The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

3.1.1 Americanism outside America

Substantial elements of Americanism proved to be transferable to other capitalist countries. This meant that the leading economy in the world became a pole of attraction for others. It was this generalisation of the US model, its partial replication outside the USA, that gave the unique ideology of exceptionalism such a powerful grip and the project of transformation such influence on the world.

In a highly prescient analysis of ‘Americanism and Fordism’ in his Prison Notebooks, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci asked ‘whether America, through the implacable weight of its economic production (and therefore indirectly), will compel or is already compelling Europe to overturn its excessively antiquated economic and social basis’ (Gramsci, 1971, p.317). Gramsci’s conclusion was that this was indeed the case, but that it represented ‘an organic extension and an intensification of European civilisation, which has simply acquired a new coating in the American climate’ (Gramsci, 1971, p.318). That is, just as the USA itself was partly a product of European capitalist expansion overseas, so European capitalism was now being reshaped by the more advanced economic order in the USA.

Gramsci also saw clearly that Americanism was not simply a new mode of economic organisation (mass production) and a new kind of cultural system (mass communication and consumption), but also a new form of ideology – social structure and state:

Americanism requires a particular environment, a particular social structure (or at least a determined intention to create it) and a certain type of State. The State is the liberal State, not in the sense of free-trade liberalism or of effective political liberty, but in the more fundamental sense of free initiative and of economic individualism which, with its own means, on the level of ‘civil society’, through historical development, itself arrives at a regime of industrial concentration and monopoly.

(Gramsci, 1971, p.293)

At the time that he was writing (in the 1920s and 1930s), Gramsci observed the beginnings of Americanism in Europe – in Berlin and Milan, less so in Paris, he thought – but this was to become a much more important development after the Second World War. Thus Americanism was reproduced outside the territory of the USA. In an essay seeking to place US history in a wider world context, Charles Bright and Michael Meyer describe the consequences after 1945 as follows:

The post-war American sovereign, built on territories of production, had created vectors along which elements of the US state and American civil society could move off into the world and benefit from the permanent projections of American power overseas … The tools of control – military (the alliance systems and violence), economic (dollar aid and investments), political (the leverage and sanctions of a superpower), and ideological (the image of the United States as leader of the free world) – were tremendously powerful, and the ideological imaginary of the territories of production, with its emphasis on material progress and democracy, proved extraordinarily attractive.

(Bright and Meyer, 2002, p.86)

Activity 1

Before reading on, consider the implications of this discussion of Americanism. Identify some of the means by which international order might become more American. What are the preconditions for these to succeed?


You have seen already that the USA has sought to make the world safe for America by making it more American. The expansion of Americanism has rested both on the coercive means at its disposal (Bright and Meyer’s ‘tools of control’) but also, according to Gramsci, by acting as a ‘pole of attraction’, an exemplar that others would wish to imitate. However, Gramsci also noted that Americanism required a particular sort of state – a liberal state. So if the means by which Americanism might transform the world include both coercive power and imitation, one of the preconditions for the past and continued expansion of Americanism is also that other states are transformed. America’s project of transforming international order therefore also entails a transformation of the societies that comprise it. One of the key questions in the contemporary era therefore is whether America still possesses the means to effect this kind of transformation.

However, such ‘moving off into the world’ not only made the project of making the international order ‘safe for America’ possible, but also raises questions about the nature of the power that can effect such a transformation.


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