America's anxieties have changed. At first, after 11 September, the dinner-party question was, "Why don't they like us?" Now Americans ask, "Why aren't they like us?"
America's anxieties have changed. At first, after 11 September, the dinner-party question was, "Why don't they like us?" Now Americans ask, "Why aren't they like us?" With a semblance of victory and a small measure of security, introspection is over, as George Bush made evident in his State of the Union address this week.
A brief spell of self-examination has left America satisfied with her domestic system and her familiar foreign policies. From chat-shows studios to bar-rooms, the problem seems to lie with rogue foreigners, who resist America's magnetism and persist in their own values. From inside America, democracy, freedom, a capitalist economy and a secular state seem such obvious goods that anyone who rejects them is baffling. Academic scrutiny and strategic thinking are directed outwards at the same conundrum: America is a model for the world, so why doesn't the whole world conform to the model?
It is a compelling question, because, in the last 100 years, much of the world has come to resemble the US. About a century ago, conscious imitation of American democracy helped to recraft the constitutions of many European states, and of Australia and New Zealand. By the time of the St Louis World's Fair in 1904, the States were seen as a forge of desirable new technologies: the Wright brothers had taken flight. Soon after, America became a workshop of world-conquering ideas in philosophy and anthropology.
As a refuge for the talent and genius which pogroms and wars forced out of Europe, the US maintained the momentum of progress, while other lands faltered. In the arts, the export of American models began as the 20th century opened, with ragtime and jazz. Ever since, home-grown American popular arts have been the most powerful in the world.
Between the world wars, Hollywood became the hegemon of the most entrancing art of all. Itinerant projectionists penetrated parts of the world other arts could not reach. American images, American ideals flickered over the globe.
America succeeded in remoulding the world because it was unbeatably rich and invincibly mighty. By the turn of the millennium, the US embodied the world's only surviving economic option capitalism and the most practical political system: democracy. American business empires colonised vast zones in the era of Coca-colonialism and McDonaldisation.
Americans began to prattle complacently about the "end of history" not the Armageddon threatened only a generation before, but a millennial world-republic on American lines. They started using "globalisation" as a euphemism for "Americanisation".
Now, however, that consummation looks unlikely. That is the real lesson of 11 September. America's allure is speckled with imperfections. There are a lot of people who would rather die and kill than embrace it. For these intransigents, America's religion is hypocrisy, its capitalism trash, its culture dumb, its consumerism corrupting, its morals filthy, and its arrogance insufferable. They would rather compel virtue than tolerate vice.
For a brief moment, America had been the cynosure of the world; but already her economic dominance, by measurable standards, is in decline; her superpower status is under sentence; and the long-term lessons of history suggest that Americanisation can never deliver political and economic uniformity, much less globalised values and lifeways.
For, to judge from the past, a future of world-wide cultural convergence is implausible perhaps impossible. To find a period of genuinely universal culture, you have to think back to paleolithic times, when, throughout the inhabited world, people embraced the same hunting and gathering economy with more or less the same technologies and, as far as we can judge, religions of similar kinds. Ever since then, the trend has been divergent.
Peoples grew apart as they invaded more varied habitats, accommodated culture to more varied conditions, and developed distinctive technologies, which, in turn, reshaped their societies. Development brings diversity. Today's world is a laboratory of humankind, more crowded than ever with different specimens.
Of course, not all trends are in one direction. Peoples die out; but new ethnicities emerge. Languages disappear, but others fracture and mutate. Religions wither, but replacements arise. Especially in the last few centuries, world-wide migrations and ecological exchanges have eliminated some sources of difference: intermarriages of peoples and cultures have made homogenisation imaginable. A formerly sundered world has been united by global communications, contacts, conquests and contagion.
It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that these tendencies could ever bring about generalised global culture, on an American model or, indeed, any other pattern. One of the few valid "lessons of history" is that agglutinative processes always set off fissile reactions. The more historic identities are threatened, the more they thrive. Under the menace of multinationalism, peoples reach for their roots. Though selectively permeable, cultures tend to resist immersion in what is alien.
In the arenas of super-states, peoples kick up the sand. Empires break up. Federations fail. If you try to remake one community in another's image, its members retrieve or even, if necessary, invent traditions of their own. Globalisation is more likely to rekindle historic identities than to extinguish them, more likely, in the long run, to increase differences than to crush them.
So the rest of the world will never be like America: Americans who want to remodel man in their own image are doomed to disappointment. America has probably reached a peak of influence, from which the only way is down. Meanwhile, having ceased to worry about being liked, Americans should stop expecting to be imitated: that is the kind of hubris that goes before a fall.
The writer is the author of 'Civilizations' (Pan, £9.99)Reuse content