The global economic system came into existence after World War II and at first it encompassed North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and little more. Over the past two decades, most countries, many after toying with various alternatives, also embraced financial capitalism, private enterprise and free markets. But, even though the U.S. economy has shrunk relative to the rest of the world, the system itself remains very much an American creation.
The United States devised the rules that control global commerce, provided the dollar as a reserve currency and lent military muscle to safeguard the system from non-economic disruptions. Not surprisingly, these U.S.-created arrangements particularly benefit the U.S., evidenced by the fact that American multinationals have expanded around the globe more readily than companies of any other nation. Half of the 100 most valuable global brands are American, including 17 of the top 25, according to 2010 data from Interbrand.
American companies have succeeded in many foreign markets where common sense suggests they should have failed. McDonald’s has entered the insular world of French gastronomy, for instance, and Starbucks has been able to expand into Europe’s traditional cafe societies. Expansion, in fact, is the operative world, because American capitalism is based on the concept of constant expansion.
Modern European nations are the product of successive invasions both from outside the continent — from east and south — and from within. Starting in the 16th century, as soon as their technologies allowed, Europeans themselves began expanding beyond their tiny continent. But the American experience of expansion was unique — the conquest and settlement of a vast new continent, which offered seemingly boundless space and unlimited resources. By virtue of their pioneering history, Americans have always been more concerned with finding new frontiers and moving forward, than with cultivating or preserving the already settled territories.
Since the dawn of space exploration, for instance, it was also seen in terms of expansion, settlement and colonization, giving rise not only to sci-fi literature but to scientific projections of communities of humans all around the solar system. While this has not come to pass, Hollywood continues to cash in on regular space adventure blockbusters.
Hand in hand with limitless expansion goes unlimited consumption. To break out of Europe was to throw off the constraints of the old continent’s social boundaries, the pull of traditions and origins and the straitened possibilities afforded by small territories and meager resources. For Americans, to rein in consumption would almost mean betraying the spirit of the pioneers.
America’s New Frontier ethos explains why the environmental movement, which is by now old hat in the rest of the rich world, has not taken deep roots here. Americans are far more excited by calls to “drill baby drill” than by commonsensical measures to economize energy, even though new oil finds tend to be small and provide only temporary relief, whereas energy conservation and efficiency promise far more permanent solutions to shortages and pollution.
The frontier ethos is the reason why legislation to protect the environment has never ceased being a contentious ideological issue. Americans insist on seeing environmentalists as tree-huggers and wimps. Meanwhile, in such traditionally warlike cultures as Germany and Japan , those policies have become mainstream and are backed by the broadest possible domestic consensus.
A Different Model