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The Paradox of a Global USA, byBruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda & Kenneth Weisbrode

Joseph Michael Gratale
Bibliographical reference

Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007, 218p.ISBN:100804751552

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1When was the following book, titled The Americanization of the Worldor the Trend of the Twentieth Century, written?  Was it in the 1950s, the 1960s, or during the last decade of the twentieth century that W.T. Stead, a British writer, published his book?  The answer is none of the above; interestingly enough Stead’s book was published in 1902.  I enjoy putting this question to students in my American studies class who tend to fall into the ‘trap’ of seeing both the key aspects of globalizationand the rise of American power as essentially contemporary.  Equally revealing is how many of us generally underestimate the historical ‘reach’ and endurance of anti-American sentiment, which is abundantly present in Stead’s work.  Despite the book’s title, Stead’s focus falls largely on Britain’s greatness and its culpability in America’s emergent rise to global power status at the turn of the century. I cannot resist including the following quote:  “…as the creators of the Americans is the greatest achievement of our race, there is no reason to resent the part the Americans are playing in fashioning the world in their image, which, after all, is substantially the image of ourselves” (1-2).

2I provide this somewhat extended introduction merely to illustrate that the circulation of notions about the omnipresence of the United States of America in the world has a genealogy which not only goes back to the early twentieth century, but whose antecedents can be located from earlier periods of American history.  But clearly, the view from the early twenty-first century of America’s relationship with the world requires renewed scrutiny and analysis in light of the intensification of global interconnection following the end of the cold war, as well as the rise of the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent global hegemon.  Essentially, this is exactly what The Paradox of a Global USA addresses, but with an interesting twist.  If the U.S. is the champion par excellence of globalization, or the engine behind contemporary globalities, would one then subsequently assume that the U.S. is a country that fully embraces interlinkages and ‘intimacy’ with the rest of the world?  This is the problematic that the editors of this volume, Mazlish, Chanda, and Weisbrode, set out to investigate through a collection of essays on an array of themes ranging from politics and religion, to foreign policy and the mass media.

3The volume begins with a foreword by Strobe Talbott and an introductory chapter by Bruce Mazlish, who, along with being one of the editors, also has the final word in the book’s concluding chapter.  In between the reader encounters eight engaging chapters written by a talented array of scholars, who through their specific thematic foci address America’s response to globalization and access the degree to which the U.S. can be characterized as a ‘global nation.’  Early on Mazlish identifies the ambivalence of the U.S. in regard to this question; it is a country that maintains both an attraction to and a repulsion towards ‘the global.’  Ironically, it was the U.S. more than any other nation-state which built the post-WWII architecture which provided the basis for the accelerated phase of globalization we are presently experiencing.  This position of ambivalence appears in the next essay by Martin Shaw who assesses globalism’s political domain.  By looking at international political structures Shaw notes that the general assumption is that we live in “a world that is economically and increasingly culturally globalized but that remains politically and militarily in a preglobal state” (17).  He counters this view by suggesting that political globalization has been occurring during the latter half of the twentieth century.  Furthermore, the role of the U.S. has not been that of a global hegemon− seeking to create an empire parallel to or within these global transformations.  Rather, the U.S. is merely part of a “global network of state institutions” which operates “at the center of the still anarchic relations of states worldwide” (22).  While America might be at the ‘center’ of this “Western-global state conglomerate” it is paradoxically detached from numerous global initiatives, such as the international criminal court and global environmental policies.  Furthermore, despite claims of imperium from supporters and detractors alike, the U.S. is hardly able to exercise its power as it would like to; two examples are the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

4This attention to foreign policy and the question of empire is taken up in other chapters.  In chapter eight, for example, Ian Roxborough applies the theme of U.S. resistance to globalization by examining its military strategy.  He focuses on three areas:  American military preponderance, a grand strategy of indefinite military preponderance, and the execution of a global ‘war on terror.’  The first two points clearly represent a challenge to an American-oriented globalism in which collective security and close coordination with allies take precedent over unilateralist policies.  Regarding the ‘war on terror’ it certainly can take the guise of a global initiative with the U.S. and its allies jointly operating against terrorist networks.  But has that been the case?  Some would argue that U.S. policies, especially under the two Bush administrations, have been more about American sovereignty and hegemonic desires rather than creating a new global architecture that would realign current geographies of power.  As Roxborough suggests, America’s position in the world today may very well set the stage for yet another American century.

5James Kurth, in his chapter, makes further inquiries on the topic of foreign policy and America’s somewhat paradoxical stance between globalization and empire.  The accelerated diffusion of globalization during the 1990s brought a response to it which ranged from academically-oriented critiques to the mass resistance associated with the anti-globalization movement.  This dialectic, Kurth argues, created the necessity for American military operations to safeguard its global interests, and by extension, global capitalism itself.  One such strand of resistance to globalization includes the “specter of Islamic terrorism” which sought to counter the encroachments of American imperial ambitions in particular regions of Asia.  This dichotomy is practically identical to the position taken by Benjamin Barber through his formula of ‘McWorld vs. Jihad.’  Kurth’s focus, therefore, is on the post 9-11 dynamics and America’s attempt to ‘rein in’ militant resistance to its policies and punish those behind the events of 9-11, hence the war in Afghanistan. (Clearly the U.S. invasion of Iraq represents a gross misapplication of the so-called ‘war on terror.’)  The future looks bleak for Kurth who envisages a continuation of this struggle between these two warring discourses of globalization, the Islamist version and the American driven version of globalization.

6Other chapters in the volume investigate other themes such as religion, the mass media, and the history of America’s relationship with globalization.  Unfortunately, space will not permit a report and evaluation of all the chapters which comprise this book.  One chapter in particular which cannot be overlooked is Akira Iriye’s, who sets out to consider whether or not the conflation of globalization with Americanization is an appropriate one.  In my view this chapter represents the heart of the volume and essentially addresses one the most important and compelling issues relative to contemporary socio-cultural relations.  As Iriye points out, for many people around the world globalization is synonymous with Americanization.  Looking back at the early part of the twentieth century the U.S., whether through Wilsonian internationalism or the post-World War II economic/political restructuring, clearly played a dynamic and foundational role in erecting the institutional architecture for the globalization that took shape during the last quarter of the twentieth century.  In this sense, the U.S. was strongly attached to these manifold global networks, and therefore, it would not be inappropriate to equate Americanization with globalization.  This is also evident in the ways in which the U.S. promoted regional economic integration and political cooperation through multilateral initiatives.

7Simultaneously, however, in the context of the cold war struggle the U.S. also had an agenda that did not necessarily coincide with the desires of the international community.  As Iriye points out, “Americanization in the strategic, geopolitical realm was not necessarily the same thing as globalization” (37).  The imperatives of geostrategic interests and empire created tensions and divisions in the ‘global interconnectedness’ that was being referred to in the multifarious discourses of globalization.  At no time was this more apparent than during the dual terms of George W. Bush at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Disdain for the United Nations, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Kyoto Protocols, and the International Criminal Court are clear illustrations of America’s ‘withdrawal’ from a global paradigm it was so instrumental in creating some fifty years prior.  In summing up, Iriye states that during “the course of the century, Americanization and globalization came to diverge, both because the United States became a receptacle of foreign goods and ideas and because globalization came to include many features that were not at all generated, or even welcomed, by Americans”  (48).  He goes on to suggest that especially after the events of 9/11, Americans have become more insular or local in their outlook, hence the paradox of a global U.S.A.

8In closing, The Paradox of a Global USA makes a very valuable contribution in giving the reader the opportunity to understand the diachronic relationships the U.S. has had with the world, specifically the trajectories of contemporary globalization.  The variety of topics, whether of a political, historical, ideological, or cultural orientation, all connect in evaluating the complex relationships the U.S maintains with its neighbors, the global community.  One of the key points the authors of this volume make is that America’s claim of being a country with a global vision and possessor of universal values has remained just that, a claim. The American repudiation of specific international treaties and conventions has been intermittent and selective over the past several decades but has been most intensely evident over the last decade.  There has been a strong undercurrent of ambivalence in the U.S. stance toward the global; for the authors, this represents an unfortunate reality.  As Mazlish suggests in his concluding chapter, if America considers itself to be a unique and exceptional country, then how can it be subjected to the rules and laws of the international community?  (175) When the U.S. acts irresponsibly and does not consult with its allies and the international bodies it is part of due to its ‘exceptional’ status, this creates a negative backlash.  This was most evident during the Bush years when unilateralism, in the blind pursuit of empire and national interests, was the status quo of the day.  So what will it be:  will the U.S. participate in the emergent global civil society, or will it pursue, in short, a second ‘American Century’?  For the time being, however, the U.S. has re-engaged itself with the global community and has been part of a number of multilateral efforts and initiatives.  How deep its commitments will be and what role the U.S. will play in creating a global civil society for the twenty-first remains open to conjecture.

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Electronic reference

Joseph Michael Gratale, « The Paradox of a Global USA, byBruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda & Kenneth Weisbrode », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2010-2, document 1, Online since 05 July 2010, connection on 19 August 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/8506

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Joseph Michael Gratale

The American College of Thessaloniki

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