North America | Book Reviews | World Order, Diplomacy and Governance

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[Bruno Maçães, History Has Begun. The Birth of a New America. Hurst and Co. London, 2020. 203 p.]

review / Emili J. Blasco

History Has Begun. The Birth of a New AmericaWhat if the United States were not in decline, but quite the opposite? The United States could actually be in its infancy as a great power. This is what Bruno Maçães argues in his new book, whose degree scroll -History Has Begun- In a certain sense, he refutes Fukuyama's end of history, which saw the democratisation of the world at the end of the 20th century as the culmination of the West. Precisely, the hypothesis of the Portuguese-born internationalist is that the US is developing its own original civilisation, separate from what until now has been understood as Western civilisation, in a world in which the very concept of the West is losing strength.

Maçães' work follows three lines of attention: the progressive separation of the US from Europe, the characteristics that identify the specific American civilisation, and the struggle between the US and China for the new world order. The author had already developed aspects of these themes in his two immediately preceding works, already reviewed here: The Dawn of Eurasia y Belt and RoadThe focus is now on the US. The three titles are basically a sequence: the progressive dissolution of the European peninsula into the Eurasian continent as a whole, the emergence of China as the superpower of this great continental mass, and Washington's remaining role on the planet.

As to whether the US is rising or not leave, Maçães writes in the book's introduction: "Conventional wisdom suggests that the United States has already reached its peak. But what if it is only now beginning to forge its own path forward? The volume is written before the coronavirus crisis and the deep unease in US society today, but even before that some signs of US domestic unrest, such as political polarisation or divergences over the direction of its foreign policy, were already evident. "The present moment in the history of the United States is both a moment of destruction and a moment of creation", says Maçães, who considers that the country is going through "convulsions" characteristic of this process of destructive creation. In his opinion, in any case, they are "the birth pangs of a new culture rather than the death throes of an old civilisation".

One might think that the United States is simply evolving towards a mixed culture as a result of globalisation, so that the influence of some European countries in shaping US society over the last few centuries is now being joined by Asian immigration. Indeed, by mid-century, immigrants from across the Pacific are expected to outnumber those arriving from Mexico and Central America, which, although steeped in indigenous cultures, largely follow the Western paradigm. Between the first European and the new Asian heritage, a 'hybrid Eurasian' culture could develop in the US.

Indeed, at one point in the book, Maçães asserts that the US is 'no longer a European nation', but 'in fundamental respects now seems more similar to countries like India or Russia or even the Republic of Iran'. However, he disagrees with this hybrid Eurasian perspective and argues instead for the development of a new, indigenous American society, separate from modern Western civilisation, rooted in new sentiments and thoughts.

In describing this different way of being, Maçães focuses on a few manifestations, from which he deduces deeper aspects. "Why do Americans speak so loudly?" he asks, referring to one such symptom. His theory is that American life emphasises its own artificiality as a way of reminding its participants that they are, at bottom, experiencing a story. "The American way of life is consciously about language, storytelling, plot and form, and is meant to draw attention to its status as fiction." An entire chapter, for example, is devoted to analysing the importance of television in the US. In the midst of these considerations, the reader might think that the reasoning has been drifting towards a cultural essay and out of the realm of International Office, but in the conclusion of the book the ends are conveniently tied up.

With that loose end out of the way, the book moves on to analyse the tug of war between Washington and Beijing. It recalls that since its rise as a world power around 1900, the US's permanent strategic goal has been to prevent a single power from controlling the whole of Eurasia. Previous threats in this regard were Germany and the USSR, and today it is China. employee Normally, Washington would resort to a balance of power, using Europe, Russia and India against China (using a game historically played by Britain for the goal to prevent a single country from controlling the European continent), but for the moment the US has focused on directly confronting China. Maçães sees the Trump administration's policy as confusing. "If the US wants to adopt a strategy of maximum pressure against Beijing, it needs to be clearer about the end game": is it to constrain Chinese economic power or to convert China to the West's model ?, he asks. He intuits that the ultimate goal is to "decouple" the Western world from China, creating two separate economic spheres.

Maçães believes that China will hardly manage to dominate the supercontinent, since "the unification of the whole of Eurasia under a single power is so far from inevitable that in fact it has never been achieved". In any case, he believes that, because of its interest as a superpower, the US may end up playing not so much the role of "great balancer" (given China's weight, it is difficult for any of its neighbours to exercise a counterweight) as that of "great creator" of the new order. "China must be trimmed down in size and other pieces must be accumulated, if a balance is to be the final product," he asserts.

It is here that the US character as a story and narrative builder finally comes back into the picture, with a somewhat flimsy argument. Maçães can see the US succeeding in this task of "great maker" if it treats its allies with autonomy. As in a novel, his role as narrator "is to bring all the characters together and preserve their own individual spheres"; "the narrator has learned not to impose a single truth on the whole, and at the same time no character will be allowed to replace him". "For the United States," Maçães concludes, "the age of nation-building is over. The age of world building has begun".

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