AMERICA RULES: THANK GOD
WHO ELSE SHOULD CALL THE SHOTS? CHINA? IRAN? THE RUSSIAN MAFIA?
August 4, 1997
Just 10 years ago, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers became an improbable best seller. People did not buy it to learn about the decline of 17th century Spain, however. They bought it to learn about the decline of late-20th century America, the book’s heavily promoted topical hook. Indeed, it touched off an intellectual vogue on U.S. decline. The major theme was that Reagan’s grandiose revivalism had turned into a grotesque overreaching–wrecking the economy with irresponsible deficits, overstretching us abroad with a mad anticommunism and generally overplaying the weak hand of a country headed downward. (1)
That was then. Where are the decline theorists now? In a single decade their hypothesis has suffered one of the most ignominious refutations ever recorded. The worldwide complaint today is that the U.S. is the overwhelmingly dominant nation, setting the rules and making everyone jump to its command. Those down on America offer not a mock-sorrowful lament about U.S. decline but a bitter complaint about U.S. triumphalism. (2)
Well, since we Americans are condemned to be pilloried for our success, let us at least take a moment to glory in it. By every measure, the extent of America’s dominance astonishes. Militarily, there has never in the past thousand years been a greater gap between the No. 1 world power and the No. 2. Not even the British Empire at its height displayed the superiority shown by American arms today. (3)
Economically? The American economy is more than twice the size of its nearest competitor. We enjoy, almost uniquely, low inflation, low unemployment and vigorous growth. Culturally? Parents the world over vainly fight the tide of T shirts and jeans, of music and movies, of video and software pouring out of America and craved by their children. There has been mass culture. But there has never before been mass world culture. Now one is emerging, and it is distinctly American. Why, even the intellectual and commercial boulevard of the future, the Internet, has been set up in our own language and idiom. Everyone speaks American. (4)
Diplomatically? Nothing of significance gets done without us. True, we are not interested in doing terribly much except enjoying our success and getting even richer. But that just makes the point. Until the Americans arrive in Bosnia, the war drags on. When America takes to the sidelines in the Middle East, nothing moves. We decide if NATO expands and who gets in. And where we decide not to decide, as in Cambodia–often held up as an example of how the U.N. and regional powers can settle local conflicts without the U.S.–all hell breaks loose.
All right then. We all–American triumphalists and worldwide complainers–agree on the premise: the bipolar world of thecold war begat not, as predicted, a multipolar world but a unipolar one with the U.S. standing alone at its apex. Why are we American triumphalists right that this is as it should be? (5)
First, there is the question of justice. We deserve it. Having fought and won in this century three world wars–I, II and cold–we have a right to claim the spoils. And we have a right to the dominance afforded us by our conquest of the “evil empire,” coming as it did after a long twilight struggle that America carried on at high peril and huge cost. NATO and other such groupings made for a wonderful show of burden sharing and risk taking. But in truth, the burdens of the cold war were shared very unevenly. It was Washington and New York City that were threatened in the Cuban missile crisis, not Paris and London. It was 57,000 Americans who died in Vietnam, not Germans or Japanese. It was America that
expended the blood and treasure–up to 10% of GNP in military spending–that stood down the Soviet Empire and destroyed the very idea of communism. Dominance? Arrogance? We got there the old-fashioned way. We earned it. (6) Second, there is the question of prudence: American hegemony is good for the world. Why? The modern world, interconnected as it is today, can exist in only two states: reasonably structured or chaotic. Chaos in the global system means no leader, no rules, nothing but contending powers and universal vulnerability. We have had experience with chaos: it was known as the 1930s. It was a Hobbesian universe that plunged the world into catastrophe.
Today the risks, the stakes are even higher: nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, along with ballistic missiles, concentrate power and shrink distance. They grant, for the first time in history, relatively insignificant players the power to destroy cities and nations. In such a world, chaos is simply unacceptable. (7)
The international system must have a structure. And because the international arena, unlike the ordinary national arena, has no cops, no enforcers, no courts with any real power (for example, the Rwandan and Bosnian war-crimes tribunals), the structure must be established and maintained by a leading world power. In the 19th century, the high seas were safe and maritime commerce was routine because of the British navy. The U.S. now plays the role of the British navy everywhere. Whom would those chafing under American hegemony prefer instead? China? Iran? The Russian mafia? (8)
Who, for example, is orchestrating the global campaign to detect, control, intercept and eliminate “loose nukes”? In a world where the means of mass destruction can be transported in a suitcase, would you feel safer if that job were entrusted to Kofi Annan? To Japanese industrialists? To France? (9)
The complainers would prefer, naturally, to see power shared equally among the leading nations and the rules arrived at by consensus. How nice. How Utopian. Multipolar systems do not evolve into happy Elks clubs. They break down rudely into rival alliances and coalitions, like the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, the Axis and the Allies, the Warsaw Pact and NATO, that gave us the calamities and the terrors of this century. (10)
Tennyson dreamed of a parliament of man. Dream on. The League of Nations and the United Nations have proved utterly ineffective. Why, even the European Union, an unprecedented club of like-minded friendly neighbors, is in disarray over the question of coinage, let alone war and peace. (11)
Why? Simple. Put great powers with diverging interests together, and consensus is almost always impossible to reach. And if not consensus, what? Which nation will long subordinate its own sovereignty to the majority vote of a bunch of rivals? Hence the best, if imperfect, guarantee of international order and safety: the dominance of a benign power. For now and for the foreseeable future, America is it–and the world knows it. (12)
American dominance is a blessing because it has given the world a Pax Americana, an era of international peace and tranquillity unseen in this century, rarely seen in human history. The Great Powers have been corralled into the American “zone of peace” or, as with China and Russia, engaged and/or contained. Smaller powers do not dare start regional wars; they have seen what happened to Iraq. What remains are brushfire wars, most of which the U.S. simply will not strain to quell. (13)
But the world does not live by safety alone. American dominance brings the world something more: the American creed. We are a uniquely ideological nation. We do not define ourselves by race or blood but by adherence to a proposition–a proposition so humane and attractive that it has, independently of American power, won near universal adherence. From Prague’s “velvet revolution” to Tiananmen Square, whose Declaration of Independence–whose Statue of Liberty–do demonstrators for freedom turn to for inspiration? (14)
Individual rights, government by consent, protection from arbitrary power, the free exchange of goods and ideas: we did not invent these ideas. We inherited them. We codified them. And now we propagate them. (15)
The world could do worse than be dominated by a country so committed to these ideas that it cannot help trying to foist them on everyone else. The foisting often gets heavy-handed and crude. The human-rights reports written by the State Department every year are a perfect expression of American zeal, the kind of obsessive do-goodism that recalls the temperance movement of the early 20th century. Yet even this exercise, clumsy and arrogant as it is, is useful. It makes tyrants abroad think twice before beating up their dissidents. Many heroes around the world owe their lives to American avy-handedness. (16)
Of course, nothing is forever, certainly not American dominance. The time will come when the U.S. will subside to become but one of many Great Powers. It is inevitable, but it is not imminent. Writing in Foreign Affairs in the winter of 1990-91, I imagined that the “unipolar moment” would probably last no more than a decade or two. I was too pessimistic. Almost a decade has passed, and America’s stature has only increased.
Nonetheless, the multipolar world is inevitable. I venture a prediction: it will be more violent, more unstable and less free than today’s world. Indeed, future historians will write about this time, these years at the turn of the millennium, as a Golden Age of unusual international tranquillity, order and freedom. The unipolar moment, the American moment. Long may it last. (17)