Historians have yet to come up with good labels for the 1980s and 1990s. The 1980s have been called the "Decade of Greed" because of the aggressive business growth of the time, and the 1990s have been labeled the "New Economy" or the "Internet Age," recognizing the extraordinary influence of high-tech industries. These labels focus attention on the economic changes of the time, yet they may not fully recognize the extent to which the United States dominated Western culture. In world politics, economic innovation, and popular culture, the United States was the single most dynamic and creative force in the world.
At the beginning of the 1980s world politics were dominated by the Cold War (1945–91), a long-simmering conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that forced nearly every country in the world to side with the capitalist, democratic United States or the Communist, state-run Soviet Union. Under American presidents Ronald Reagan (1911–) and George Bush (1924–), the United States began a program of weapon building like none in history. The Soviets struggled to keep up, but the American economy soon prevailed. By the late 1980s the Soviet system had begun to weaken and collapse, and by 1991 the entire Soviet Union collapsed and broke into a number of smaller countries, many of which immediately embraced capitalism and democracy. Without a shot fired at the enemy, the United States had won its greatest victory.
With the Soviet Union gone, the United States was now the world's greatest superpower. With the world's biggest army and the world's strongest economy, U.S. power truly dominated the world. President George Bush, explaining the role that the United States would play in world politics in 1991, proclaimed the existence of a "new world order," with the United States promoting peace and prosperity as the world's policeman. One of its first actions in this role was waging the Gulf War against Iraq, a country that threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East. This short war lasted just a few weeks in 1991 but flared up again in 2003 when President George W. Bush (1946–) sent troops in to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–). The United States's continued involvement in the Middle East created great hostility amongst Arabs who did not like Western society and helped fuel terrorist attacks such as the attacks on New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Though most Western countries supported the United States in the first war in Iraq, that support declined in the second war. Being the world's sole superpower was not easy for the United States.
Another area in which the United States led the world was economic growth. Fueled by the economic programs of President Reagan, who served from 1980 to 1988, the American economy boomed in the mid-1980s, as did the economies of most European countries and Japan, which had become a major economic competitor. Reagan cut taxes on the wealthiest people and gave businesses huge advantages. His economic programs created a climate where aggressive business practices were highly valued. American business expanded overseas, establishing factories in poor countries that could provide cheap labor and opening stores and branches in the more prosperous countries.
Though the economy declined between 1987 and 1992, a new surge under President William Jefferson Clinton (1946–) helped to sustain American economic supremacy. This new boom was driven by the growth of the computer industry, especially industry giant Microsoft, and the many offshoots of that industry, called the high-tech industry or the "New Economy." Stock markets around the world soared and the economy was further boosted by the emergence of the Internet as a means of exchanging goods and information. Again, American businesses led the way. This boom finally ended around 2000, and a sustained recession, or economic downturn, was felt throughout the world in the first years of the twenty-first century.
Not only was the United States the dominant political and economic power in the 1980s and 1990s, it was also the world's leading producer of popular culture: movies, television, music, food, and more. The entertainers and movies that made a hit in the United States were soon exported throughout the West. Musicians such as Madonna (1958–) and Michael Jackson (1958–), and sports stars such as basketball player Michael Jordan (1963–), became worldwide celebrities. American filmmakers provided the majority of the world's films. American restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King opened stores across the globe, including such once-forbidden spots as Russia and China.
The spread of popular culture meant that the world was becoming Americanized, and sometimes the world did not like it. In the countries of Europe, which had traditionally been the United States's greatest allies, or associates, hostility toward American dominance grew. French people protested the opening of a Disneyland amusement park in Paris, France, in the 1990s, and the European Economic Union worked hard to counter American economic dominance by easing trade between European countries and introducing a single currency to be used throughout Europe in the early twenty-first century. Hostility toward the United States was greatest in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and Far East. Facing these hostilities is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the United States in its role as world leader.
Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, when politically oriented social groups and movements like the hippies, a group of young people who rejected conventional values and dress, and the Women's Liberation movement had a great effect on what people wore, clothing customs in the 1980s and beyond were rarely touched by world events. Fads were more highly influenced by the entertainment industry. While the consumption of high-priced and high fashion clothes increased in the 1980s, the general prosperity of people in Western countries meant that almost everyone had access to a range of comfortable and even stylish clothing and accessories.
"About Gap Inc." Gap Inc. http://www.gapinc.com/about/about.htm (accessed on August 27, 2003).
Feinstein, Stephen. The 1980s: From Ronald Reagan to MTV. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000.
Feinstein, Stephen. The 1990s: From the Persian Gulf War to Y2K. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2001.
Kallen, Stuart A. The 1980s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Kallen, Stuart A. The 1990s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Lomas, Clare. 20th Century Fashion: The 80s and 90s, Power Dressing to Sportswear. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.
Nevaer, Louis E. V. Into—and Out of—the Gap: A Cautionary Account of an American Retailer. Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 2001.