America's Missed Opportunities

Courtesy Reuters

A year ago America stood astride the world. Its troops were poised to lead an international coalition against Saddam Hussein, its president showed greater mastery over foreign affairs than any chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt and its prestige was soaring. In every quarter other nations acknowledged that the United States had emerged from the Cold War as the only functioning superpower and that the ideas it espoused were increasingly triumphant. An influential American columnist, Charles Krauthammer, wrote a year ago in this journal that a unipolar moment had arrived and that a confident United States should learn to accept its new role, aggressively imposing its own vision.

What a difference a recession makes. Few outside the White House talk anymore of creating a "new world order," unless in jest. The United States cannot achieve order in its streets or even in its capital, much less in the rest of the world. Staggered by an economic downturn that has taken a deeper psychological toll than expected and frustrated by a paralysis in its politics, the United States toward the end of 1991 turned increasingly pessimistic, inward and nationalistic. Its secretary of state could still bring recalcitrant leaders from the Middle East into face-to-face conversations, but its president had so much trouble corralling the leaders of his nation’s political parties that he began wobbling in foreign policy. From the campaign trail politicians who were misreading the public mood—and who also knew better—began whipping up the winds of a new isolationism. Insistent cries came along that the nation should embrace a new philosophy of putting America first: turn a hard, flinty eye toward economic competitors, said its advocates, and curtail the long tradition of generous idealism in foreign policy. As troubles spread in America, other powers began edging away from its orbit. In Japan the press was intrigued by the sudden popularity of kenbei—a feeling of condescension toward America—while in Europe leaders gathered in Maastricht without thinking twice about

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