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The nation that makes the world go round
Love it or hate it, ANDREW COHEN explains, the United States
has bounced back from the brink of economic ruin to become a
commercial, scientific and military powerhouse. It is now so
dominant that next month's presidential vote is, in effect, a
coronation of the king of the world


Saturday, October 14, 2000

Part museum and part metaphor, Exploris calls itself "the world's first global experience centre." Whatever that means, it suggests a marshalling of money and ambition to bring a sense of the world to an unlikely part of the world.

Exploris is an ungainly pile of brick and glass bound by fibre-optic cable. It sits in the heart of Raleigh, near the old statehouse, the farmers market and Big Ed's, a down-home eatery renowned for its country-cured ham and collard greens redolent of North Carolina's agrarian past.

There is nothing nostalgic about Exploris. It is firmly rooted in the here and now. Children watch live newscasts from 42 countries, munch on plantain chips and drink kiwi juice, and create their own Web site. Suspension bridges and a tiled map of the world convey contemporary ideas of unity and community. The buzzwords are "connection" and "interdependence."

"Exploris will put a whole new spin on the world," says its president, Anne Bryan. "We believe the best way to prepare for the future is to live fully in the present."

Her own spin notwithstanding, the first thing to know about Exploris is that the folks here raised $40.2-million (U.S.) in private and public money to build it. The reason? They want their children to hear the story of Anne Frank, to rummage through a Japanese linen closet and to know why thousands of refugees have settled in the area since 1996.

But, presumably, they also want them to understand the change in Raleigh, once a seat of segregation and now a hive of innovation. And they want them to know why foreign students attend local colleges, why foreign workers fill local firms (not just the low-wage Mexican migrants in the slaughterhouses) and why those new restaurants in town are called Caffee Luna and Tir na Nog.

In other words, some enlightened souls in this once-sleepy tobacco town in the folds of the storied region known as the Piedmont, amid the dogwood and wisteria, awoke one day and realized that Raleigh should understand that it is part of something bigger.

Exploris tries. For example, some of its exhibits celebrate the triumph of democracy (four tons of the Berlin Wall) and the power of the Internet (banks of computers wired to the world).

A visitor could be forgiven for thinking that the collapse of communism helped to make the United States the world's superpower and that its mastery of the New Economy, which began in these scientific enterprises in Raleigh, will help keep it there.

It is hard to draw a straight line from Raleigh's Exploris to America's Empire, but there is a convergence in this confection. Exploris illustrates a community looking out and a world pushing in, a world that is increasingly and overwhelmingly American.

"The USA is the most powerful human creation of all time," declares economist James Laxer of Toronto's York University, who has just written a stinging critique of the country called Stalking the Elephant: My Discovery of America.

What he calls a "human creation" others call a civilization. Given the ascent of the American Imperium, neither claim is American hyperbole.

After all, who can deny the supremacy of the United States today? Industry, finance, technology and information give it economic power. Democracy, diversity and mobility give it moral power. And arms and diplomacy give it military power.

Together, they make the United States the world's indispensable nation, as its diplomats say, a superiority built on prosperity at home and influence abroad. At the dawn of third millennium, the conclusion is inescapable: This is America's moment.

As the United States prepares to vote in the presidential election next month, world still seems an abstraction for most of this content, self-absorbed people, who stand apart from the world as they sit atop it.

In 2000, the Ugly American has become the Wary American -- a skepticism no doubt heightened when terrorists attacked a U.S. destroyer this week in the Gulf of Aden, killing several sailors.

But let there be no doubt: Americans are not just choosing their president, they are choosing the king of the world.

Over the next week, The Globe and Mail will examine the scope and impact of the power of the United States. In a series of articles, its correspondents will examine why the country is where it is, how it wields its power, what the American world means today.

When president John F. Kennedy visited the Berlin Wall in 1963, he told a rapturous crowd: "Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was, 'Cives Romanus sum' [I am a citizen of Rome]." Today, he could declare with equal confidence, "Cives Americus sum."

To be a citizen of the United States of America is to belong to a unique, national enterprise. It is to be part of a thrusting society in an endless season of sunshine, a nation benevolent, parochial, arrogant, materialistic, moralistic and restless -- convinced more than ever that "God shed his grace on thee."

"The United States is now the natural leader of the world," Vice-President Al Gore said this week. "All these other countries are looking at us."

Economically, the United States is a world unto itself. It produces and consumes, creating work and wealth. Japan wavers and Russia collapses, but the American engine keeps humming, rushing into the Information Age and the Technology Revolution.

The United States accounts for about 60 per cent of the world's biggest companies. Its equity markets surge and its currency rules; 70 per cent of American money is held abroad in countries such as Ecuador, which has adopted the dollar.

The 270 million people of the United States make up 4 per cent of the world's population and account for 29 per cent of its output. Japan and China produce less than half that with a population four times as large.

The most telling statement of the influence of the United States on the global economy is that in a century that trumpeted the command economy, most nations have come to share its faith in the free market, free trade, property rights, deregulation and privatization.

"The road to greater wealth lies through the United States," says Robert Dujarric of the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington. "You have to pass the U.S. tollbooth on the way to prosperity. You have to accept the rules of economic behaviour written here."

Militarily, its armed forces are the strongest in the world. Only the United States can project power to the corners of the Earth. When the West goes to a war, whether in the Persian Gulf or the Balkans, it goes only if the United States goes, as general, foot soldier and quartermaster.

No wonder. It spends more on defence than its nearest nine closest rivals combined.

"If you're interested in stability and order in the global balance, the U.S. is the only country which has global reach," says Joseph Nye, an eminent political scientist at Harvard University. "If we don't do it, there's no one to replace us."

Diplomatically, the influence of the United States is decisive. It brokers peace in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Haiti and the Middle East, where its years of mediation collapsed this week in an explosion of killing. It funds the world's international institutions and it anoints their officers. Little happens without its blessing.

Culturally, the United States is a colossus. Its fashions, food, films, books and music are everywhere. It is only a slight exaggeration to say The Gap and Ralph Lauren dress the planet, McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Starbucks nourish it, CNN informs it, Dreamworks and Disney entertain it. In taste and trends, people look to Madonna and Madison Avenue.

At the Olympics, the United States wins most of the medals, yet again. No one is surprised.

Scientifically, the United States races ahead. It develops the Internet, explores outer space and the oceans, maps the human genetic code, tames wasting disease. This week, four Americans were among the six recipients of the Nobel Prizes awarded in medicine and physics.

A half century ago, a serious scientist went to Europe. Now, they flock to the United States.

Embracing immigration, the United States has admitted about 15 million newcomers over the past 20 years. Its success in the New Economy reflects its openness to innovators and entrepreneurs from countries such as India.

The power of the United States is not just a conceit of a country long enamoured of the biggest and the best.

If Benjamin Franklin could say that everyone in the world had two cultures -- his and France's -- today, as an American, he could claim that of the United States alone.

The fact is there is a yawning gap between the United States and its challengers. With its web of military and economic alliances, it is stronger than Britain was in the 19th century, France in the 18th century, Spain in the 16th century. No nation has ever known this omnipotence.

"There is no parallel to the United States today," says Mr. Dujarric, who is at work on a book on the dimensions of American power. "None."

In placing the United States in the sweep of history, Mr. Dujarric reaches for comparisons with Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. "They'd be envious," he says.

Tom Wolfe, the iconoclastic, white-suited novelist, rhapsodizes about a reign of Pax Americana lasting a thousand years. He is still incredulous that the end of the much-heralded American Century in December and the dawn of the new one in January did not inspire an outpouring of hymns, poems and operas, akin to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

"Did a single historian mention that America now dominates the world to an extent that would have made Alexander the Great, who thought there were no more worlds to conquer, get down on all fours and beat his fists on the ground in despair that he was merely a warrior and never heard of international mergers and acquisitions, rock and rap, fireball movies, TV, the NBA, the World Wide Web, and the 'globalization' game?" Mr. Wolfe wrote.

"Was a single bard bestirred to write a mighty anthem -- along the lines of James Thomson's Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves . . . for America? Did anybody high or low look for a Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi to create a new tribute on the order of the Statute of Liberty for the nation that in the 20th century . . . opened her arms to people from all over the globe . . .?"

Listening to Mr. Dujarric, Mr. Nye and Mr. Wolfe, you might think that the United States was always this strong and self-confident. It wasn't.

A decade ago, the conventional wisdom was that it was in decline. A bestselling book by historian Paul Kennedy, The Rise of the Great Powers,warned of "imperial overstretch." Japan was ascendant. Christian-Judaic values were out; Asian values were in.

The Cold War was still cold. The hard-eyed Russians would "bury" the decadent capitalists. The Arab oil sheiks and Iranian ayatollahs would torment the great satan. The Germans were more efficient, the Chinese more numerous.

On Jan. 14, 1989, The Globe and Mail wrote:

"The colossus of the free world is dogged at home by social and economic problems, and increasingly it faces constraints on its ability to influence the world single-handed.

"Once the world's wealthiest nation and biggest creditor, it now carries the world's largest debt. With only 5 per cent of the world's population, it consumes 50 per cent of the world's cocaine.

"Deficits, drugs, a falling dollar, rising foreign investment, stagnant living standards and a continually widening gap between the rich and poor are the staples of the domestic news that bombards the country daily.

"Abroad, the rising fortunes of Japan, the peacemaking of Mikhail Gorbachev, and the coming of a united Europe are unsettling to a nation complacently accustomed to unchallenged global primacy."

A dozen years later, the "influence" of the United States is unchallenged. It is the world's wealthiest nation and its deficit has been erased.

The euro is struggling and Europe remains un-united. Japan has been in a recession for a decade. Mr. Gorbachev is discredited, his Russia an impoverished nation.

As for the United States, the ailing colossus, it made a full recovery.

If you want to understand why the United States is where it is today, come to "the Triangle," a community of the three college towns of Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham.

Amid the glass boxes of Research Triangle Park, the leafy quadrangles of Duke University, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, and the cookie-cutter subdivisions of Carrboro and Cary, it is hard to believe that the manifest destiny of North Carolina was ever anything other than affluence now and forever.

In its clogged roads, toney restaurants and old tobacco warehouses humming with software designers, who would think that a generation ago North Carolina was the country's poorest state, after Mississippi? Or that the Piedmont, today's cockpit of desire, was pine woods and worn farmland? Or that natives, desperate for work, were fleeing the state?

Much can happen to a place in a generation; look at Singapore and South Korea in 1960 and look at them today. And look at North Carolina, which is now a middle-income state, and Mississippi, which remains last.

In the 1950s, its furniture, tobacco and textiles industries failing, North Carolina wanted to diversify its economy and reverse its brain drain. Exploiting its three universities, it forged an alliance among education, industry and government and created the country's first research park in 1959.

Research Triangle Park is a 2,800-hectare "campus" of broad lawns and charmless buildings that belie their staggering wealth. The field is broad: pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, microelectronics, biotechnology.

There are about 140 organizations here, employing 50,000 people making an average annual salary of $54,145.

Among them are some of the world's giants: Cisco Systems Inc., Cronos Integrated Microsystems Inc., Ericsson Inc., Glaxo-Wellcome Inc., Dupont I-technologies, IBM Corp., Lockheed Martin, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Nortel Networks of Brampton, Ont., Canada's star in the communications firmament, arrived in 1980. Like all of its neighbours, Nortel is a tribune of the future. It ushers a visitor into a maze of darkened rooms, armed with a personally encoded smart card, there to find the answer to every mystery of the universe in blinking lights, flickering screens and incomprehensible jargon.

Communication is the new deity, as long as it is faster, clearer and cheaper. Even cleaners here carry hand-held computers, presumably to keep in touch and check their stock prices.

Beyond the park, things are sizzling under the crepe myrtle trees. Unemployment has remained below 2 per cent since 1997. More than 25,000 jobs were created last year, and they weren't hamburger flippers. Subdivisions are sprouting everywhere, and the newspapers talk about growth, growth, growth.

Diane Generous, and her husband, Tom, moved to North Carolina from Connecticut almost two years ago. They chose to retire here, attracted by the universities, sports and the outdoors. They love their new home in a tidy subdivision carved out of the woodland of Carrboro, near Chapel Hill.

"It was a wonderful choice," she says, showing off her garden, occasionally visited by deer. "We have everything we want here, though some of the problems too."

On a muggy day in early autumn, Interstate 40 is jammed. "You wouldn't recognize Cary," says Jamie Nunnelly, who moved there six years ago. "It was farmland. Now, it's houses, only houses."

A northerner, she had migrated to Florida and planned to return home. But she settled in North Carolina, which is why natives refer to people like her as "half-backs." Less fondly, they call Cary "Containment Area for Resettled Yankees."

If there is traffic, pollution and water shortages, it is no surprise. The triangle has become a circle, or overlapping circles, part of the fastest-growing region in the country.

The growth has been explosive all along Interstate 85, stretching from Atlanta, the capital of the new South, to Charlotte, the country's second- largest banking centre, to Greensboro and Greenville. There have been more jobs created along this 640-kilometre corridor in the past 10 years than any comparable road in the country.

But Research Triangle Park is not unique, and that is important. Silicon Valley in California is the real capital of high technology, but there are similar clusters of energy and enterprise in Seattle, Austin, Boston and New York.

None was quite the leap of faith as the Triangle. "The whole idea was to reverse the brain drain," says a satisfied James Roberson, president of the Research Triangle Foundation, which runs the park. "I think we've done that."

The staggering success of Raleigh-Durham can be seen across the United States, which has entered a new Gilded Age. In understanding the power of the American world, it is important to remember that prosperity, like charity, begins at home.

If the hub of the Roman Empire was Rome, the hub of the American Empire is Washington. But it could also be New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Or it could be Raleigh and other mid-sized cities like it.

By most measures of progress, Americans have never had it so good.

The economy is in its eighth year of expansion, the longest stretch in the country's history, and is called the most competitive in the world. At 3.9 per cent, unemployment is at its lowest level in 30 years.

In fact, there is a labour shortage. In Silicon Valley, it costs employers an estimated $3-billion a year in lost opportunities. In the Southwest, they can't fill jobs at $15 an hour.

Interest rates and inflation are low. So are taxes and they are likely to go lower.

Americans work hard; their supermarkets and service stations boast of staying open "24-7." It is not startling to find this sign on a shop window on Labour Day: "In observance of the holiday, we close at 6:00 p.m. today."

The stock market, despite gyrations, continues to enrich Americans who save little and spend much, choosing from an array of consumer goods, many falling in price. The number of Americans owning a home, and the number going to college, are at record highs.

Poverty has fallen to its lowest level (11.8 per cent in 1999) in 30 years. At $40,816, real median household income has been rising the past five years, even if the gap between rich and poor is growing.

The quality of life is improving. Crime is at its lowest level in a generation. Teen births have dropped, the lowest ever recorded. Abortions, alcoholism, drunk driving, even house fires -- all have fallen.

Buoyed by a sense of well-being, philanthropy and volunteerism are flowering. Need $10-million to restore the fraying American flag hanging in the Museum of American History? "Got it like that," says a curator, snapping her fingers. A hundred million for a war memorial on the National Mall in Washington? Almost there.

Last month, a benefactor gave the Library of Congress $60-million. Earlier, a patron left $80-million to the Smithsonian Institution.

With prosperity come public works. In the Triangle, they have built a new sports arena for their National Hockey League team and have renovated a natural history museum. The state wants to spend $5-billion building and repairing schools and colleges.

Across the country, from the recovered brownstones of Harlem to the new supermarket in East St. Louis, Ill., which has the worst urban poverty in the country, things are stirring. Abandoned downtowns in Newark, N.J., Norfolk, Va., or Washington, D.C., are recovering.

Few places in the United States do not boast a new or restored museum, gallery, library, airport, arena or stadium. The D-Day Museum in New Orleans. Penn Station in New York. The Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn. Or Exploris, which was financed with donations from companies such as AT & T and Time Warner.

It may be something less ambitious, such as the restoration of the exquisite wooden opera house in Stonington, Maine, a hardscrabble fishing village on Penobscot Bay. Built at the turn of the century, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in the hope that it would "give a sense of orientation to the American people."

A few enterprising women raised money and restored the place, which had been abandoned for years. Last summer, it reopened to full houses.

What distinguishes the American Empire from others is that it is not about land; beyond these shores, the Stars and Stripes flies over only a few territories. The United States has about as many troops (300,000) abroad as did ancient Rome, but its authority is greater.

The reason, of course, is that its power is not territorial, but cultural and commercial. It's Microsoft, Wal-Mart and General Motors. Saving Private Ryan and The Perfect Storm. Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. Britney Spears and Barbra Streisand. Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei.

In China, they watch Titanic. In Israel, they shop at Office Depot. Everywhere, they watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

In France, which has long chafed under the American influence, they worry about EuroDisney and Baskin-Robbins even as students wear baseball caps emblazoned with Penn State and fret over the threat to French, which was once the world's lingua franca, which is what English is today.

They wince, with cause, at the ills of the United States -- crime, guns, racism, political correctness, cultural crassness and millions without health insurance.

For all the notions of the pushy Uncle Sam, the Americans seem wary of the world. Oddly, at the height of their power, they have become more isolationist. They have less interest in foreign issues than they did during the Cold War, and it is said many members of Congress do not hold passports. One senior Republican allowed recently that he had been to Europe once, but that he would not rush back.

While they are happy to export their sitcoms and their software, today's Americans do not like foreign missions, whether it is making war or keeping the peace, and they remain suspicious of organizations and alliances they cannot control.

Unlike the Europeans, they do not want to share sovereignty. They resist the encroachment of the United Nations.

"Americans aren't staying up nights plotting how to dominate the world," says John Thompson, the chairman of the history department at Duke University. "They don't think that way."

Mr. Thompson has a point. Americans don't plot. The world has come to them naturally, as if the universe were unfolding as it should.


Babylonian: The ancient city whose ruins lie near modern Baghdad was an imperial centre from 1894 BC to 1595 BC and again from 625 BC to 539 BC, when its reach extended to Palestine.

Persian (550 to 334 BC): Established by Cyrus the Great, this empire was based in what is now Iran but extended from the Aegean Sea east to northwestern India.

Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BC): King of Macedonia, he conquered the entire Persian empire and spread Greek language and culture over much of the known world.

Roman (27 BC to 476 AD): Rome controlled Sicily, Spain, North Africa, Macedonia, and Greece and parts of Asia Minor, Syria, Gaul (from the Rhine to the Atlantic), Egypt, and Britain. Its influence and trade reached Russia, southeast Asia and China.

Byzantine (395 to 1453): The eastern half of the Roman Empire survived as Byzantium for 1,000 years. Ruled from Constantinople, it spanned at its height the Mideast, North Africa and Spain.

Viking (700 to 1100): The famed marauders crossed the Atlantic and Europe, reaching the Mediterranean and Middle East, and often stayed to settle.

Mongol (1206 to 1405): Genghis Khan united nomadic tribesmen and swept through Asia and eastern Europe. His descendants continued his conquests, finally taking China under Kublai Khan.

Ottoman (1300 to 1922): Established by Turkish tribes in the late 13th century, it stretched at one time from Austria to Yemen. The final emperor, Mehmed VI Vahideddin, was overthrown in 1922.

Portuguese (1415 to 1600s): Stimulated by religion, trade and exploration, Portugal governed parts of Africa, much of Brazil and islands in the Indian Ocean.

Spanish (1492 to 1800s): Starting after Columbus, this empire ranged from the New World to the Philippines and began to crumble with the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. By 1825, Spain's only American colonies were Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Russian (1547 to 1917): Ivan the Terrible was the first Muscovite ruler to become czar of an empire that under Peter the Great (1689-1725) stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific, and ended with the revolution in 1917.

British (1500s to 1997): Sparked by commercial ambition and competition with France, colonization eventually spanned the globe. Canada was the first colony to receive self-government, an unravelling that ended with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Dutch (1602 to 1799): Spurred by the Dutch East India Company, they controlled the Indian Ocean and did business extensively in the China seas. Due to rivalry with Britain, all the colonies outside southeast Asia were eventually lost.

Compiled by The Globe and Mail Editorial Library
Sources: Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History from Earliest Times to 1800; Encyclopedia Britannica at


A six-part study of history's most powerful empire
Saturday, Oct. 14: Overview
Monday, Oct. 16: Diplomacy
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Culture
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Science
Thursday, Oct. 19: Business
Friday, Oct. 20: Military

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