1917 opened a trapdoor to the future, less because of the Russian Revolution than because the US seized its chance to lead. It has continued to do so—until now...by Adam Tooze / December 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Here, Tooze writes on the birth of the American Century. In a companion piece, Francis Fukuyama writes on its end
Three years ago the anniversary of 1914 was met with sorrow, puzzlement and nostalgia. Images of that year’s long summer evoke a world we have lost, a belle époque torn to pieces on the battlefields in a bloody autumn. Three years on, there is another centenary, but it comes without sepia tint. Instead, we recall the revolutionary year of 1917 through the grainy black-and-white shots of the bullet-swept streets of revolutionary Petrograd, as the harbinger of a century that was dynamic, violent and unforgiving. If 1914 dug a trench—a divide with an old world to which there’s no going back—1917 was instead a trap door. We dropped through into a brave new world, a world stirred by global ideological conflict and currents of economic and political change on a scale never before seen—a world dominated by new powers, and above all by the United States. One hundred years on, the shock of 1917 still reverberates, even as that “new order” disintegrates before our eyes.
As the world prepares for the Trump presidency, the perspective becomes sharper on 1917 as the point of departure for America’s globe-straddling hegemony; because in 2017, it will at last become impossible to ignore the reality that we are living through its end. During the American century, the mission of the US, at least in its own estimation, was to spread liberal values using the enormous financial and military resources at its disposal. Now, it seems that we may be moving into a new era of stripped down realpolitik, where the art of the deal is valued more than the encouragement of democracy or any other value. The US, and countries beside, are increasingly inclined to act openly in their own self-interest, without even the fig-leaf of moral leadership. It is suddenly urgent to ask: is the era of politicised foreign policy, the era that began in 1917, now behind us?