Courtesy Reuters

The Inadequacy of American Power

ALONE AT THE TOP

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the central feature of the world at the outset of the twenty-first century is the enormous power of the United States. This country possesses the most formidable military forces and the largest and most vibrant national economy on the planet. From within its borders emanate the social and cultural trends that exercise the greatest influence on other societies. In the league standings of global power, the United States occupies first place -- and by a margin so large that it recalls the preponderance of the Roman Empire of antiquity. So vast is American superiority that the distinction bestowed upon it and its great rival, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War no longer applies. The United States is no longer a mere superpower; it has ascended to the status of "hyperpower."

The fact of American supremacy tends to polarize opinion. For those who deem such supremacy desirable, the great question of twenty-first century international politics is how to perpetuate it. On the other hand, those who regard U.S. power as unwelcome seek to discover how it can be curtailed. The undoubted fact of American supremacy, however, raises a prior question: For what purpose is all this power to be used? The proper answer to that question puts American power in a different light, and that answer derives from the singular and unprecedented character of the world in which we now live.

The contemporary world is dominated by three major ideas: peace as the preferred basis for relations among countries, democracy as the optimal way to organize political life within them, and the free market as the indispensable vehicle for producing wealth. Peace, democracy, and free markets are the ideas that conquered the world. They are not, of course, universally practiced, and not all sovereign states accept each of them. But for the first time since they were introduced -- at the outset of the period that began with the

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