Courtesy Reuters

How America Does It


The principal paradox of the post-Cold War era is the unchallenged primacy of the United States. Though America is the "last remaining superpower" in the year A.B. 7 (After Bipolarity), no nation has flung down the gauntlet. None has unleashed an arms race, none has tried to engineer a hostile coalition. The United States faces neither an existential enemy nor the threat of encirclement as far as the eye can see.

This was not supposed to happen after the self-dismemberment of No. 2, the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day 1991. History and theory tell us that the international system abhors primacy. Hence the United States should have become the object of mistrust, fear, and containment. Its Cold War alliance system should have collapsed, and its members should have defected to aggregate their power against the United States. The signal from Nos. 2, 3, 4, etc., should have been: We shall draw a new line in the sand; you shall not enjoy the fruits of your exalted position.

But instead of eroding, the American alliance system is expanding. At the July NATO summit in Madrid, three eager candidates were invited to join, leaving half a dozen other frustrated hopefuls behind. Why should this be counterintuitive and counter-historical? The answer is simple: no alliance in history has ever survived victory.

The all-European coalition against Napoleon, victorious in 1815, had unraveled by 1822. The World War I entente against Germany was a dead letter by the early 1920s. The Soviet-American partnership of World War II was the most dramatic instance. It survived triumph by only a few months; by 1948 Moscow and Washington were mortal rivals, straining to contain each other.

Nor is this deadly disease just an accident of history. For victory robs alliances of their raison d'etre. When the threat disappears, so does the glue that binds nations in alliance. Worse, once partners no longer need to worry about a common foe, they begin to eye each other. They ask: How will yesterday's comrade-in-arms use its unshackled

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