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Reluctant Goliath: how America became a superpower

John Bew reviews The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order by Adam Tooze.

The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 
Adam Tooze
Allen Lane, 644pp, £30

In November 1928, ten years after the Entente’s victory in the First World War, an official at the Foreign Office sat to compose a stark assessment of the new global order in which Britain found herself. Russia, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and China were all locked in spirals of revolution and repression, and were being crippled by successive financial crises.

Although the UK was “still staggering from the effects of the superhuman effort made during the war . . . loaded with a great burden of debt . . . [and] crippled by the evil of unemployment”, it was better off than most. The empire was still intact – albeit in an altered state – and the domestic polity had survived the arrival of mass democracy in 1918, notwithstanding scares such as the General Strike of 1926. But in 1928, a year before the Wall Street Crash, one country stood supreme above all the others. In the United States, the official wrote, Great Britain was faced “with a phenomenon for which there is no parallel in our modern history – a state twenty-five times as large, five times as wealthy, three times as populous, twice as ambitious, almost invulnerable, and at least our equal in prosperity, vital energy, technical equipment and industrial strength”.

In 1917, Germany’s suicidal U-boat campaign in the Atlantic had finally forced President Woodrow Wilson to drop his position of disapproving neutrality in the war. When the United States finally entered the arena, the door to the American century was not so much unlocked as blown off its hinges – and in came a hurricane.

The Deluge tells two stories, neither of which (and this is the point) can be told with­out the other. The first is America’s coming of age as a superpower on a scale that the world had never seen and that frightened Americans as much as anyone else. The second is the way in which the other great powers – winners and losers in the First World War, from Europe to Eurasia – came to terms with the new dispensation.

Tooze is a professor of history and co-director of the international security studies programme at Yale, the intellectual home of “grand strategy” – a form of history, much beloved of statesmen, which abandons the usual “firewall” between domestic politics and foreign policy and examines how states mobilise the totality of their assets to the ends of security and power. This book is the best example of the genre since The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), produced by another British historian at Yale, Paul Kennedy. Tooze’s own previous book was a world-renowned, prize-winning study of the Nazi war economy, and in The Deluge he brings the same depth of analysis to the interwar period, covering much familiar ground but offering a bold reconceptuali­sation of the making and breaking of the liberal international order.

For Britain, which had paid for the Great War with huge loans from US banks, it was a case of “improvise or die”. There was no question of retreating meekly to the sidelines yet. It was in the interwar period that the British attempted “feats of intervention, co-ordination and stabilisation to which they had never aspired in the empire’s heyday”. But crucially, rather than push back against American hegemony, they accepted it as a fait accompli. Winston Churchill was among the first to see the selfish strategic interest in what he later called the “special relationship” but there were few dissenting voices; Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was as staunch an advocate of an Anglo-American alliance as any. As Leon Trotsky put it, MacDonald “points with pride to this dog collar, calling it the best instrument of peace”.

In Weimar Germany from 1923 to 1927, Gustav Stresemann’s foreign policy was predicated on a similar logic, reconciling himself to US power. Yet others began to object to the shackles imposed by the new behemoth on the block, and what they saw as an attempt to impose a stifling status quo. In 1928, the Austrian-born radical politician Adolf Hitler warned that the “threatened global hegemony of the North American continent” would reduce the rest of the major powers to the status of a Switzerland or a Holland. In Mein Kampf, he even called for an Anglo-German alliance to resist it.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash confirmed that now, when America sneezed, the rest of the world caught much worse than a cold. Hedging one’s bets on the superpower’s next move was a risky business, however, as the inner workings of American democracy were complex. Woodrow Wilson could convince the world of his vision for a League of Nations, but not the American people.
In 1931, when Congress slapped down President Hoover’s offer of a moratorium on European war debt – which had been made to protect Wall Street investment in Germany, rather than in a spirit of benevolence – the exasperated British ambassador in Washington, Sir Ronald Lindsay, called it an “exhibition of irresponsibility, buffoonery and ineptitude that could hardly be paralleled by the Haitian legislature”.

By the 1930s, for all their differences, the leaders of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union began to unite as insurgents against this oppressive Pax Americana. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the Great Depression era was that it was the rebellious nationalist camp that adopted “positive” economic policies, in contrast to the austerity and deflationary orthodoxy preferred by defenders of the liberal order. As Stalin told factory workers in 1931, at the outset of his Five-Year Plans, “To slacken the pace would mean to lag behind, and those who lag behind are beaten.”

Some have seen the collapse of the peace movement, disintegration of the liberal order and insipidness of the League of Nations as the ultimate rebuke to the naive democratic idealism of the interwar years, embodied by Wilsonianism. For Tooze, this is the wrong lesson to learn. In his view, in fact, “the restless search for a new way of securing order and peace was the expression not of deluded idealism, but of a higher form of realism”. Its failure was not inevitable and can be explained in two ways.

The first was the determination of revanchist (fascist and revolutionary) powers that mobilised every resource they had in an effort to escape the “chain gang” of nations marching behind the US. The second, more important, was that America itself remained a reluctant Goliath, hamstrung in its attempt to construct a viable grand strategy by a strange anxiety about its own fragility. Thus Wilson appears as not a naive internationalist, but a Burkean conservative, deeply concerned by the prospect that foreign entanglements with the “Dark Continent” of Europe or the “Oriental races” of Asia would corrupt the health and vigour of the American republic.

Here was the paradox: “At the hub of the rapidly evolving American-centred world system was a polity wedded to a conservative vision of its own future.”

The Deluge leaves us with a picture not of the clichéd brash and unthinking Yankee new imperialist power, but of an oddly insecure superstate: preferring to sit aloof from the rapacious battles and power games played by others; not quite at ease with its own recent tumultuous past; and still coming to terms with modernity having presented it with responsibilities that it had never envisaged.

From the British perspective, as the Foreign Office official put it in 1928, it was always better to have America in the game than out of it. The problem was that “in almost every field, the advantages to be derived from mutual co-operation are greater for us than for them”. 

John Bew is a historian and New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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