America’s Lost World by Leonard Benardo and Ivan Krastev

Two recent books recounting – and praising – America’s declining political hegemony show how the Cold War incorporated the country’s value commitments and cultural innovation into its “brand” and why victory has. leads to recoil. A society that no longer knows what it represents has little to share with the rest of the world.

NEW YORK / VIENNA – When the post-Cold War world was still in its infancy, there was a palpable sense of excitement about the potential end of the story. But in the collective subconscious of the world lurked a permanent uncertainty about the shape of things to come. “Without the Cold War,” wondered John Updike’s character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as the “long twilight struggle” between capitalism and communism drew to a close, “what’s the use of being American?

The Cold War, after all, had provided not only an ideological lens for citizens and their leaders, but also a secure intellectual framework and a transparent screen through which to understand and reimagine culture. Without it, there would be a willy-nilly embrace of endless possibilities. As interwar Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci once suggested, cultural “hegemony” – or what others might call “consensus” – is a prerequisite for political stability. Thus, in the immediate post-Cold War era, a new dominant consensus quickly took hold, ostensibly favoring the institutions of liberal internationalism that most Westerners – especially those who are able to shape public opinion – thought they were justified.

Yet these aspirations – this false “end of history” – would be short-lived. What seemed hegemonic, what had started to reign as common sense, turned out to be a passing fad. Liberals in many countries have gone from being seen as the heroic progenitors of progressive problem solving to an elite bunch of suspicious co-conspirators. Rather than maintaining a consensus, the West has turned into a pretzel.

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