Britain is ready to take advantage of this seismic shift
Tristram Hunt guardian.co.uk, Sunday November 23 2008 00.01 GMT The Observer, Sunday November 23 2008 Article historyTo wander through modern Los Angeles is to get a keen idea of Rome in 400AD, Venice at the end of its medieval glory or post-war London. LA is a city redolent of empire and it is visibly in collapse. It is not just the choking smog, violent ghettos or armies of homeless, but a more fin de siècle sense that its time has passed. One can imagine, in 100 years, the Pacific waves lapping at the stones of Santa Monica, the sand blowing through the skyscrapers and the great film studios serving as a 20th-century Colosseum.
Last week's report from the National Intelligence Council only served to confirm the fear that the age of America is drawing to a close, with the Iraq invasion standing as the final act of imperial hubris. As the Pentagon securocrats rightly predict, the emerging economies of the Bric nations - Brazil, Russia, India and China - are starting to flex their political and military muscles. The dollar's financial dominance is crumbling. Meanwhile, Bollywood and Nollywood (Nigeria's nascent film industry) are beginning to challenge the cultural prowess of Hollywood. In the coming decades, globalisation will no longer stand as a byword for Americanisation.
But what of Britain, the sturdy outrider of the American imperium so willing to offer the 'blood price' of the special relationship? For the collapse of American ascendancy presents us with just as testing a challenge.
Nestling in the slipstream of American hegemony served us well in the 20th century. The bonds of culture, religion, language and ideology ensured Britain a postwar economic bail out, a nuclear deterrent and the continuing ability 'to punch above our weight' on the world stage. Thanks to US patronage, our story of decolonisation was for us a relatively painless affair in contrast, say, to the demise of the Ottoman or Soviet empires.
The bond with the US has not been without its humiliations. The descent from the avuncular positioning of Harold Macmillan - a wise old Greek steering the brash new Rome of John F Kennedy - to the apocryphal 'Yo Blair!' moment is a study in changing power relations. We have connived in imperial depredations we should have avoided, but in turn had our back watched, as in the Falklands. And it should not be forgotten that US global leadership was more often than not on the right side of human progress.
But we will go down with the SS America and it will take some hard reckoning. Only the excellence and relentless pugnacity of UK armed forces keep our place on the UN Security Council, which must surely soon yield to an EU seat. So too our roles at the IMF, World Bank and other international bodies must reflect the new multi-polar realities. But a more interesting process of transformation promises to take place at home.
Teaching students in London's East End, one can already sense a far more global sensibility than among my own generation. Often the offspring of racially and ethnically mixed parents, their world vista is no longer so Atlanticist. With kin ties to south Asia, Latin America and the Far East, they are drawn to the media landscapes of Mumbai, the art and architecture springing up in China's mega-cities, the street culture of Rio or the prosperity of the Gulf.
Of course, US universities, HBO, Miami Beach and the Rocky Mountains retain a powerful allure. But growing up in the Bush years, there is no possible reason why these twentysomethings could regard America as the last, best hope of mankind and the end of its ascendancy is not a source of overt angst.
And nor should it be. For what is encouraging is how well-positioned Britain is to take advantage of the post-American settlement. For ours is a global, often imperial history which has enjoyed - in the late 18th century and, again, the period 1870-1914 - times of remarkable trade flows and cultural engagement across the world. We are a commercial, outward-looking nation which needs to rediscover this more heterogeneous past. Which is why, ironically, fuddy-duddy institutions with influential global remits, such as the BBC, the British Council, the Football Association and the Commonwealth, can serve an increasingly effective role in the coming era of greater international equality and the struggle for soft power.
It is President-elect Obama's bad luck to have to oversee the dismantling of the US empire on his watch. And it will take all his political suppleness and rhetorical genius to spell it out to the American people. But we too need to begin the process of reinterpreting our place in the world. Having already lost one empire, it might prove rather easier this time.
• Tristram Hunt is lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London
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