Jorge Castañeda on why America’s civilisation will prevail

The United States remains the world’s indispensable power. Good, says the former foreign minister of Mexico

The Economist

Aug 31st 2021


This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power—examining the forces shaping the country’s global standing. Read more here.

THE ALARM about American “declinism” comes in cycles: in the eighties Japan was the threat; in the nineties it was Rhineland capitalism and the European Union; today it is China. Many seek to gauge the fate of the United States in terms of power: hard or soft, military or economic, financial or technological, cultural or geo-political. In my recent book, “America through Foreign Eyes”, I attempted to look at the question through the prism of American civilisation, which encompasses these aspects but goes well beyond them. I believe that there is such a thing, as there was once a Roman civilisation, a European one and, in a slightly different sense, an Arab and Chinese civilisation. As with any such civilisation, the upheavals in the United States are felt beyond its borders, not least in Latin America.

The United States continues to be the only state capable of truly projecting military power throughout the globe, and not just in its surroundings. Pulling out of Afghanistan with its tail between its legs is no show of strength, but no other country has the wherewithal to deploy and sustain so many troops, in so many places around the world, for so long.

The American economy has, together with China’s and India´s, rebounded more strongly than any other large economy from the blow inflicted by covid-19. The American vaccination effort was unmatched in scope and speed until it ran into the stone wall of anti-vaxxerism. The scientific and technological prowess shown by American companies, working with government financing, allowed the United States to develop and produce highly effective vaccines, rapidly and in large quantities, in cooperation with other countries, such as Germany.

American civilisation has a language of its own, a culture different from that of others, a political and economic message of liberalism that it did not really create but which rapidly became associated with the American creed. It has its borderlands, or what the Romans called limites, where it exerts influence even though they lie beyond its formal frontiers. It has idiosyncratic forms of bringing other countries or civilisations into its orbit—by force, by persuasion, by osmosis, by negotiation. Most important, it has its “soft power”. Rome had its highways and legal system, its aqueducts and taxes; America has everything from Hollywood to space travel, CNN and iPhones.

China today may be approaching the United States in technological achievements. Autocracies more broadly may be resurgent. But it is hard to discern where American civilisation is retreating. The South China Sea is not the Pacific or the Atlantic; and a few dams and bridges actually built in Africa and Latin America, as opposed to Belt and Road Projects, are not the equivalent of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

A more challenging question is whether one of the central pillars of American civilisation, ie, its particular form of government, is on the wane. The greatest menace for America’s civilisation, like Rome’s centuries ago, is the enemy within—in this case the weakening of America’s democracy. This stems not from Viktor Orban or Jair Bolsonaro, or from Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. It springs from Donald Trump, and the Republican right-wing and extremist groups that are no longer on the fringes of American politics.

It is not simply about the Big Lie and the supposed theft of the November 2020 presidential election, nor the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. These are the symptoms, not the cause. Nor is Mr Trump a fundamental factor: he, too, is a manifestation of a deeper malaise. White, over-50, low-income and non-college-educated, rural and small-town Anglo-Saxon voters are increasingly terrified of losing their previous place in society, one they feel is well worth fighting for. People who identify as whites are no longer a majority of the population in a growing number of states, not least the largest one, California.

In time, their grievances will be less central to American politics. Trumpism is a symptom of white resentment about this dwindling importance. Their traditions, beliefs and demands are being displaced by those of ascending demographic, electoral and ideological cohorts they have scant contact with. They feel lost, because they are losing. Among other things, the Republican party that they embrace has lost the popular votes in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

America’s “dysfunctional democracy” seems clearly unable to process these resentments and rebellions—neither legislatively, electorally nor judicially. Fortunately change appears to be on the way, and herein lies America’s incredible capacity to reinvent itself. The response to voter suppression and to the Big Lie has been wide and vigorous: in the runoff election for the Senate in January in Georgia, turnout exceeded forecasts and gave Democrats victories they did not expect, not least in securing control of the Senate. The emergence of a broad and spirited debate about “critical race theory”, history and even socialism in the United States can be considered a consequence of, and a rejoinder to, that déclassé white lower-middle class. Its grievances and those of Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans and women left out over the years cannot be addressed only by Trumpism or by speaking out about systemic racism. That can happen only through new forms of representation and policy. But it is a good beginning.

The novelty of the past decade or so is how Americans today are beginning to fight over their history: not only over slavery and its legacy, but also regarding the Alamo in Texas, Spanish missionaries in California and the genocidal military in the Great Plains and the Trail of Tears. There are few signs as uplifting with regard to America’s reinvention of itself.

An additional hope lies in the promises and possible accomplishments of the Biden administration, especially if the Democrats remain in office through 2028. Its attempt to (re)build the American welfare state promises to give the country renewed vigour.

The success and reinvention of the United States matters in Latin America, too. The political winds often blow from north to south. In the early 1930s, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election and the launching of the New Deal, Latin America began to take note of events in the United States. Everyone suffered from the same economic depression: rocketing unemployment, collapsing commodity prices and institutional breakdown. In 1930 coups had toppled governments in Brazil and Argentina; later in the decade, authoritarian regimes fell in Chile and Cuba. The region was searching for something new. It found inspiration and a sympathetic ear in Washington. Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Ramón Grau San Martín in Cuba, among others, implemented New Deal-like policies, some more radical than FDR’s, some more moderate.

A similar process took place in the 1980s, in reverse. In one Latin American country after another, the foreign-debt crisis and Ronald Reagan’s election (along with Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain a year before) gave birth to “Reagonomics in the tropics”, or the Washington Consensus. Carlos Salinas in Mexico, Carlos Menem in Argentina and Augusto Pinochet in Chile (beginning a bit before) all followed the United States’ example, most of the time more radically.

Today, many Latin American countries will undoubtedly attempt to draw inspiration from the example of the Biden administration as soon as the pandemic abates. Chile has once again, appeared to anticipate the new trend by channelling mass street protests into social policy through its new Constituent Assembly. Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia have all discovered (or acknowledged) that their tattered social safety-nets were nearly useless in dealing with the health, education, employment and even housing crises brought on by covid-19. Deficit spending, tax reform and universal health care are all on the table.

Yet there are fears, too. One worry is that Trumpism and the crisis of American democracy will prove lasting. Another is that Joe Biden’s renewed internationalism will clash with the region’s anachronistic but powerful traditions, which have sacralised the principle of non-intervention. As the world begins to acknowledge that many of the globe’s challenges can be dealt with only on a global scale, that contradiction becomes more acute. Countries like Argentina, Brazil and Mexico will have to accept that combating the world’s ills—from climate change to corruption, human-rights violations and future pandemics—will require universal jurisdiction of some sort, with a hefty American presence.

A third concern is China’s growing presence in Latin America and its growing confrontation with the United States. This has pushed some to toy with the notion of “pro-active non-alignment”, whereby the region attempts to stand aside from the Sino-American rivalry while at the same time engaging both powers on, say, disarmament. That is an intriguing idea. In the end, though, American civilisation will prevail for many decades. The United States remains the world’s “indispensable power”; without it, a stronger international legal order is inconceivable.

Jorge Castañeda is a professor at New York University and was Mexico’s foreign minister in 2000-03. He is the author of a dozen books, most recently “America through Foreign Eyes” (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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