Illusions of Empire: Defining the New American Order

The debate on empire is back. This is not surprising, as the United States dominates the world as no state ever has. It emerged from the Cold War the only superpower, and no geopolitical or ideological contenders are in sight. Europe is drawn inward, and Japan is stagnant. A half-century after their occupation, the United States still provides security for Japan and Germany -- the world's second- and third-largest economies. U.S. military bases and carrier battle groups ring the world. Russia is in a quasi-formal security partnership with the United States, and China has accommodated itself to U.S. dominance, at least for the moment. For the first time in the modern era, the world's most powerful state can operate on the global stage without the constraints of other great powers. We have entered the American unipolar age.

The Bush administration's war on terrorism, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, expanded military budget, and controversial 2002 National Security Strategy have thrust American power into the light of day -- and, in doing so, deeply unsettled much of the world. Worry about the implications of American unipolarity is the not-so-hidden subtext of recent U.S.-European tension and has figured prominently in recent presidential elections in Germany, Brazil, and South Korea. The most fundamental questions about the nature of global politics -- who commands and who benefits -- are now the subject of conversation among long-time allies and adversaries alike.

Power is often muted or disguised, but when it is exposed and perceived as domination, it inevitably invites response. One recalls the comment of Georges Clemenceau, who as a young politician said of the settlement ending the Franco-Prussian War, "Germany believes that the logic of her victory means domination, while we do not believe that the logic of our defeat is serfdom." At Versailles a half-century later, he would impose just as harsh a peace on a defeated Germany.

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