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America's Lost World

Two recent books recounting – and eulogizing – America's receding political hegemony show how the Cold War embedded the country's value commitments and cultural innovation in its "brand" and why victory has led to retreat. A society that no longer knows what it stands for has little to share with the rest of the world.

NEW YORK/VIENNA – When the post-Cold War world was still in its infancy, there was a palpable sense of excitement about history’s potential end. But lurking in the world’s collective subconscious was an abiding uncertainty about the shape of things to come. “Without the Cold War,” wondered John Updike’s character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as the “long-twilight struggle” between capitalism and communism was winding down, “what’s the point of being an American?”

The Cold War, after all, had provided not just an ideological lens for citizens and their leaders, but also a secure intellectual framework and a transparent screen through which to understand and reimagine culture. Without it, there would be a willy-nilly embrace of endless possibility. As the interwar Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci once suggested, cultural “hegemony” – or what others might call “consensus” – is a precondition of political stability. And so, in the immediate post-Cold War years, a new overriding consensus quickly took hold, pointedly privileging the institutions of liberal internationalism that most Westerners – especially those in a position to shape public opinion – assumed had been vindicated.

Yet those aspirations – that false “end of history” – would prove short-lived. What seemed hegemonic, what had begun to reign as common sense, turned out to be a passing fad. Liberals in many countries went from being perceived as the heroic progenitors of progressive problem-solving to an elite band of mistrusted co-conspirators. Rather than maintaining a consensus, the West twisted itself into a pretzel.