from his nervous system, his amygdala, the core of his character, where America stood for something more than just its own power. He believed that power brought responsibilities, and if we failed to face them the world’s suffering would worsen, and eventually other people’s problems would be ours, and if we didn’t act, no one else would. Not necessarily with force, but with the full weight of American influence. That was the Holbrooke doctrine, vindicated at Dayton, where he ended a war and brought an uneasy peace to Bosnia. The country owed its existence to the liberal internationalism of Pax Americana. Now that those words are history, and we’ve retreated into a nationalism whose ugliness more and more reminds me of Balkan politics, we should revisit Bosnia to see what’s lost when America decides to leave the world alone.