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Limits of American Power

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Not since Rome has one nation loomed so large above the others. In the words of The Economist, "the United States bestrides the globe like a colossus. It dominates business, commerce and communications; its economy is the world's most successful, its military might second to none."(1) French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine argued in 1999 that the United States had gone beyond its superpower status of the twentieth century. "U.S. supremacy today extends to the economy, currency, military areas, lifestyle, language and the products of mass culture that inundate the world, forming thought and fascinating even the enemies of the United States."(2) Or as two American triumphalists put it, "Today's international system is built not around a balance of power but around American hegemony."(3) As global interdependence has increased, many have argued that globalization is simply a disguise for American imperialism. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that "American idols and icons are shaping the world from Katmandu to Kinshasa, from Cairo to Caracas. Globalization wears a “'Made in USA' label.”(4)

The United States is undoubtedly the world's number one power, but how long can this situation last, and what should we do with it? Some pundits and scholars argue that U.S. preeminence is simply the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and that this "unipolar moment" will be brief.(5) American strategy should be to husband strength and engage the world only selectively. Others argue that America's power is so great that it will last for decades, and the unipolar moment can become a unipolar era.(6) Charles Krauthammer argued in early 2001 that "after a decade of Prometheus playing pygmy, the first task of the new administration is to reassert American freedom of action." We should refuse to play "the docile international citizen.... The new unilateralism recognizes the uniqueness of the unipolar world we now inhabit and thus marks the real beginning of American post-Cold War foreign policy."(7)

Even before September 2001, this prescription was challenged by many, both liberals and conservatives, who consider themselves realists and consider it almost a law of nature in international politics that if one nation becomes too strong, others will team up to balance its power. In their eyes, America's s current predominance is ephemeral.(8) As evidence, they might cite an Indian journalist who urges a strategic triangle linking Russia, India, and China "to provide a counterweight in what now looks like a dangerously unipolar world,"(9) or the president of Venezuela telling a conference of oil producers that "the 21st century should be multipolar, and we all ought to push for the development of such a world."(10) Even friendly sources such as The Economist agree that "the one-superpower world will not last. Within the next couple of decades a China with up to 1 1/2 billion people, a strongly growing economy and probably a still authoritarian government will almost certainly be trying to push its interests. Sooner or later some strong and honest man will pull post-Yeltsin Russia together, and another contender for global influence will have reappeared."(11) In my view, terrorism notwithstanding, American preponderance will last well into this century-but only if the United States learns to use power wisely.

Predicting the rise and fall of nations is notoriously difficult. In February 1941, publishing magnate Henry Luce boldly proclaimed the "American century." Yet by the 1980s, many analysts thought Luce's vision had run its course, the victim of such culprits as Vietnam, a slowing economy, and imperial overstretch. In 1985, economist Lester Thurow asked why, when Rome had lasted a thousand years as a republic and an empire, we were slipping after only fifty.(12) Polls showed that half the public agreed that the nation was contracting in power and prestige.(13)

The declinists who filled American bestseller lists a decade ago were not the first to go wrong. After Britain lost its American colonies in the eighteenth century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain's reduction to "a miserable little island" as insignificant as Denmark or Sardinia.(14) His prediction was colored by the then current view of colonial commerce and failed to foresee the coming industrial revolution that would give Britain a second century with even greater preeminence. Similarly, the American declinists failed to understand that a "third industrial revolution" was about to give the United States a "second century."(15) The United States has certainly been the leader in the global information revolution.

On the other hand, nothing lasts forever in world politics. A century ago, economic globalization was as high by some measures as it is today. World finance rested on a gold standard, immigration was at unparalleled levels, trade was increasing, and Britain had an empire on which the sun never set. As author William Pfaff put it, "Responsible political and economic scholars in 1900 would undoubtedly have described the twentieth-century prospect as continuing imperial rivalries within a Europe-dominated world, lasting paternalistic tutelage by Europeans of their Asian and African colonies, solid constitutional government in Western Europe, steadily growing prosperity, increasing scientific knowledge turned to human benefit, etc. All would have been wrong."(16) What followed, of course, were two world wars, the great social disease of totalitarian fascism and communism, the end of European empires, and the end of Europe as the arbiter of world power. Economic globalization was reversed and did not again reach its 1914 levels until the 1970s. Conceivably, it could happen again.

Can we do better as we enter the twenty-first century? The apocrypha of Yogi Berra warns us not to make predictions, particularly about the future. Yet we have no choice. We walk around with pictures of the future in our heads as a necessary condition of planning our actions. At the national level, we need such pictures to guide policy and tell us how to use our unprecedented power. There is, of course, no single future; there are multiple possible futures, and the quality of our foreign policy can make some more likely than others. When systems involve complex interactions and feedbacks, small causes can have large effects. And when people are involved, human reaction to the prediction itself may make it fail to come true.

We cannot hope to predict the future, but we can draw our pictures carefully so as to avoid some common mistakes.(17) A decade ago, a more careful analysis of American power could have saved us from the mistaken portrait of American decline. More recently, accurate predictions of catastrophic terrorism failed to avert a tragedy that leads some again to foresee decline. It is important to prevent the errors of both declinism and triumphalism. Declinism tends to produce overly cautious behavior that could undercut influence; triumphalism could beget a potentially dangerous absence of restraint, as well as an arrogance that would also squander influence. With careful analysis, the United States can make better decisions about how to protect its people, promote values, and lead toward a better world over the next few decades. I begin this analysis with an examination of the sources of U.S. power.

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