Globe&Mail - America's century


Monday, December 27, 1999

When Sir Wilfrid Laurier suggested that the 20th Century would belong to Canada, he described a thrusting country of dazzling potential. Now that the century is over, some argue it did belong to Canada, at least as a comfortable place to live.

But as affluent, tolerant and progressive as Canada may be, the truth is that this century belongs to the United States. There is really no contest. Its claim is as clear as the dawn's early light and as compelling as the rockets' red glare.

What other country has so shaped the world in its image? All its rivals -- Britain, France, Russia and Germany -- have lost their dominance over the last 100 years. China is yet to reassert itself.

The United States began the century an emerging power; it ends it a superpower.

Militarily, it can project power across the planet with unmatched strength of arms. Economically, its capital, resources and productivity make it the engine of the world. Diplomatically, its influence is so great that few conflicts -- Bosnia, Kosovo, the Middle East, Northern Ireland -- are resolved without its intervention.

Technologically, its ingenuity develops the microchip, extends the Internet and explores outer space. Scientifically, its discoveries cure disease, alter genetics, prolong human life.

Culturally, its impact in film, television, theatre, media, music, and design is immeasurable. Hollywood, Disney and Broadway entertain the world, CNN informs it, McDonald's feeds it, the Gap dresses it. English is the world's lingua franca because Americans speak it.

If this is the Age of America, it rests largely on the success of democracy, pluralism and capitalism. Is it a surprise that Chinese dissidents raised a Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square? With Communism discredited, free markets and free elections are taking root everywhere.

In the past 100 years, Americans have absorbed immigrants, electrified industry, planned cities, dammed rivers, laced the continent with railroads, highways and fibreoptics. Initiative, ambition and optimism define a swaggering people bestriding the world with the confidence of the Greeks and Romans. Like the ancients, they are unafraid to call themselves a civilization.

At the end of century, we pause, with wonder, to consider what makes them the people they are.

This is a country that celebrates success and encourages excellence. It worships wealth and punishes failure, which is why it is better to be rich in America than to be poor -- the opposite of Canada.

This is a country in love with bigness -- the size of chocolate sundaes, the speed of airplanes, the height of bonfires, the dimensions of Dolly Parton. Unburdened by the limits of space and class of Europe, America talks only about opportunity, always in superlatives.

This is a country of change. It ended slavery, banished segregation, punished presidential corruption. When it was weak, its instincts were strong.

This is a country of aggressive innovation, a nation of risk-takers more than life-insurers. That spirit dug the Panama Canal, built the Brooklyn Bridge, and invented virtual reality.

This is a country of identity and memory. Its people have as much history as geography, and cherish both.

This is a country of will. Under threat, it retooled its economy and forged the world's strongest military overnight. It saved the world from the Nazis, stood down the Soviets and, to its regret, misread the Vietnamese and the Cubans.

This is a country of mawkishness, garishness, parochialism, arrogance and empire, even if it isn't territorial. Its people are often blunt and loud, making them a target for the world, which resents the frontrunner even as it follows it.

Not long ago, declinists said it was over for America, hailing the ascent of Japan.

But no country has come as far and affected so many in the 20th Century. It was undoubtedly The American Century, and the next one may be, too.

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