Luce’s famous 1941 exhortation to his compatriots to make the twentieth century an ‘American century’ can be considered a fulfilled prophecy. After the end of the Cold War, the US remained the only world superpower, hegemonic in a now ‘unipolar’ age; but, despite the hasty predictions of those who spoke of the ‘end of history’ caused by the definitive triumph of American democratic capitalism (Fukuyama 1992), the last decade of the century highlighted the emergence of such tensions as to lead other authors to fear a ‘ disunion of America ’caused by the struggles between conservatives and progressives, the so-called culture wars (Schlesinger jr 1995), and the emergence of new global clashes, no longer ideological, but of civilization, first of all that between Christianity and Islam (Huntington 1997). Although not yet realized, these forecasts remain a symptom of problems for which adequate analysis tools are not available.
The last decade of the ‘American century’ opened in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, even if its first years, those of the presidency of the Republican G. Bush, appear as a transitional period compared to the following ones. The triumph of 1989, in fact, was not a victory for the newly elected president, but for his predecessor, R. Reagan, the man who from 1981 to 1988he had led the final thrust against the Soviet Union, just as a Reagan legacy was the renewed and optimistic but strongly ideologized conservatism that Bush, a moderate conservative though Reagan’s vice president, found himself having to continue. The hopes of a world order capable of replacing the bipolar one of the Cold War and at the same time ensuring stability, peace and progress under American hegemony fell almost immediately in the face of the political end of M. Gorbačëv in 1991.and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, while the international situation was fragmented and any conflict risked becoming a crazy splinter. Bush proved to be able to react effectively, under the banner of a multilateral policy reminiscent of that of H. Truman in the 1940s and which allowed him to mobilize a vast international alliance under UN flags to defeat in January-February 1991 with Operation Desert Storm the Iraqi president Ṣaddām Ḥusayn who had occupied Kuwait. Just as he used the freedom of action allowed him by Israel’s diminished strategic importance after the end of the Cold War, to start a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with the Madrid Conference of October 1991, convened with the help of the new strongman of Moscow, B. El´cin. Despite his undoubted expertise, he failed to identify a role for the US in the post-Cold War disorder. A series of contradictions ensued, such as the disconnect between the limited aims of the operation against Ṣaddām Ḥusayn, aimed at preventing a regional power from carrying out destabilizing actions, and the apocalyptic (and cold war) rhetoric on the defense of democratic values used in his confrontations, which provoked the emergence of a dangerous anti-Islamic phobia in public opinion; or the extreme caution used towards China after the dramatic events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, aimed at not endangering political and commercial relations with Beijing, even at the cost of limiting themselves to formal protests for the tragic violation of the political and human rights of Chinese students. Contradictions, these and others, which highlighted not so much the inevitable limits of American power as those intrinsic to the design of US foreign policy. While Bush succeeded in international success, in the domestic one – dominated by the legacy of Reaganomics, his predecessor’s radical monetarist economic policy based on supply theory – he suffered mostly defeats. In 1991 the GDP had even a negative growth, while the unemployment saliva up to 7, 5% in 1992 and a public deficit was accumulating (290 billion dollars in 1992) which, contradicting the primary purpose of Reagan’s economic policy, namely a balanced budget, indicated its substantial failure. The bloody racial riots in Los Angeles of 1992 also showed that conservatives, in power for over a decade, had not dismissed the specter of urban ghetto riots that haunted Americans since the 1960s and led to political rethinking in public opinion.
In the autumn 1992 presidential election, dominated by domestic politics, many moderate voters abandoned Bush, while a strong independent candidate, conservative and populist billionaire R. Perot, stripped him of the votes of the religious right and the militant conservatives who had supported Reagan. The victory went to the then little-known Democratic Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who conquered the 43 % of the popular vote and 480 electoral votes against 37, 5 % and 168 electoral votes to Bush and 19 % for Perot.
The 1992 elections showed that the legacy of the 1980s – the victory of capitalist democracy in the Cold War and the ‘culture wars’ – had crystallized two radical and enemy subcultures, one conservative and traditionalist, with deep roots in the broad Christian right., the other progressive, linked to multicultural and ‘difference’ theories. Among them, however, a vast center was being formed, mostly independent, which innovatively accepted feminism, the gay presence and the multicultural reality of the country, but had also internalized the two principles of the ‘conservative revolution’, the centrality of the duty to each to take charge of himself and the aversion to big government, wasteful, immoral because with the excess of welfare it accustoms individuals to dependence, and the enemy of freedom due to the ties it imposes on citizens. Furthermore, on the international scene, once the euphoria for victory in the Cold War had ended, a tendency prevailed, if not neo-isolationist, at least unilateralist, according to which the role of the US in the world was identified with the defense of national economic interests, without the prospect of a world order to be recreated and guaranteed. The 1992 elections can be considered emblematic of the new political framework in which hitherto distinct positions and values mixed up to become unrecognizable, in an international context subject to the opposing trends of globalization and national and ethnic demands.
Clinton, an all-American symbol of the man who comes from nothing, but with an equally American history of childhood in a difficult family, managed to be the best interpreter of this unprecedented reality, both for his innovative approach to politics and for his exasperated opportunism that often seemed to guide his action. Already as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate group within the Democratic Party, he had helped redesign the party’s strategy while he was governor, taking into account the reasons for the conservative victory of the 1980s. Along that line – which was gathering a part of the party, the so-called New Democrats – in 1992Clinton won not only the presidency, but also Congress, recovering the centrist voters with his repudiation of conservative moralism, for many annoying, accompanied by the refusal to rekindle culture wars from the left, and with a program that welcomed republican ideas such as cuts budget to reduce the massive deficit (attributable, however, to the Republican presidents), the flexibility of work, the reduction of the bureaucracy in Washington, a federalism that increased the powers of the states and a hard hand against crime, including support for death penalty. Clinton added some important openings to the reform wing of his party with the project for health care for all citizens and support for the demands of ethnic minorities and women.
In the first years of his presidency, Clinton tried to cement around the New Democrats the consensus of a public opinion interested above all in the trend of the economy with a policy that, avoiding the harshness of his predecessors, substantially followed their line. For the same reasons, in the international arena, he abandoned the geopolitical approach for a geo-economic vision that took into account globalization and intended to place the US at the center of a network of agreements that gave them a competitive advantage over competing countries. Consequently, regardless of ideological differences, he built solid economic relations with China, aimed according to many to oppose Japan, and in 1993 he approved the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which, with an eye to the European Union, created a free trade area between the three North American countries, Canada, USA and Mexico, and in 1994 closed the negotiations on the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), the treaty intended to regulate world trade according to free trade principles from which the US could have clearly benefited. These successes, pursued even at the cost of alienating traditional allies such as the unions, opposed to NAFTA for fear that the lower cost of labor in Mexico would lead to the loss of jobs in the US, were also favored by the changing economic cycle and the beginning of recovery; but they were not enough to give a decisive advantage to the president’s political project, which suffered a disastrous defeat when his proposed health care reform was rejected. In September 1993 Clinton had presented a plan, studied by a commission chaired by his wife Hillary, which thus assumed a completely unusual political role for a first lady, aimed at providing assistance to the 38 million citizens who lacked it and improving it for those who had partial coverage, while reducing expenses. In line with the anti-statist approach of the New Democrats, the plan followed the path of ‘regulated private competition’ between private associations of doctors and hospitals that would provide health services. The uncertainties about the costs, the widespread fear that citizens could lose the free choice of doctor, the opposition of insurance companies and important health lobbies, however, forced the president to abandon the project in the summer of 1994.
To take advantage of Clinton’s difficulties was the right wing of the Republican Party, which attributed the 1992 defeat to Bush’s moderatism and which, in view of the ‘mid-term’ elections of 1994, formulated, under the leadership of N.Gingrich, a totally conservative program called Contract with America. The importance of the initiative was not in its contents, all known since the 1980s, but in the resumption of the ideological clash. The elections gave reason to the militancy of the radical conservatives, supported by religious pressure groups such as the Christian Coalition, so much so that the Republicans won in the House of Representatives, with 230 seats against 204, a majority they haven’t had since 1954, while the Senate went from 56 to 44 in favor of Democrats to 54 to 46 in favor of Republicans. Gingrich, elected new speaker of the House, set to work to put Contract with America into practice and, although the Senate was partially reluctant to venture into such a markedly ideological terrain, with a series of laws that culminated in Personal responsibility and work opportunity act of 1996 achieved a drastic reduction in assistance programs, which were based on the principle of workfare and no more than welfare, that is, on the obligation to accept any job or to lose subsidies and benefits. The most sensational measure was the abolition of subsidies to needy unmarried or single mothers, a program of great social impact since a quarter of US children lived with a single parent. Gingrich, who posed almost as prime minister of a French-style presidential system, at the end of 1995he also engaged in a tug-of-war with the president over the budget, which prevented approval and led to the closure of federal offices. The move, completely unheard of in US politics and destined to give the final push to Clinton by de-legitimizing him as a proponent of excessive spending, instead aroused a sense of annoyance in public opinion for an ideological zeal that returned to the detriment of the citizens. The good results obtained by one of the main exponents of the Christian right, the rev. P. Buchanan, in the Republican primary for the 1996 presidential electionsthey further frightened the moderates and convinced the Republican leaders to support the candidacy of their leader in the Senate, B. Dole; but the repositioning of the political pendulum in the center favored the president. Clinton, in fact, abandoned any welfaristic vision of the state to be based on the principle of human capital, the capital constituted by each citizen, which the government, through fiscal and social incentives, had to make it possible to work better for itself and the community. The lack of policy consistency Dole, the strong economic recovery that had brought unemployment to 5, 4 %, and the public deficit below 3 %, with inflation fell in turn to 2%, elders’ fears that Republicans endangered medical and pension care and women’s belief that Clinton supported both their struggle for equality and family gave the president an unbridgeable advantage. In November, Clinton made a triumphant comeback by obtaining 49 % of the votes and 379 electoral votes against 41 % and 159 for Dole and 8 % for Perot. Republicans who, long understood that they had lost the presidency, had pledged to defend the majority in Congress, managed to limit their losses to 11 seats in the House by earning one in the Senate.
The 1996 presidential elections were held in the name of domestic politics, even if Clinton had been very active in the international field where, unable to outline a new world order, he had assigned the US the role of ‘indispensable nation’ for resolving crises. more dangerous. The risk was that of a ‘unilateralist’ policy, in which they would have asserted their will outside of any concertation, strengthened by being the only global military power. After the 1994 intervention in Haitito restore legitimate president J.-B. Aristide, still accomplished within the UN, Clinton achieved a success in the ethnic-religious war in Bosnia when, in the face of European impotence, he managed to bring the parties to the Dayton peace at the end of 1995, also engaging on the ground with 20. 000 men, part of a NATO guarantee force. In other areas, however, such as the Middle East and Russia, it had to limit itself to controlling the current crises. After his re-election in March 1997 he achieved the goal of NATO enlargement to include some Eastern European countries and committed to expanding the American sphere of influence in Central Africa; a regionalist approach to international situations and crises that found its anchorage in the idea that the globalization of the economy would lead to similar and coherent economic policies of all countries and to a common development under the banner of free trade led by international organizations such as Monetary Fund and the WTO (World Trade Organization). The failure of this vision, brought to the fore by the financial crisis of the ‘Asian tigers’ in the second half of 1997, caused by an excess of foreign indebtedness which also endangered the Japanese banking system, forced the US to undertake expensive support measures, which in 1998 had to be extended to include Russia, which was also overwhelmed by the world crisis. When the storm hit Brazil, Clinton tried to establish an international financial protection network, a necessary move even if the outcome was uncertain. In the meantime, however, the international political situation presented new foci of crisis, highlighted by the atomic experiments of India and Pakistan in the summer of 1998.and the tug-of-war between UN inspectors – in charge of checking the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – and Ṣ. Ḥusayn. In this case, US unilateralism came into the open with the bombing of military installations in December 1998, carried out with the help of Great Britain alone, which a large part of the international community considered excessive and useless.
This latest initiative, according to some, may have been partly dictated by the internal difficulties of the president, struggling with the latest act of a long story of scandals and investigations that began in 1993 with the Whitewater affair, concerning a suspicion of illicit financing to Clinton through an Arkansas real estate company of which the then governor and his wife were partners. Complicated in 1994 with the accusations against Clinton of sexual harassment by an employee of the state of Arkansas, P. Jones, the affair came to nothing; but in 1996the special prosecutor, K. Starr, considered the presidential ‘obstruction of justice’ in the affair, a subject that allowed him to investigate any matter. It was in this context that in 1998 the admission of a White House intern, M. Lewinsky, to have had sexual relations with the president led to the involuntary denials of the latter, forced to a humiliating interrogation, transmitted several times by all the television networks, in which he based his defense on a twisted interpretation of the meaning of sexual intercourse. Prosecutor’s findings that Clinton lied under oath, delivered to Congress, paved the way for constitutional impeachment procedure, which can lead to the dismissal of the president. Public opinion remained loyal to Clinton and seemed to believe that the affair, given Starr’s conservative faith, was vitiated by political ends, so much so that in the autumn ‘mid-term elections’ the Republicans lost some seats in the House and various governorates ; but the House, still with a Republican majority, approved in December Clinton’s request for indictment before the Senate for obstruction of justice and perjury.
This led to the second impeachment trial in American history after that of A. Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, in 1868 (President Nixon in 1973resigned before the trial began). The pressure of public opinion and the difficulty of translating morally reprehensible behavior into constitutionally relevant terms prevented the majority of senators from voting for the sentence. Once again the president emerged victorious from a seemingly dead-end situation as the moralizing ideology of the religious right again proved the loser, and its exponents seemed inclined to leave the active political scene to devote themselves to missionary service in civil society. At the same time, centrist politicians such as the governor of Texas G. Bush Jr, son of the former president, regained their share in the Republican Party, also in view of the presidential elections of 2000.
The impeachment affair can be considered the culmination of a paradoxical decade in which a Democratic president, Clinton, had put an end to the interventionist state to follow a more moderate economic policy, but not unlike that of his republican predecessors, obtaining, however, an unprecedented economic boom. In early 1998, as unemployment and inflation fell, he was able to forecast a balanced budget for the following year. In 1999 there was even a surplus on the use of which a new political battle was ignited between the Republicans, who wanted to use it to further reduce taxes, and the Democrats who instead wanted to use it above all for the promotion of human capital and for welfare policies. Beyond this clash, which does not go beyond the normal US bipolar logic, it is necessary to underline the constant political action of Clinton’s New Democrats. They seemed to move over the decade on the idea that the socioeconomic consequences of the information revolution and globalization in a country like the US would reward flexibility and inventiveness and should be supported by government action. Their ‘third way’ between progressivism and conservatism, based on the principle that there are no rights to assistance based on a public duty of redistribution of wealth, but that the public hand must provide tools that lead individuals to help themselves, actually went in this direction and conquered the American public by establishing itself, at least immediately, with respect to the radical positions and conservative who underwent a momentary downsizing of their influence. Along these lines Clinton was able to skillfully govern an unprecedented situation; but of this same situation, in which the boundaries between public and private were increasingly tenuous, he was a victim. His political abilities certainly did not erase the uncertainties and obscure points of the internal politics of the New Democrats, so much so that the Democratic candidate for the elections of the but that the public hand must provide tools that lead individuals to help themselves, it actually went in this direction and conquered the American public by affirming itself, at least immediately, with respect to the radical and conservative positions that underwent a momentary downsizing of their influence. Along these lines Clinton was able to skillfully govern an unprecedented situation; but of this same situation, in which the boundaries between public and private were increasingly tenuous, he was a victim. His political abilities certainly did not erase the uncertainties and obscure points of the internal politics of the New Democrats, so much so that the Democratic candidate for the elections of the but that the public hand must provide tools that lead individuals to help themselves, it actually went in this direction and conquered the American public by affirming itself, at least immediately, with respect to the radical and conservative positions that underwent a momentary downsizing of their influence. Along these lines Clinton was able to skillfully govern an unprecedented situation; but of this same situation, in which the boundaries between public and private were increasingly tenuous, he was a victim. His political abilities certainly did not erase the uncertainties and obscure points of the internal politics of the New Democrats, so much so that the Democratic candidate for the elections of the at least immediately, with respect to the radical and conservative positions that underwent a momentary downsizing of their influence. Along these lines Clinton was able to skillfully govern an unprecedented situation; but of this same situation, in which the boundaries between public and private were increasingly tenuous, he was a victim. His political abilities certainly did not erase the uncertainties and obscure points of the internal politics of the New Democrats, so much so that the Democratic candidate for the elections of the at least immediately, with respect to the radical and conservative positions that underwent a momentary downsizing of their influence. Along these lines Clinton was able to skillfully govern an unprecedented situation; but of this same situation, in which the boundaries between public and private were increasingly tenuous, he was a victim. His political abilities certainly did not erase the uncertainties and obscure points of the internal politics of the New Democrats, so much so that the Democratic candidate for the elections of the 2000, Vice President A. Gore, seemed to have no advantage over the Republicans. In short, the centrism of the Democrats, however successful, could be declined in many ways.
Similarly paradoxical was the situation of the US in the international arena, in which, having proved unrealizable to Bush’s plan for a new world order, their action was ‘disaggregated’ into a series of responses to regional conflicts guaranteed by excessive military power, but fundamentally unilateral and hardly decipherable in their general design. The NATO intervention of March 1999in the Yugoslav region of Kosovo, wanted and led by the US to prevent ethnic cleansing against the Kosovar Albanians initiated by the Serbian president of Yugoslavia, S. Milošević, reflected this situation. Although justified by the reality of things and by the political vacuum of European states, it took place under the banner of an unprecedented humanitarian political vision that cut off the UN, the only body authorized to carry out international police operations in violation of the national sovereignty of the States.: an innovation full of potential as radical as it is difficult to evaluate. Furthermore, NATO’s involvement in the operation did not modify, but rather strengthened the unilateralism of US foreign policy, as it demonstrated that the US they moved on the various regional chessboards using the military alliances that arose during the cold war in unprecedented ways. After more than two months of exclusively airborne action against Yugoslavia’s infrastructure and its troops in Kosovo, the operation ended successfully in June, with the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and the entry of a strong peace force into the region. formed by NATO and Russian troops, thus justifying intervention both internally and internationally; but its consequences in the Balkans are yet to be verified. The persistence of the ‘Vietnam syndrome’, and therefore the declared desire to entrust military operations to the air force alone in order to avoid American losses, does not in fact prevent the US from continuing to base its foreign policy even more on military power, basing this strategy on the premise that globalization must lead to a spontaneous convergence of national policies and therefore to an international acceptance of interventions against those who work in the name of cultural or political interests extraneous to it. An approach of this kind has its own rationality in that it allows regional crises to be tackled separately in the light of a single political line; but, given the obscurities that still surround the sense and direction of globalization processes, it can be an obstacle to understanding the singularities of local situations and hold on to a vision of American hegemony that is unclear in its political ends and limits and substantially justified by the military power.
In the second half of 1999, the battle for the 2000 presidential elections broke out between Gore, Bush and numerous minor candidates; but the real novelty was H. Clinton’s candidacy for the New York senatorial seat against the popular New York City mayor, R. Giuliani. Meanwhile, in view of the WTO summit in Seattle, he worked to promote bilateral trade agreements with China, which were signed in November 1999, an act that was a sign of detente in relations between the two countries. He also managed to prevent Republicans from using the 1999 budget surplus just to cut taxes in 2000.at the expense of social measures. These successes, however, were dwarfed by the failure of the Seattle meeting in early December, a failure caused not only by the profound conflicts on the issues of agriculture and the protection of the environment and work, but even more by the demonstrations of tens of thousands of demonstrators from the US and abroad who paralyzed the city. It was joined by environmentalists and young people from the radical left, as well as exponents of American trade unions and supporters of economic isolationism. It was a confused but powerful demonstration of the anxieties and problems that the ongoing economic and social revolutions were causing in sectors of international public opinion and the distrust of progress that the US led but could not govern.