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The Self-Destruction of American Power

Washington Squandered the Unipolar Moment

A man in New York City, September 2001 Christopher Morris / VII / REDUX

Sometime in the last two years, American hegemony died. The age of U.S. dominance was a brief, heady era, about three decades marked by two moments, each a breakdown of sorts. It was born amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. The end, or really the beginning of the end, was another collapse, that of Iraq in 2003, and the slow unraveling since. But was the death of the United States’ extraordinary status a result of external causes, or did Washington accelerate its own demise through bad habits and bad behavior? That is a question that will be debated by historians for years to come. But at this point, we have enough time and perspective to make some preliminary observations.

As with most deaths, many factors contributed to this one. There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power. In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington—from an unprecedented position—mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies. And now, under the Trump administration, the United States seems to have lost interest, indeed lost faith, in the ideas and purpose that animated its international presence for three-quarters of a century.

A STAR IS BORN

U.S. hegemony in the post–Cold War era was like nothing the world had seen since the Roman Empire. Writers are fond of dating the dawn of “the American century” to 1945, not long after the publisher Henry Luce coined the term. But the post–World War II era was quite different from the post-1989 one. Even after 1945, in large stretches of the globe, France and the United Kingdom still had formal empires and thus deep influence. Soon, the Soviet Union presented itself as a superpower rival, contesting Washington’s influence in every corner of the planet. Remember that the phrase “Third World” derived from the tripartite division of the globe, the First World being the United

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