The world is off balance. If anyone doubted the overwhelming nature of U.S. military power, Iraq settled the issue. With the United States representing nearly half of the world's military expenditures, no countervailing coalition can create a traditional military balance of power. Not since Rome has one nation loomed so large above the others. Indeed, the word "empire" has come out of the closet. Respected analysts on both the left and the right are beginning to refer to "American empire" approvingly as the dominant narrative of the twenty-first century. And the military victory in Iraq seems only to have confirmed this new world order.

Americans, however, often misunderstand the nature of their power and tend to extrapolate the present into the future. A little more than a decade ago, the conventional wisdom held that the United States was in decline. In 1992, a presidential candidate won votes by proclaiming that the Cold War was over and Japan had won. Now Americans are told that their unipolar moment will last and that they can do as they will because others have no choice but to follow. But focusing on the imbalance of military power among states is misleading. Beneath that surface structure, the world changed in profound ways during the last decades of the twentieth century. September 11, 2001, was like a flash of lightning on a summer evening that displayed an altered landscape, leaving U.S. policymakers and analysts still groping in the dark, still wondering how to understand and respond.


George W. Bush entered office committed to a realist foreign policy that would focus on great powers such as China and Russia and eschew nation building in failed states of the less-developed world. China was to be "a strategic competitor," not the "strategic partner" of Bill Clinton's era, and the United States was to take a tougher stance with Russia. But in September 2002, the Bush administration issued a new national security strategy, declaring that "we are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies falling into the hands of the embittered few." Instead of strategic rivalry, "today, the world's great powers find ourselves on the same side -- united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos." Not only was Chinese President Jiang Zemin welcomed to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, but Bush's strategy embraces "the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China." And it commits the United States to increasing its development assistance and efforts to combat hivffiaids, because "weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interest as strong states." Moreover, these policies will be "guided by the conviction that no nation can build a safer, better world alone." How the world turned in one year! And, between the lines, Iraq came to be viewed as the new strategy's first test, even though another member of the "axis of evil" was much closer to developing nuclear weapons.

The rhetoric of the new strategy attracted criticism at home and abroad. The trumpeting of American primacy violated Teddy Roosevelt's advice about speaking softly when you carry a big stick. The United States will remain number one, but there was no need to rub others' noses in it. The neo-Wilsonian promises to promote democracy and freedom struck some traditional realists as dangerously unbounded. The statements about cooperation and coalitions were not followed by equal discussion of institutions. And the much-criticized assertion of a right to preempt could be interpreted either as routine self-defense or as a dangerous precedent.

These criticisms notwithstanding, the Bush administration was correct in its change of focus. The distinguished historian John Lewis Gaddis has compared the new strategy to the seminal days that redefined American foreign policy in the 1940s. Although that comparison may be exaggerated, the new strategy does respond to the deep trends in world politics that were illuminated by the events of September 11. Globalization, for instance, has proved itself to be more than just an economic phenomenon; it has been wearing away at the natural buffers that distance and two oceans have always provided to the United States. September 11 thus dramatized how dreadful conditions in poor, weak countries halfway around the world can have terrible consequences for the United States.

The information revolution and technological change have elevated the importance of transnational issues and have empowered nonstate actors to play a larger role in world politics. A few decades ago, instantaneous global communications were out of the financial reach of all but governments or large organizations such as multinational corporations or the Catholic Church. At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union were secretly spending billions of dollars on overhead space photography. Now inexpensive commercial satellite photos are available to anyone, and the Internet enabled 1,500 nongovernmental organizations to inexpensively coordinate the "battle of Seattle" that disrupted the World Trade Organization's meeting in December 1999.

Most worrying are the effects of these deep trends on terrorism. Terrorism itself is nothing new, but the "democratization of technology" over the past decades has been making terrorists more lethal and more agile, and the trend is likely to continue. In the twentieth century, a pathological individual -- a Hitler or a Stalin -- needed the power of a government to be able to kill millions of people. If twenty-first-century terrorists get hold of weapons of mass destruction, this devastating power will for the first time become available to deviant groups and individuals. Traditional state-centric analysts think that punishing states that sponsor terrorism can solve the problem. Such punitive measures might help, but in the end they cannot stop individuals who have already gained access to destructive technology. After all, Timothy McVeigh in the United States and Aum Shinrikyo in Japan were not sponsored by states. And in 2001, one surprise attack by a transnational terrorist group killed more Americans than the state of Japan did in 1941. The "privatization of war" is not only a major historical change in world politics; its potential impact on U.S. cities could drastically alter the nature of American civilization. This shifting ground is what the new Bush strategy gets right.


What the Bush administration has not yet sorted out is how to go about implementing its new approach. At first glance, it appears that the Iraq war settled the issue. But the war can be interpreted as the last chapter of the twentieth century rather than the first chapter of the twenty-first. Not only was it unfinished business in the minds of its planners, but it also rested on more than a decade of unfulfilled UN Security Council resolutions. A number of close observers -- such as British Ambassador to the UN Sir Jeremy Greenstock -- believe that with a little more patience and diplomacy, the administration could have obtained another resolution that would have focused on the sins of Saddam Hussein rather than allowing France and Russia to turn the problem into one of American power. If that close call had come out differently, the continuity with the past would be clearer today. Moreover, the administration is currently faced with another dangerous dictator who is months rather than years away from having nuclear weapons and thus fits the criteria of the new strategy even more closely than Iraq did. North Korea may prove to be the real test of how to implement the new strategy. Thus far, the Bush administration has responded cautiously and in close consultation with U.S. allies. Deterrence seems to have worked, although in this case it was North Korea's conventional capacity to wreak havoc on Seoul in the event of war that deterred U.S. military action.

There is also a larger struggle involved in the debate over how to implement the new strategy. The administration is deeply divided between those who want to escape the constraints of the post-1945 institutional framework that the United States helped to build and those who believe U.S. goals are better achieved by working within that framework. The neoconservative "Wilsonians of the right" and the "Jacksonian unilateralists" (to adapt terms coined by historian Walter Russell Mead) are pitted against the more multilateral and cautious traditional realists. The tug of war within the administration was visible both in the strategy document and in the run-up to the Iraq war. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld disparaged the UN as a "false comfort," traditional realist Republicans such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker urged a multilateral approach, and President Bush's September 12, 2002, speech to the UN represented a temporary victory for the coalition of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The failure to obtain a second Security Council resolution and the success of the war, however, have ensured the ascendancy of the Jacksonians and the neo-Wilsonians.

Earlier, in 2001, the columnist Charles Krauthammer presaged their vision when he argued for a "new unilateralism," one in which the United States refuses to play the role of a "docile international citizen" and unashamedly pursues its own ends. For most analysts, unilateralism and multilateralism are simply two ends of a spectrum of diplomatic tactics; few leaders follow one or the other approach exclusively. But the new unilateralists go a step further. They believe that today Washington faces new threats of such dire nature that it must escape the constraints of the multilateral structures it helped build after World War II. In their view, the implementation of a new strategy requires more radical change. As Philip Stephens of the Financial Times put it, they would like to reverse Dean Acheson's famous title and be "present at the destruction." They deliberately resisted calling upon NATO after Washington's allies invoked Article 5, offering collective self-defense in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. They sought to minimize the role of the UN in Iraq before and after the war, and they now talk of a "disaggregation" approach to Europe rather than traditional support for European union. In Rumsfeld's words, the issues should determine the coalitions, not vice versa. Some advocates do not shrink from an explicitly imperial approach. In the words of William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, "if people want to say we are an imperial power, fine."


Although the new unilateralists are right that maintaining U.S. military strength is crucial and that pure multilateralism is impossible, they make important mistakes that will ultimately undercut the implementation of the new security strategy. Their first mistake is to focus too heavily on military power alone. U.S. military power is essential to global stability and is a critical part of the response to terrorism. But the metaphor of war should not blind Americans to the fact that suppressing terrorism will take years of patient, unspectacular civilian cooperation with other countries in areas such as intelligence sharing, police work, tracing financial flows, and border controls. For example, the American military success in Afghanistan dealt with the easiest part of the problem: toppling an oppressive and weak government in a poor country. But all the precision bombing destroyed only a small fraction of al Qaeda's network, which retains cells in some 60 countries. And bombing cannot resolve the problem of cells in Hamburg or Detroit. Rather than proving the new unilateralists' point, the partial nature of the success in Afghanistan illustrates the continuing need for cooperation. The best response to transnational terrorist networks is networks of cooperating government agencies.

Power is the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants, and the changes sketched out above have made its distribution more complex than first meets the eye. The agenda of world politics has become like a three-dimensional chess game in which one can win only by playing vertically as well as horizontally. On the top board of classical interstate military issues, the United States is likely to remain the only superpower for years to come, and it makes sense to speak in traditional terms of unipolarity or hegemony. However, on the middle board of interstate economic issues, the distribution of power is already multipolar. The United States cannot obtain the outcomes it wants on trade, antitrust, or financial regulation issues without the agreement of the European Union (EU), Japan, and others. It makes little sense to call this distribution "American hegemony." And on the bottom board of transnational issues, power is widely distributed and chaotically organized among state and nonstate actors. It makes no sense at all to call this a "unipolar world" or an "American empire." And, as Bush's new doctrine makes clear, this is precisely the set of issues now intruding into the world of grand strategy. Yet many of the new unilateralists, particularly the Jacksonians, focus almost entirely on the top board of classical military solutions. They mistake the necessary for the sufficient. They are one-dimensional players in a three-dimensional game. In the long term, their approach to implementing the strategy guarantees losing.


The willingness of other countries to cooperate in dealing with transnational issues such as terrorism depends in part on their own self-interest, but also on the attractiveness of American positions. Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade rather than coerce. It means that others want what the United States wants, and there is less need to use carrots and sticks. Hard power, the ability to coerce, grows out of a country's military and economic might. Soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When U.S. policies appear legitimate in the eyes of others, American soft power is enhanced. Hard power will always remain crucial in a world of nation-states guarding their independence, but soft power will become increasingly important in dealing with the transnational issues that require multilateral cooperation for their solution.

One of Rumsfeld's "rules" is that "weakness is provocative." In this, he is correct. As Osama bin Laden observed, it is best to bet on the strong horse. The effective demonstration of military power in the second Gulf War, as in the first, might have a deterrent as well as a transformative effect in the Middle East. But the first Gulf War, which led to the Oslo peace process, was widely regarded as legitimate, whereas the legitimacy of the more recent war was contested. Unable to balance American military power, France, Germany, Russia, and China created a coalition to balance American soft power by depriving the United States of the legitimacy that might have been bestowed by a second UN resolution. Although such balancing did not avert the war in Iraq, it did significantly raise its price. When Turkish parliamentarians regarded U.S. policy as illegitimate, they refused Pentagon requests to allow the Fourth Infantry Division to enter Iraq from the north. Inadequate attention to soft power was detrimental to the hard power the United States could bring to bear in the early days of the war. Hard and soft power may sometimes conflict, but they can also reinforce each other. And when the Jacksonians mistake soft power for weakness, they do so at their own risk.

One instructive usage of soft power that the Pentagon got right in the second Gulf War has been called the "weaponization of reporters." Embedding reporters with forward military units undercut Saddam's strategy of creating international outrage by claiming that U.S. troops were deliberately killing civilians. Whereas CNN framed the issues in the first Gulf War, the diffusion of information technology and the rise of new outlets such as al Jazeera in the intervening decade required a new strategy for maintaining soft power during the second. Whatever other issues it raises, embedding reporters in frontline units was a wise response to changing times.


Proponents of the neoconservative strand in the new unilateralism are more attentive to some aspects of soft power. Their Wilsonian emphasis on democracy and human rights can help make U.S policies attractive to others when these values appear genuine and are pursued in a fair-minded way. The human rights abuses of Saddam's regime have thus become a major post hoc legitimization of the war. Moreover, as indicated earlier, the Bush administration has made wise investments in American soft power by increasing development aid and offering assistance in the campaign against HIV/AIDS. But although they share Woodrow Wilson's desire to spread democracy, the neo-Wilsonians ignore his emphasis on institutions. In the absence of international institutions through which others can feel consulted and involved, the imperial imposition of values may neither attract others nor produce soft power.

Both the neo-Wilsonian and the Jacksonian strands of the new unilateralism tend to prefer alliance à la carte and to treat international institutions as toolboxes into which U.S. policymakers can reach when convenient. But this approach neglects the ways in which institutions legitimize disproportionate American power. When others feel that they have been consulted, they are more likely to be helpful. For example, NATO members are doing much of the work of keeping the peace in the Balkans and in Afghanistan. Nato works through many committees to achieve the standardization and interoperability that allow coalitions of the willing to be more than ad hoc groupings. Without regular institutional consultation, the United States may find others increasingly reluctant to put tools into the toolbox. One day the box might even be bare. American-led coalitions will become less willing and shrink in size -- witness the two gulf wars.

The UN is a particularly difficult institution. The power of the veto in the Security Council has prevented it from authorizing the use of force for collective-security operations in all but three cases in the past half-century. But the council was specifically designed to be a concert of large powers that would not work when they disagreed. The veto is like a fuse box in the electrical system of a house. Better that a fuse blows and the lights go out than that the house burns down. Moreover, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out after the Kosovo war proceeded in 1999 without a UN resolution -- but with French and German participation -- the UN is torn between the strict Westphalian interpretation of state sovereignty and the rise of international humanitarian and human rights law that sets limits on what leaders can do to their citizens. To complicate matters further, politics has made the UN Charter virtually impossible to amend. Still, for all its flaws, the UN has proved useful in its humanitarian and peacekeeping roles on which states agree, and it remains an important source of legitimacy in world politics.

The latter point is particularly galling to the new unilateralists, who (correctly) point to the undemocratic nature of many of the regimes that cast votes in the UN and chair its committees -- one rankling example being Libya's chairmanship of the Human Rights Commission. But their proposed solution of replacing the UN with a new organization of democracies ignores the fact that the major divisions over Iraq were among the democracies. Rather than engage in futile efforts to ignore the UN or change its architecture, Washington should improve its underlying bilateral diplomacy with the other veto-wielding powers and use the UN in practical ways to further the new strategy. In addition to overseeing the UN's development and humanitarian agenda, the Security Council may wind up playing a background role in diffusing the crisis in North Korea; the Committee on Terrorism can help prod states to improve their procedures; and UN peacekeepers can save the United States from having to be the world's lone sheriff. If Washington uses it wisely, the UN can serve U.S. interests in a variety of practical ways. But the reverse is also true: the new unilateralists' attacks on the UN may backfire in ways that undercut American soft power.

There is considerable evidence that the new unilateralists' policies tend to squander U.S. soft power. Before the war, a Pew Charitable Trust poll found that U.S. policies (not American culture) led to less favorable attitudes toward the United States over the past two years in 19 of 27 countries, including the Islamic countries so crucial to the prosecution of the war on terrorism. Other polls showed an average drop of 30 points in the popularity of the United States in major European countries.

No large country can afford to be purely multilateralist, and sometimes the United States must take the lead by itself, as it did in Afghanistan. And the credible threat to exercise the unilateral option was probably essential to getting the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1441, which brought the weapons inspectors back into Iraq. But the United States should incline toward multilateralism whenever possible as a way to legitimize its power and to gain broad acceptance of its new strategy. Preemption that is legitimized by multilateral sanction is far less costly and sets a far less dangerous precedent than the United States asserting that it alone can act as judge, jury, and executioner. Granted, multilateralism can be used by smaller states to restrict American freedom of action, but this downside does not detract from its overall usefulness. Whether Washington learns to listen to others and to define U.S. national interests more broadly to include global interests will be crucial to the success of the new strategy and to whether others see the American preponderance the strategy proclaims as benign or not. To implement the new strategy successfully, therefore, the United States will need to pay more attention to soft power and multilateral cooperation than the new unilateralists would like.


Finally, those of the new unilateralists who openly welcome the idea of an American empire mistake the underlying nature of American public opinion. Even if the transformation of undemocratic regimes in the Middle East would indeed reduce some of the sources of Islamic terrorism, the question remains whether the American public will tolerate an imperial role. Neoconservative writers such as Max Boot argue that the United States should provide troubled countries with "the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets," but as the British historian Niall Ferguson points out, modern America differs from nineteenth-century Britain in its chronically short attention span.

Some say the United States is already an empire and it is just a matter of recognizing reality, but they mistake the politics of primacy for those of empire. The United States may be more powerful compared to other countries than the United Kingdom was at its imperial peak, but it has less control over what occurs inside other countries than the United Kingdom did when it ruled a quarter of the globe. For example, Kenya's schools, taxes, laws, and elections -- not to mention external relations -- were controlled by British officials. The United States has no such control over any country today. Washington could not even get the votes of Mexico City and Santiago for a second Security Council resolution. Devotees of the new imperialism argue that such analysis is too literal, that "empire" is intended merely as a metaphor. But this "metaphor" implies a control from Washington that is unrealistic and reinforces the prevailing temptations of unilateralism.

Despite its natal ideology of anti-imperialism, the United States has intervened and governed countries in Central America and the Caribbean, as well as the Philippines. But Americans have never felt comfortable as imperialists, and only a small number of cases led directly to the establishment of democracies. American empire is not limited by "imperial overstretch" in the sense of costing an unsustainable portion of U.S. gross domestic product. Indeed, the United States devoted a much higher percentage of GDP to the military budget during the Cold War than it does today. The overstretch will come from having to police more peripheral countries than public opinion will accept. Even after the second Gulf War, polls show little taste for empire and no public inclination toward invading Syria and Iran. Instead, the American public continues to say that it favors multilateralism and using the UN.

In fact, the problem of creating an American empire might better be termed "imperial understretch." Neither the public nor Congress has proved willing to invest seriously in the instruments of nation building and governance, as opposed to military force. The entire allotment for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development is only 1 percent of the federal budget. The United States spends nearly 16 times as much on its military, and there is little indication of change to come in this era of tax cuts and budget deficits. The U.S. military is designed for fighting rather than police work, and the Pentagon has cut back on training for peacekeeping operations. In practice, the coalition of neo-Wilsonians and Jacksonians may divide over this issue. The former will espouse a prolonged U.S. presence to produce democracy in the Middle East, whereas the latter, who tend to eschew "nation building," have designed a military that is better suited to kick down the door, beat up a dictator, and go home than to stay for the harder work of building a democratic polity.

Among a number of possible futures for Iraq are three scenarios that deserve some elaboration. The first is the example of Japan or Germany in 1945, in which the United States stays for seven years and leaves behind a friendly democracy. This would be the preferred outcome, but it is worth remembering that Germany and Japan were ethnically homogeneous societies, ones that also did not produce any terrorist responses to the presence of U.S. troops and could boast significant middle classes that had already experienced democracy in the 1920s. A second scenario is akin to that of Ronald Reagan in Lebanon or Bill Clinton in Somalia, where some of the people who cheered U.S. entry wound up protesting its presence six months later. In this scenario, terrorists kill U.S. soldiers, and the American public reacts by saying, "Saddam is gone, Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, they don't want our democracy, let's pull out." If this scenario left Iraq in conflict, dictatorship, or theocracy, it would undercut the major post hoc legitimization for the war. The third scenario would be reminiscent of Bosnia or Kosovo. The United States would entice NATO allies and other countries to help in the policing and reconstruction of Iraq, a UN resolution would bless the force, and an international administrator would help to legitimize decisions. The process would be long and frustrating, but it would reduce the prominence of the United States as a target for anti-imperialists and would probably best ensure that America did not pull out prematurely. Ironically, the neo-Wilsonians of the new unilateralist coalition might have to make common cause with the multilateral realists to achieve their objectives. They might find that the world's only superpower can't go it alone after all.


The Bush administration's new national security strategy correctly identified the challenges growing out of the deep changes in world politics that were illuminated on September 11. But the administration has still not settled on how to implement the new strategy most effectively. Rather than resolving the issue, the second Gulf War leaves the divisions in place, and the real tests still await.

The problem for U.S. power in the twenty-first century is that more and more continues to fall outside the control of even the most powerful state. Although the United States does well on the traditional measures of hard power, these measures fail to capture the ongoing transformation of world politics brought about by globalization and the democratization of technology. The paradox of American power is that world politics is changing in a way that makes it impossible for the strongest world power since Rome to achieve some of its most crucial international goals alone. The United States lacks both the international and the domestic capacity to resolve conflicts that are internal to other societies and to monitor and control transnational developments that threaten Americans at home. On many of today's key issues, such as international financial stability, drug trafficking, the spread of diseases, and especially the new terrorism, military power alone simply cannot produce success, and its use can sometimes be counterproductive. Instead, as the most powerful country, the United States must mobilize international coalitions to address these shared threats and challenges. By devaluing soft power and institutions, the new unilateralist coalition of Jacksonians and neo-Wilsonians is depriving Washington of some of its most important instruments for the implementation of the new national security strategy. If they manage to continue with this tack, the United States could fail what Henry Kissinger called the historical test for this generation of American leaders: to use current preponderant U.S. power to achieve an international consensus behind widely accepted norms that will protect American values in a more uncertain future. Fortunately, this outcome is not preordained.

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  • Joseph S. Nye, Jr., is Dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone.
  • More By Joseph S. Nye Jr.