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Review: 'After America' and 'The American Future: A History' view nation's fate from very different perspectives

Exploring the American past along the dimensions of war, religion, immigration and prosperity, British historian Simon Schama argues in The American Future: A History that "from the richness of … complexity come … rejuvenating alternatives." In 40 erudite vignettes prompted by the 2008 primaries, Schama reminds the nation, in Tocquevillian fashion, of its greatness.

Each pole in his themes has traditionally been balanced by its opposite. Recently, however, American complexities have become simplified, which only confirm for Paul Starobin America's "middling" global status. Starobin, a writer for the National Journal and Atlantic Monthly, explores in After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age the possibilities for the world after U.S. dominance: chaos, multipolarity, a Chinese century, city-states or universal civilization.

Schama explores war through the experiences of the Meigs family. Montgomery Meigs was President Lincoln's efficient quartermaster general. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers exemplifies the military's nation-building tradition. That's why the contemporary Gen. Montgomery Meigs bemoans the military's lack of preparedness in Iraq.

Balance operates elsewhere too. Despite periodic religious awakenings, the Constitution ensures freedom of religion. Jarena Lee, itinerant abolitionist preacher, and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer more recently, deployed religion for the common good.

Tensions are high on immigration, but this is nothing new. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, was denied re-entry into the United States. But pragmatism tends to defeat suspicion, such as Benjamin Franklin's loathing of Germans.

In building America's economy, American Indians were dispossessed and immigrant labor was exploited, but the world's strongest economy speaks for itself.

Schama is an American exceptionalist. War need not be brutal, occurring only as a last resort. Religious fervor may help progressive causes, and nativist hostilities dissolve in economic imperatives. Tensions in all four dimensions today are manageable, as captured in the reconciling spirit of Barack Obama.

Starobin thinks the highly contingent American Century is over. Schama's premises are irrelevant, from his point of view, because the world has changed. Exceptionalism presumes destiny, whereas the United States acquired empire by accident, beginning with the urge to internationalize the frontier at the end of the 19th century, and peaking with the British handoff of empire's responsibilities after World War II.

The United States no longer dictates terms, as other powers have risen. Failure to recognize this causes much of our domestic strife, which spawns nostalgia. The After America world need not scare Americans, Starobin writes; it is a reality anyway. In social and physical capital, the United States already lags behind. China's economy should overtake ours in a matter of time. What, then, are the plausible scenarios?

We think of chaos as a dark world of lawlessness, but Starobin discusses a happy chaos where individuals are empowered by new technologies.

A multipolar world, including China, India, Japan and a re-energized Europe, lacks historical precedent. But it is possible to extrapolate the 19th century European balance of power to the world. India is planning a powerful navy, and Japan, likewise, would have to assume military responsibility.

China is the only viable candidate for a new hegemon. Explaining China's so far benign influence in Chile — though it violates the Monroe Doctrine — Starobin suggests the Chinese Century doesn't have to be inimical to American interests. Will the rest of the world want to be like China? This will be the deciding factor, and we will know soon.

Starobin's most exciting alternative is powerful city-states driving cultural, economic and political innovation. The world's most important cities are already moving in this direction. The historical precedent, from Renaissance Italy, already exists. Starobin draws out the full implications of urban studies theorist Richard Florida's exploration of cities as magnets for the creative class.

A universal civilization sounds like the most idealistic possibility, but in crucial vectors of policy, which require global coordination, its foundations are already being laid. Universal government is far more conceivable now than it was a decade ago.

All these scenarios could develop simultaneously. Contingencies like conquering the "fear of the immigrant" will determine the United States' success. Starobin, however, is betting that though the nation-state will remain a viable entity, California's dynamism, already manifesting After America tendencies, will encourage the rest of the nation to let go of an outdated past.

America can still do well in the post-American future — if it plays its cards right. Schama and Starobin show how it can.

Anis Shivani's collection "Anatolia and Other Stories" will be published by Black Lawrence Press in October.

The American Future:
A History

By Simon Schama

Ecco, 400 pages, $29.99

After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age

By Paul

Viking, 358 pages, $26.95

Review: 'After America' and 'The American Future: A History' view nation's fate from very different perspectives 08/07/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 11:00am]
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