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The South Asian Insider

Welcome to Another ‘American Century.’ Set aside the election and hot wars. How the U.S. resolves its crisis of confidence is what’ll shape the world.

Walk around the airy Stanford campus or step into a venture firm’s charmless office on Sand Hill Road. Drive up US-101 to San Francisco for cocktails at a beautiful Russian Hill home to take in the sunset over the Bay with startup founders and investors. And you can’t miss it.
It’s not (only) the animal spirits AI-raging in Silicon Valley. The last time that the place was this hot was after the iPhone came out in 2007, says one top venture capitalist, “except that the tech world is like 10 times larger now than it was then.”
There’s something bigger that hits you. It’s that — take a deep breath since this goes against most everything you hear about the U.S. these days — this is and on current trends is going to be the “American Century.” Again. The forces and people remaking the world are American as much as was the case in the previous century.There is a big difference. Pax Americana was made largely by Washington, which designed and executed a plan for the post-war world, powered by the American engine of innovation and growth. In that century, the big names were politicians — FDR, Truman, Reagan.
Today, technology is that century-changing force, and America’s in the lead by a long way, as you see so clearly from the companies that grew out of Silicon Valley and Seattle. The century-making people that historians of this period will write about one day are from here too: Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk, Bezos, one day perhaps Sam Altman. They created companies that are more powerful than most nation-states, with valuations in the trillions.
That’s the reality, and part of the problem. Tech moguls aren’t politicians, answerable to voters. That’s not healthy for our politics. Nor are they able to throw weight around the same way governments with nuclear arms can — though by any standard they wield more global influence than moguls of a past era, Rockefeller and JP Morgan included. They’re flawed too, very much so. We know their manias, midlife crises and ethical lapses well. Their products are amazing, and harmful.
But they’ve taken on such prominence because the political class has created a vacuum for them to step into. And they are a huge reason America and its government remain the sole superpower. The Valley — as shorthand for the country’s entire tech ecosystem — nailed the PC revolution and transition to mobile, owned social media and now is poised to win AI, blockchain and quantum computing too. This is largely why no one innovates or attracts the best talent as this country does — eight of the world’s top 10 biggest companies today are American, six of them are tech giants — or can match it militarily.This was not the way it was meant to play out. Before America’s 20th century was even over, decline was foretold, notably by Paul Kennedy in 1987. Back then, Japan would pass us. Early on in this century, some picked Europe to “eclipse the American dream” and “run the 21st century.” It sounded a little funny then, too. A case was and continues to be made for China, its economy growing fast as a share of the world’s — at one point, indeed, bound to eclipse America’s — and powering its global power ambitions.
Nearly a quarter of the way through this century, you have to cherry pick data (to be sure, in journospeak, the fiscal deficit is bad, and other calamities loom over the economy; we’re behind the Chinese on green tech; and fill in more blanks here … ) to make the case for American decline.
The fact is we’re preeminent — and set to become more so.
Why? It’s not only about tech. Rivals stumbled. Economic and political sclerosis, then Brexit, killed the promise of a united and revived Europe in the post-Cold War era. China’s once rising share of the global economy is now in reverse, and demographics suggest the trend will hold; America accounts for over a quarter of world GDP, the highest share in almost a decade, and rising. Their ruler Xi Jinping mismanaged Covid and its economy and spooked his neighbors. China is building AI into its own formidable tech ecosystem, but it’s a closed one and lacks access to better Western technology.At home, America’s deeper strengths continue to be unmatched: the ability to attract the best people and capital, amazing universities and a culture open to new things. The AI wave, bringing in talent and driving value most visibly here in the Valley, strengthens America’s ability to project economic and hard power. But — and this is a big one — the rise of West Coast power coincides with the decline of political power. Politics is our view into ourselves. And the view for us and the rest of the world is ugly. If America’s strong from the perspective of San Francisco Bay, Americans certainly don’t think so. The country’s on the wrong track, they tell pollsters, which brings to mind the brilliant insight of a since disgraced comedian: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.”
You can’t argue with feelings. Set aside the usual wails about “unprecedented polarization.” This goes deeper. Polarization is a symptom of a crisis of confidence in our political elites. After every big moment of this century — 9/11, the financial crisis, the pandemic, the last presidential transition — they didn’t rise to the occasion. It’s little wonder that people from Washington aren’t admired and don’t feel appreciated the way the guy who made the iPhone is (even if he’s seen, posthumously, as a bit of a jerk).
At some point in the last 25 years, Washington stopped being a Big Place. One of the smarter strategic thinkers I know in Washington the other day asked me, “How many people in this town wake up and think they are changing the world?” Not many that we could think of. How many politicians do we know who are happy? Or who one day might be seen as giants? Again, we came up blank. So it’s not surprising that the rest of the world doesn’t believe that it’s living in Another American Century — regardless of the objective data on venture spending, economic growth or unemployment.

We have little faith in ourselves. Why would anyone else? The world pays close attention to American news and — in what shouldn’t ever be underestimated — psychology. It sees the amazing, and it hears the unhappiness. It sees a place that, in this century, is sound of body and weak of mind. The Chinese feel emboldened to test the U.S. in Pacific, and Russia in Europe. Iran is testing us now in the Middle East. Our adversaries, as one former intelligence chief said, “smell blood in the water.” As for allies or sometime friends, they tend to engage, to use Council on Foreign Relations President Michael Froman’s phrase, in strategic “polyamory,” picking partners as they see fit and looking at discombobulated Washington as one among several options. Considering America’s strength, you’d think it should be able to insist on fidelity from its good relationships and better behavior from adversaries.
Our neuroses and self-doubts, as well as our very small politics, don’t stop at the water’s edge. They affect the world — the same way that everything invented in the Valley does too.
I don’t have a magic cure. No Prozac for the body politic. What’s missing and overdue, however, is for our debates to acknowledge America’s enduring and unmatched strengths and grapple seriously with the responsibilities that come with them. How we do that is going to decide not just what kind of American Century this will be. It’ll set the terms of our relationship with the world ahead of the November election and beyond.