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  • Extending the American CenturyRevisiting the Social Contract
  • Jahara Matisek (bio), Travis Robison (bio), and Buddhika Jayamaha (bio)

As the guns fell silent at the end of World War I, the US could no longer deny its great power status. Though abdicating the responsibilities inherent to this status during the interwar years, the US eventually fought on a global scale again during World War II. The conclusion of this conflict ushered the beginning of the Cold War and what came to be called the "American Century." The United States' efforts during the Cold War focused on protecting itself and its allies without compromising America's democratic system, values, and ideals.1 The US was generally successful at achieving these ends.2

Following the Cold War, the US enjoyed a brief period of primacy. The US was the sole global hegemon and exerted its ideological, political, economic, and military might to expand the world order it created after World War II. Three decades after the Cold War ended, American primacy is eroding and its influence is contested by revisionist powers. America's combat credibility is not in question, and rising powers could only threaten US leadership if American power is weakened on an absolute basis. The true challenge to continuing 21st-century American leadership therefore comes from within.

Americans today resent seemingly endless military deployments across the globe with no discernible security benefits, feel abandoned by the supposed economic benefits of globalization that have not accrued to a majority, and are suspicious of laissez-faire capitalism. A vocal minority of Americans actively oppose US foreign engagements [End Page 5] and aim to tear down the global economic and military architecture their forbearers sacrificed to create.3 Americans are also electing representatives that espouse once fringe views that fundamentally undermine American economic and military global leadership. It would be erroneous and selfserving to interpret this shift as a "populist anomaly." Instead, a more accurate perspective is that the shift is a democratic response to failed foreign and domestic policies and an indictment of policy elites.4

This article reflects on the history of US primacy and projects its uncertain future. We argue that the US role in world affairs is fundamentally shaped by its democratic system of governance. US foreign engagements historically depended on the government's ability to maintain an implicit and explicit social contract with the American public that guaranteed domestic prosperity in exchange for supporting foreign policy goals. The social contract remained legitimate to the extent that the government fulfilled its obligation to pursue foreign goals that contributed to the public interest. When the government failed to do so, the public withdrew its support by demanding new policies and electing new leadership to act in accordance with the public's will.5 We see this happening in America today.

This indictment of America's foreign policy elites is the result of a fundamental breakdown of the social contract that undergirded the domestic legitimacy of American global engagement during the 20th century. The following sections highlight the nature of the social contract and explain how it frayed through decades of political neglect. We conclude by highlighting the need to reassess the social contract by suggesting that strategic retrenchment may provide an opportunity for reevaluation that will contribute to the strategic solvency necessary for maintaining American leadership in the 21st century.

Reluctant Great Power

Though the United States had become a leading economic power by the 1890s, few realized that it was taking the first steps toward defining the American Century. When American military forces landed in France in 1917, the American public did not seem to realize the United States' great power status and was eager to "bring the boys home" after the war.6 When the Allied Powers emerged victorious, America's economic and military power was comparable to Europe's on a global scale. However, the US was not the preeminent European power—it played a decisive but not the defining role in the war.7 This became clear during the Paris Peace Conference when the war's victors debated over key provisions of the postwar settlement.

President Wilson misread the situation and attempted to negotiate a settlement...


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