Intercultural relations after World War II were far more extensive and diverse than earlier. The United States became the virtual inheritor of European civilization, emerging as the strongest and richest country in the world, capable of supporting the arts and financing scholarly and artistic undertakings. European refugees enriched America's cultural life. For the first time it could be said that American art was in the vanguard of modern art, not a pale reflection of European works. The same was true of literature and music. Unlike the period after World War I, however, there was much less self-consciousness about American culture. It was assumed as a matter of course, rather than asserted as a matter of principle, that American artists, novelists, and musicians were engaged in creative work that had relevance to the contemporary world as a whole. Europeans looked to the United States to discern artistic and literary trends. Moreover, American troops stationed in most parts of Europe transmitted American popular culture and lifestyles to the Old World. It became important for European intellectuals to study in the United States if they wished to keep abreast of developments in scholarship.
The impact on the non-Western world was no less great. American influence was transmitted through soldiers, officials, and businessmen who were scattered throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Consciously or unconsciously, they contributed to a deeper cultural involvement of America in other lands. America came to stand for what was fashionable and up-to-date. At the same time, Americans abroad collectively and individually increased their nation's awareness of other cultures and contributed to a greater appreciation of non-Western traditions. Many who were trained during the war as language specialists and intelligence officers retained their interest in foreign countries, and some of them became leaders in the postwar development of "area studies." American colleges began seriously teaching courses in non-Western civilizations and founded institutes to further research in these areas. There was also a flood of non-Europeans to the United States as war brides, students, and visitors. Through them Americans came into contact with non-Western ways of life.
This flowering of cultural relations after World War II was in many ways a culmination of the globalizing trend that had begun in the nineteenth century. Globalization had connected different parts of the world closer together; it had also manifested itself in imperialism. It had often provoked fierce opposition on the part of nations and individuals that wished to preserve their traditional loyalties and ways of life. In many ways the atomic bombs that brought World War II to conclusion also ended such opposition in the sense that war from now on came to be seen as truly global, something that was to be avoided at all cost if civilization were to survive. This meant that military conflict and confrontation would come to constitute a lesser part of international relations than earlier. To be sure, the estrangement among the victorious powers after 1945, known as the Cold War, did become a pervasive phenomenon and defined one facet of world affairs for nearly half a century. But it would be misleading to subordinate all other phenomena to the geopolitical confrontation. For the Cold War failed to prevent another, even more substantive development, globalization, from gaining momentum after World War II. And globalization was fundamentally a nongeopolitical phenomenon. U.S. cultural relations in the second half of the twentieth century may be understood in such a context.
It would appear that the old opposition between globalization, on one hand, and local identities, on the other, gave way to the virtually universal forces of global interdependence and interpenetration after World War II. These forces were economic, social, and cultural. Modernization provided one easily recognizable framework to comprehend this phenomenon. In the wake of a war that had divided the globe, there resurfaced the idea that all the countries in the world were tending toward a more modern phase. Economic development, political democracy, and social justice appeared to be essential ingredients of modernity; and intellectuals discussed how such an outlook could be encouraged in a traditional society. Appreciation of non-Western civilizations often took the form of discovering elements in them that were potentially "modern." In this process, there grew some tolerance for cultural pluralism: not just greater appreciation for Japanese architecture, Chinese food, or Indian philosophy but economic, political, and social changes in those countries. The hope was that through such changes, coupled with the new outlook in postwar America, foreigners and Americans would come to a better understanding of one another. They would develop a common vocabulary of mutual respect as they cooperated to bring about a more modern world. The pace of globalization was being accelerated in a changing world. U.S. cultural relations contributed to globalization and at the same time to an appreciation of diversity. This was a far more significant story than the vicissitudes of the Cold War, for ultimately it was the globalizing world that put an end to the Cold War, not the other way round.
It might be objected that the Cold War did have a globalizing aspect. Not only did it provoke fears of a nuclear conflagration that would annihilate the whole world, but the vocabulary of the geopolitical confrontation often had global connotations. The Soviet Union and its allies spoke of a worldwide people's struggle against the evils of capitalism and imperialism, while the United States and its partners accused the opponents of infringing upon such universal values as freedom and democracy. Moreover, both sides frequently used cultural means to wage Cold War: propaganda, student exchanges, conferences of intellectuals, and the like. Even in the United States, where traditionally cultural pursuits had been considered to belong exclusively to the private sphere, the government did not hesitate to sponsor art exhibits, publications of journals, or meetings of labor leaders abroad in order to try to influence other countries' opinions. A cultural Cold War did exist, as did official cultural policies. But if such policies resulted in a growing interdependence among different parts of the world, it was more by accident than by design. What brought about the dissipation and, ultimately, the end of the Cold War were not these policies but the growing global consciousness, a product of cultural interpenetration, not of the geopolitical confrontation whose fundamental orientation was to divide the globe, not to unite it.