The Rise of Russia and the next “American Century”

| September 1, 2008

Have we really seen the end of the "American Century"? Have we entered the "Chinese Century" as our leaders would have us believe? Should we ignore that biting bear nipping at our knees?

Have we really seen the end of the "American Century"? Have we entered the "Chinese Century" as our leaders would have us believe? Should we ignore that biting bear nipping at our knees?

A lot of people, including our leaders, think that the "American Century" was all about the rise of American business and its dominance as an advocate of cultural change amongst the nations of the world. In fact, some even go so far as to suggest that the "American Century" ended just as it had begun, at the end of one century and the beginning of another. There is even the suggestion that the "Chinese Century" has already begun for no other reason than it appears China is on the rise while the rest of the world appears to be in decline. Matched against the United States there is a belief that the current Bush administration has isolated itself in terms of foreign policy and this has somehow caused the change. Meanwhile China is opening up to the world and the economy is booming.

In fact the "American Century" was coined by Henry Luce the founder and editor of Time Magazine. In the 1930’s and early 1940’s Luce was an ambitious businessman who wanted nothing more than to be a leader in the realm of US politics. A staunch Republican, who had dreams of becoming Secretary of State, Luce penned the famous article, published in Life Magazine in 1941, entitled "The American Century". The article defined the role of American foreign policy on the world stage – although he was careful not to advocate the creation of an empire. Over the years various analysts and researchers have used the article as an illustration of American dominance from the Spanish-American war through to the cold war and beyond. Ironically enough, culture never played a role in the thinking of Luce because at that point television as a medium had not been invented and the internet was still decades away. So, the "American Century" was about engagement with the rest of the world in terms of foreign policy and diplomacy. Ironic given that this was the same approach taken by President Roosevelt when he sent the "Great White Fleet" on a diplomatic mission around the world in December of 1907.

So the first question becomes are we really at the end of the "American Century" as defined by Luce, and using its original meaning? The second question is simply this: "Has the "Chinese Century" begun and will it be the dominating theme of the next 100 years?"

There is a third question that no-one appears to be willing to ask and that is "what of Russia?"

  • Let’s have a look at the first question of whether we really are at the end of the "American Century".

First of all, had Luce been alive today I am quite sure that he would suggest that America is in fact entering its second century based on military dominance and firepower. Secondly, whether we agree with American foreign policy or not, the majority of countries still look to the United States for guidance and leadership when it comes to issues of the day. The United States was heavily involved in the dismantling of communism and the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe. She also played an important tri-lateral role in the peace of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement and continues to play an obvious role in the Middle East. Of course, if we were to add cultural factors into the equation then there is no doubt that United States influence, for better or worse, has been immense. From hamburgers to Hollywood and from the Internet to fashion – everyone wants a piece of the American pie – for instance name one product in your office or home that has not been born of America.

So, the answer to the question would have to be that no, the "American Century’ has not come to an end as pundits would have us believe, instead some of the dynamics have changed but the usual suspects have not.

  • The second question is whether we have entered the "Chinese Century".

Because the vast majority of people do not understand what is meant by the original definition of the "American Century" we all tend to believe that because the Chinese economy is booming, that somehow we have entered this new world. It is the assertion that because the Chinese economy will overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world somehow we have entered a new century dominated by the Chinese. As far back as 2004, The New York Times had already sent the media down this path and in many ways there was no coming back. The Chinese economy was booming, trade agreements were being struck, commodity prices were on the rise and the world all of a sudden had a new friend. But the definition of a "Chinese Century" would have to be more than what is happening from an economic perspective. First of all is the engagement of China in the world of foreign affairs. There is much discussion about the rest of the world engaging with China and China opening up to the rest of the world, but rarely does China seek to influence events of the day in a positive way. If they did then the situation in Darfur and Burma may be different. Granted, there has been immense support in terms of North Korea, but China has a long way to go before they truly stand out as a foreign policy, agenda setting global player. In terms of military influence – there is no doubt China’s continued increase in spend on defence and military technology is fast moving it into super power status, but without clear foreign policy support, the notion that we have entered the "Chinese Century" based purely on economic reasons is not enough. This is not a criticism of China it is simply a reflection that a fast growing adolescent has yet to enter adulthood. But it will. 

  • What of Russia? Has the Bear has finally started to bite.

A lot of people wrote Russia off as a place where oligarchs were the accepted term for billionaire, corruption was rife and the swilling of Vodka was the main reason why these people would never really get ahead. In fact, the way we see Russia is no different to how it has been seen over the centuries, nothing more than an inconvenient backwater. That has all changed. It changed when the world’s reliance on fossil fuels began to take shape and while we were focussed on the challenges of the war on terror, Russia was growing stronger by the day. If you blinked and missed it there has been a massive resurgence of nationalist pride right across the country and this is clearly seen in the unfolding events of the last few weeks with the intervention in Georgia and the battle for renegade provinces. People forget that Russia’s only real claim to any part of Georgia falls largely down to it being the symbolic birthplace of Stalin. The 1800 proclamation of incorporation into the Russian Empire was nothing more than a coup when the Georgian nobility were locked up in Tbilisi’s Sion Cathedral and forced to swear allegiance to the Russian imperial crown. After the Russian revolution in 1917 Georgia again declared independence only to be shunted back into Russian hands in 1921. This is a common theme through-out the caucuses for the Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia. The reality is, Russia isn’t as interested in protecting a minority of Georgian civilians with Russian passports – it is, however, interested in sending a message to the world "don’t write us off". In 2007 Russia resumed flights of its nuclear bombers and more recently planted a Russian flag in the Arctic to claim territorial ownership of the seabed. In June of 2007 Russia tested its own new cruise missile systems and an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of penetrating US defences. Is America really concerned about Iran or is America really concerned about a resurgent Russia. From a European perspective there is an increasing reliance on Russian gas and oil supplies. Recent soundings from the EU and NATO over the Russian intervention in Georgia have been reactionary – somehow, they never saw it coming. Let’s not forget, NATO and the EU said that they were considering taking action over the Russian intervention, yet it was Russia that withdrew from NATO and EU forums first. Russia has dealt itself back into the game, and she knows it.

So the questions one last time are simply these: has the "American Century" ended? Based on the Luce definition the answer would have to be no. The world will continue to be influenced by American foreign policy for at least the decade and may be longer. The rise of Barrack Obama could see a resurgent re-engagement in world affairs that is weighted towards pro-activity as opposed to reactionary. America, may find herself at the centre game once more. Has the "Chinese Century" begun? The answer is not yet – China still has a way to go before the world is dominated by China. At any time the Chinese economy could falter and the demands of its citizens increase so much so that it could overwhelm the current government. Is China a force to be reckoned with? Of course she is, but no more so than India or France.

What of Russia? What of the Bear that had been relatively silent in the near decades since Yeltsin stood outside a shelled Parliament in Moscow? Well, the Bear has begun to bite and it is about time the world took notice. This is not a time for engagement with China on every diplomatic front imaginable. That has been done to death. It is time for the world to engage Russia and bring her back into the fold. The issues of territorial integrity, protection of Russian citizens living in enclaves of former provinces are not the issues Russia wants us to deal with – instead, Russia wants back in the game and with that they want our respect as a player not only with a good hand, but a fist full of dollars. Yes the Bear has begun to bite.

Finally, what would Luce think of today’s events, and, if he was starting his life out today would a similar article would appear talking of the need of broad foreign policy engagement with the rest of world. Of the United States needing to take a leadership role and providing guidance. I wonder if he would once again coin the title the "American Century". I suspect he would.

Matthew Tukaki is Director of SansGov and leads the organizations government policy, advisory and services practice. Matthew is the former General Manager of Education at IT&T Education, former Head of the review into Knowledge and Information Management Strategies at both the Joint House Department of the Parliament of Australia and the Australian Communications Authority, former Head of Government, Knowledge Management and Education at Dattatech Samsung SDS and former Chairman of both the National Skills for Schools program and the Government Policy Advisory Panel.



  1. Douglascomms

    September 5, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    The rise of Russia

    Some interesting points Matthew – and I would suggest perhaps that the US has only really dominated the global economy for the last perhaps twenty years, while Russia has been dealing with the turmoil resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union.

    I do take exception to the notion that the US has been a force for good or democratization in any sense, a glance into the history of its support for vicious anti-democratic regimes in South America puts pay to the notion that it's international interests have to do with anything other than access to markets and resources. This is especially relevant as we approach September 11th, the anniversary of the US backed bombing of the Chilean parliament, and the assassination of democratically elected president Salvador Allende.

    The US has never been a force for democratization – it suited them to back democratic forces in Eastern Europe, but not because they were democratic. The US supported them because they believed it would enable US companies to gain access to markets and resources those countries would provide.

    Ditto in South East Asia, ditto in Africa, ditto in the Middle-East. Market access is always the motivator.

    You're right however insofar as Russia is an interesting play at the moment – with the right leadership the Russians are capable of amazing feats of social and economic advancement. Stalin managed to pull the country literally from the middle ages into the space age within a matter of decades, a feat not repeated in any other time in history. Yes he was an evil dictator, but he was an evil dictator whose policies lead to an incredible improvement in the standard of living of the Russian people. Add to this an important cultural point – the Russians have a great history of participating and celebrating European intellectualism. Because they are open to sharing ideas, and to higher learning they contributed great composers, writers and thinkers to European thought.

    This capacity to think and share and contribute is quite unlike that of the Chinese tradition.

    The great Chinese intellectual traditions were by nature xenophobic, an insular. Their schooling is still entirely based on rote learning, and memory rather than creativity and free thought. It's not that the Chinese haven't participated in the European intellectualism, it's that they haven't participated in an exchange with anyone else, at any time in history.

    The great success of the European tradition is its capacity to pick up and integrate ideas from other cultural traditions. Writing from the Phoenicians, maths from the Arabs, crops from the Americas, gunpowder from the Chinese, the success and economic ascendancy is based on looking outwards.

    At this most fundamental cultural level I believe the Russians have the jump on the Chinese because they have been a part of this interchange of ideas for centuries, whilst the Chinese have not.

    That being said, many very intelligent people within China are well aware of their cultural short comings and are doing their level best to overcome them, in fact many of the generations which will carry China on their shoulders through the next century are studying in Australian Universities at this very moment, and are keen to take ideas back with them.

    It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. And interesting too to see how a small open economy in the pacific responds to ascending powers, and aligns itself in the next century. I only hope that there are also very smart Australians, who understand our own cultural short comings, and like the Chinese, look for ways to overcome them.

    JV Douglas –

    technology writer by trade, luddite by conviction

  2. Matthew Tukaki

    September 6, 2008 at 4:10 am

    responding to JV Douglas

    Hi JV, thank you for the thoughtful comment – please don't take exception! I didnt quite say i thought the US was a force for good. I acknowledge the problems in South America in the 50's and 60's, underpinned by everything from the coffee crisis to the rise of communsim. But look what has happened now? Left leaning governments led by people wanting to recover and discover their own unique identities. That also has to be a good thing.

    Matthew Tukaki, Director of Government Policy & Strategy, SansGov (Sanseman Government) PO BOX 3295 Redfern Sydney NSW 2016 Mobile +61 (0) 449 703 118

  3. Warren Reed

    September 12, 2008 at 10:30 am

    The American Century
    Matthew Tukaki's excellent piece is thought-provoking and points to the sort of multipolar century we're in for, where the question of who the century appears to belong to will be subsumed by the battle of wits and wills we'll all be involved in for survival. This will be especially so in light of the different standards that the Chinese and others will inevitably feed into the international system – for good or bad.