While I do not share Longworth's positive feeling about the spread of the market economy and US history before 9/11, I think most of what he says here is lucid and helpful.
The issue is power and its purpose. Specifically, American power. We've got it, lots of it, more than any nation in history. Now, what do we do with it?
This is a subject that makes Americans squirm. It's a little like being the richest family on the block or the smartest kid in class. If we talk about it, it sounds as if we're bragging.
Which may be why we have barely started to talk about this fact of power and its purpose, which is both a burden and an obligation. The United States has the unprecedented power to shape the future of the world, but there is virtually no debate, from the White House on down, about what kind of future or what kind of world we want.
We can't even figure out what to call this power. "Superpower" doesn't do it: We've been a superpower for 60 years now, but never this dominant. "Hegemon" is too academic and "hyper-power" too French.
"Empire," perhaps? "What word but 'empire' describes the awesome thing that America is becoming?" wrote author Michael Ignatieff. But "empire" implies physical control of other nations' territories and, for all our strutting about the world, territorial conquest is not on the American agenda.
Several years ago, a New Yorker cartoon showed an American general telling other generals, "Gentlemen! It's not enough to be a superpower. We've got to be a super-duper power!"
OK, we're a super-duper power, any way you look at it.
Militarily, our defense budget is much bigger than not only those of all our conceivable foes combined, but also those of the next 15 or 20 biggest nations combined, depending on how it's computed. President Bush's requested increase in military spending, all by itself, was bigger than the total military budget of any European nation. Only America projects military power around the globe, into every continent and across every ocean.
Economically, our gross domestic product is twice as big as the second-richest nation, Japan, and bigger than all 15 nations of the European Union. (When the EU expands to 25 nations, the U.S. output will still be greater.) We invented the global economy and still dominate it.
Diplomatically, all this military and economic power gives us clout at any negotiating table. The U.S. is leading peacemaking programs from Cyprus to Azerbaijan. Everyone agrees that only the U.S. can settle the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, if only it would try. The Parsley War, a Spanish-Moroccan dispute that was over before most Americans even heard of it, should have been settled by the Europeans, but the two foes wouldn't listen to anyone but Washington.
Culturally and educationally, American styles and ideas dominate. From McDonald's to Disney, the rest of the world dotes on American products while decrying their impact on local and traditional cultures. American universities draw hundreds of thousands of foreign students and send them home with degrees, but also with American ideas on how to run lives, families and countries.
Around the world, other nations and peoples obsess about the United States and what it might do next. Anything we do has an outsize impact on other countries. A world that we often ignore watches us warily, even when our intentions are good.
All this power bestows the responsibility to consider how it is to be used. On this, there are two schools of thought.
For the past half-century, successive U.S. administrations chose to wield this power through multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations, NATO, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and others. The U.S. emerged from World War II with unrivaled power over half the world, but instead of ruling on its own, it became first among equals in a web of alliances and treaties.
Invariably, the U.S. was the mightiest member of these organizations. This meant that the organizations served the U.S. national purpose, including winning the Cold War. But they served other nations' interests, too, and enabled the U.S. to be a leader, not an imperial dictator.
Another school of thought now rules. Where once the U.S. government worked within global institutions to use them for American interests, the Bush administration has gratuitously spurned treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the Rio Pact on biodiversity and the International Criminal Court, and rejected NATO's offer of help in fighting the Taliban.
The administration's new National Security Strategy emphasizes that the purpose of American power is more power. It says that U.S. military power is to be not only overwhelming but permanent, and no challenge will be permitted. The containment of hostile foes, which worked in the Cold War, has been replaced by pre-emptive warfare. Alliances based on overriding principles, such as democracy, are subordinated to temporary coalitions of convenience aimed at solving immediate problems. And the U.S. is ready to act alone and unilaterally, if necessary, when no allies can be found.
In other words, the Bush administration sees the U.S. not as first among equals, but as a law unto itself--an imperial posture.
The three really new things in this policy, permanent military dominance, pre-emptive attacks and unilateralism, are all on display in the administration's policy toward Iraq, which is why most of the world looks at this policy with a concern bordering on terror. If we can change regimes in one country by force, we can do it in other countries too.
The Carnegie Endowment, a Washington think tank, issued a report saying that "the world sees an America that seems so powerful, so angry and so heedless of the concerns of others that it poses a threat to the international order."
Underlying this change is a philosophy at odds with that of the rest of the world.
This mind-set rejects any sharing of American sovereignty with global institutions to solve global problems. It is an intensely moral mindset, proclaiming the American way the "single sustainable model for national success . . . right and true for every person, in every society," and assuming the American obligation to remake the world in our image.
At the same time, this mind-set sees a global jungle, hostile and threatening, where only military power counts and endless threats loom. It sees this nation as too busy dominating this bad world to take time to build a better one.
This mind-set sees enemies under every bed. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, "there are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don't know we don't know."
In such a world, peace is war and friends are foes.
The mind-set also sees a failed international system and asserts that the United States must avoid this system, take its football and go home. The proper U.S. role, it says, is to act alone to protect its own interests, rather than keep playing a game that we are losing.
The problem is that this worldview is profoundly wrong. We invented the game and we're winning it.
The international system devised and dominated by the United States is working. Critical problems in places such as Iraq and North Korea don't erase the fact that the number of democracies and market economies is growing, that most of the world is at peace and that the model of market democracy framed by the U.S. and its allies is craved by the overwhelming majority of people in the world.
America's power is not at risk, but its influence is. The world sees an unending list of problems needing attention--the environment, AIDS, the global economy, nuclear proliferation, the gap between rich and poor--and sees that the nation whose leadership is crucial for any solution is ignoring these issues, in favor of empire-building.
If the administration is asked about the purpose of its power, it points to its repeated paeans to "freedom, democracy and free enterprise. " No one can complain about this, but the administration's record of cozying up to dictators, plus its obvious lack of interest in health and poverty problems around the world, permits cynics to wonder how serious it is. A demonstrated U.S. leadership in meeting these problems would silence this cynicism.
The U.S. is at a defining moment. This nation has never been so powerful, and it has never felt so vulnerable. It is fearful, so it is dangerous. By focusing on the military, it is squandering its ability to solve the world's real problems. It proclaims a devotion to the American national interest but scraps the tools best suited to achieving it. It looks at a world full of admirers and sees little but foes.
"What we see now," wrote British journalist Anatole Lieven, "is the tragedy of a great country, with noble impulses, successful institutions, magnificent historical achievements and immense energies . . . which has become a menace to itself and to mankind."
This descent "from beacon to bully," as one writer put it, has been accomplished in little more than the year since 9/11. Global sympathy then has been replaced by growing hostility, even fear. What the United States does with its super-duper power will be chronicled by the historians, and they already are sharpening their pens.