Courtesy Reuters

What to Do With American Primacy

WE'RE NUMBER ONE. NOW WHAT?

We live in an era of contradictions: globalization and fragmentation, peace and conflict, prosperity and poverty. Only when one or more of these tendencies wins out will our era gain a name of its own, displacing the awkward "post-Cold War" tag line. But amid this uncertainty is the stark reality that the United States is the most powerful country in the world -- first among unequals. Still, this is a description, not a purpose or a policy. The fundamental question that confronts America today is how to exploit its enormous surplus of power in the world: What to do with American primacy?

It must be said at the outset that America's economic and military advantages, while great, are neither unqualified nor permanent. The country's strength is limited by the amount of resources (money, time, political capital) it can spend, which in turn reflects a lack of domestic support for some kind of American global empire. De Tocqueville's observation that democracy is ill suited for conducting foreign policy is even more true in a world without a mortal enemy like the Soviet Union against which to rally the public.

Moreover, U.S. superiority will not last. As power diffuses around the world, America's position relative to others will inevitably erode. It may not seem this way at a moment when the American economy is in full bloom and many countries around the world are sclerotic, but the long-term trend is unmistakable. Other nations are rising, and nonstate actors -- ranging from Usama bin Ladin to Amnesty International to the International Criminal Court to George Soros -- are increasing in number and acquiring power. For all these reasons, an effort to assert or expand U.S. hegemony will fail. Such an action would lack domestic support and stimulate international resistance, which in turn would make the costs of hegemony all the greater and its benefits all the smaller.

Meanwhile, the world is becoming more multipolar. American foreign policy

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