Dispatches from the Motherland: The Macunian Way

Andrew Wickerham

Over the past few weeks, the escalation of the international financial crisis has been the proverbial train wreck that nobody wants to watch. Reports that more than 80 percent of Americans are experiencing finance-related stress should be evidence enough that the current crisis is more than a momentary hiccup on Wall Street, something more than the decadal market corrections to which we have become accustomed to seeing on cable news channels. Watching this economic meltdown from 4,000 miles away was especially nerve-racking for those of us on Colgate Study Groups. I never thought I would find the trite “perspective” that so many preppies that have ventured to the Continent in years past have told me to anticipate while in Manchester. I think I’ve finally found that new worldview.

Over the past eight years we have said time and again, “It’s the end of an era,” the end of the now cliché-yet-venerated American Century. First it was the end of the dot-com boom, then 9/11, then the war-related anti-American backlash. Despite the dire predictions, we have bounced back each time in perfect sync with the mantra of twentieth century economic theory. Finally, the jig seems up for real.

What we confront today is more than a credit crunch or an extreme, yet essentially momentary, rough patch in our securities markets. We are in the midst of a fundamental transition in the way we as Americans conduct ourselves both at home and around the world. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee — we’re no longer the hegemonic power of yesteryear, and soon we will no longer claim the title of world’s largest economy.

The United States rode the crest of its power for decades, policing and debiting with abandon the world around. Today, that wave is crashing. In the coming years, we will certainly adopt phrases that genuflect toward our dominant past — “Most Developed Economy,” “Most Stable Democracy,” what have you — but the reality is we must quickly learn to work within a community of equals, not dictate to a class of half-eager pupils.

In Manchester, we have discussed this point in and outside of our classes. On Tuesday, Dr. Joe Marsh, our Mancunian informant-in-chief, linked the transition of the British economy at the end of World War I to the changes the United States is experiencing today. The perplexed gazes around the classroom that day were a lesson in the social norms of our generation’s upbringing. When was the last time you heard a parent, a friend or even a more-liberal-than-thou Colgate professor speak about the end of the American Century? I certainly hadn’t.

I didn’t want to write a dour end-of-the-world column this week — CNN seems to have perfected that art — and I don’t intend to do so now. With my descriptions of all of this doom and gloom, I hope to stimulate discussion, not depression. Standing in Manchester today, I can tell you that the world’s previous hegemonic great is doing just fine for itself, thank you, and our future isn’t backbencher status in a world of terrorists and deprivation, or whatever nonsense that crotchety man from Arizona and his Alaska Barbie might be suggesting back there.

How will we as a nation emulate the British transition from autocrat to amenable diplomat? How will we transition from creditor of the world to a state with good credit? With what qualities need we imbue future generations of Americans to succeed in navigating these challenges? Ask those questions in your history, your IR, your CORE classes and you’ll have as rewarding a week as I have. Have a good week, Colgate.