The Post-American Decade

Today the world’s tallest building is opening in Dubai. There have been a number of “world’s tallest” titles handed out in recent years. Some of the titles have been contested on technicalities…apparently antennas don’t count but spires do. But there is no question that the Burj Dubai deserves to be called the world’s tallest. It has 160 floors and reaches an amazing 2,717 feet up.

But what does this new record holder mean? What does it symbolize?

A brief history of the record holding structures reveals the economic, political, and cultural shifts of the last 200 years. Consider that for most of recorded history the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt, was the tallest structure. It was not surpassed until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in the UK in 1311.  The record remained in Europe for the next 600 years. Then in 1930 the Chrysler Building in New York City took the title away from the Eiffel Tower, and the Empire State Building (completed in 1931) held the record for the next 42 years.

The shift from Europe to the United States coincided with the rise of American power in the world–both economic and political–and the decline of the European empires. The Empire State Building was symbolic of this shift. America was now on top…literally. This also explains why the 9/11 terrorists targeted the World Trade Center (briefly the world’s tallest building from 1973-74). The towers symbolized American power and dominance.

The Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower…which is a cultural harbinger to discuss in another post) here in Chicago held the title of world’s tallest from 1974 until 1998.  Technically the Petronas Towers in Malaysia took the title in 1998, but a glace at any side-by-side comparison shows that the Sears Tower was still on top. (Remember that thing about antennas versus spires… and keep in mind that the Sears Tower has 108 floors and the Petronas Towers only have 88.)

In 2004 the record went to the Taipei 101 tower in China. But again, while the spire of the building was taller than the Sears building in Chicago, the American building still had more floors. We could still, figuratively, look down on the rest of the world.

But the Burj Dubai changes all of that. There is no question that the tower in the Persian Gulf is taller than any other building on the planet. It dwarfs the Taipei 101, Petronas Towers, and the Sears Tower.

Does this tower symbolize a shift in world power the way the Empire

State Building did a century ago? Maybe. But the answer is also more complicated because of the impact of globalization. Consider that while Dubai has financed the construction of this new Babel, it did not design it. The firm and architects behind the Burj Dubai are American… from Chicago in fact.

The Burj Dubai symbolizes what Fareed Zacharia writes about in his fascinating book, The Post-American World. Other nations are rising and becoming economic powers in the world (namely China and India), but the United States remains the center of innovation and education. Products may be manufactured in Asia, but they’re being designed and sold in the US…the two ends of the economic equation where the most wealth is created.

As we enter a new decade, we are witnessing a change not seen in 4 generations; a global shift in power and economics that will probably be both painful and scary for many Americans. And what might it mean for the American church? That too is for another post.

  • Steven Rossi

    To me, what’s most significant is not that it’s in Dubai but rather that it’s not in the US or Europe. I think the same thing is happening in the Church–it’s moving, but what’s more significant is not where it’s moving to but rather where it’s not moving to. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this regarding the Church.

  • Jim Martin

    A very good post. I have read several articles about the new building in Dubai but had not thought about this in relation to the over all global shift. I look forward to your next post regarding this as it relates to the American church.