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The Decline of the U.S. Will Be Unlikely: Lessons from the Gilded Age

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By Kung Chan and Zhijiang Zhao of the Beijing think tank ANBOUND

With the current surge of anti-globalization, the world is witnessing significant structural changes. An interesting question arises: as the overall global market space may fracture into regional or relatively independent market spaces, giving rise to different regional hegemonies. By then, will a return to isolationism lead the U.S. toward decline? History might serve as a lesson in this, and the Gilded Age in American history might teach us something. 

The Gilded Age generally refers to the period from the 1870s to 1900, which was the time between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of the U.S. overseas expansion. The term “Gilded Age” is derived from Mark Twain’s novel of the same name. Twain’s satire describes the superficial economic growth of the U.S., along with corruption and social inequality, reflecting the myth of wealth in the U.S. during this period.

In this era filled with speculation and wealth accumulation, the American economy witnessed tremendous wealth generated in industries such as railways, steel, and oil, giving rise to many well-known industrial magnates of the time, such as railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

Significantly, the Gilded Age marked the zenith of the “Westward Expansion” in the U.S. fueled by the emergence of the Second Industrial Revolution, the nation redoubled its endeavors to cultivate the western territories. The Great Plains, in particular, underwent rapid transformation. This not only served as a vital source of domestic market, sustenance, and raw materials for American capitalism but also spurred swift advancements in transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, it garnered substantial foreign investments, catalyzing concurrent and robust growth across sectors such as mining, ranching, railway construction, and other industries.

During the Gilded Age, the U.S. predominantly followed an isolationist foreign policy. Political leaders of that period prioritized domestic policies over international affairs. Overall, the U.S. maintained a friendly and non-aligned stance in its foreign relations during this time. However, as the nation’s economy and strength grew, it gradually shifted away from isolationism in diplomacy, a transition often linked to the outbreak of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy for liberal democracy in Europe marked a departure from the isolationist policies of the Gilded Age, propelling the U.S. onto the global stage.

In the era of globalization, American manufacturing expanded overseas, driven by capital logic to access new markets. Concurrently, the nation vigorously exported its culture and ideology. Today, advocating for isolationism is often perceived as regressive and disregarding America’s future. The recent resurgence of American isolationism, exemplified by figures like Donald Trump, is viewed by many countries and international organizations as a global political and economic risk, akin to conflicts such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict or the Israel-Hamas war.

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Therefore, in the current era of deglobalization, America’s reversion to isolationism is seen as a form of “decoupling” that not only disrupts the global order but also contributes to its own decline.

However, the situation may not be as straightforward. Even if the U.S. reverts to isolationism and “decouples” from the global stage, its extensive global investments and influence amassed over the past century suggest that immediate weakening is unlikely. Additionally, evolving from the Gilded Age to the present, the U.S. has emerged as a formidable industrial power, boasting a manufacturing infrastructure that remains difficult for others to replicate.

While the U.S. may face challenges in terms of domestic assembly plants and skilled mid-to-low-end labor, this does not negate its manufacturing capabilities or robust industrial foundation. It would be premature to dismiss the potential resurgence of the American manufacturing industry or its ability to reclaim a leading position in global manufacturing. Even in a scenario where the U.S. embraces isolationism, conservative factions are likely to vigorously promote various traditional production methods and integrate conservatism with technological innovation and production processes, aiming to achieve renewed economic success.

In the context of deglobalization, it is increasingly plausible that products labeled “Made in the U.S.A.” will proliferate, signaling a resurgence of American manufacturing prominence. 

For Americans, there is the possibility of economic prosperity even in their own self-contained world, as has happened in the Gilded Age.

Kung Chan is the founder of ANBOUND, an independent think tank based in Beijing, specializing in public policy research covering geopolitics and international relations, urban and social development, industrial issues, and macro-economy.
Zhijiang Zhao is Research Fellow for the Geopolitical Strategy programme at ANBOUND.

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