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A Less Super Superpower


One of the most difficult things to judge in the world today is the extent of American power. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the United States possesses a far larger pile of weapons than any other country, that the American economy is also larger than any other country’s and that America’s movies and television programs are consumed globally. America is widely accorded the title “only superpower,” and many of its detractors as well as its supporters describe it as the world’s first truly globe-straddling empire. On the other hand, it is not yet clear what the United States can accomplish with these eye-catching assets. For power, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in one of the most succinct and durable definitions of power ever offered, is a “present means, to obtain some future apparent good.” Power, after all, is not just an expenditure of energy. There must be results.

 

Measured by Hobbes’s test, the superpower looks less super. Its military has been stretched to the breaking point by the occupation of a single weak country, Iraq. Its economy is held hostage by Himalayas of external debt, much of it in the hands of a strategic rival, China, holder of nearly $200 billion in Treasury bills. Its domestic debt, caused in part by the war expenditures, also towers to the skies. The United States has dramatically failed to make progress in its main declared foreign policy objective, the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction: While searching fruitlessly for nuclear programs in Iraq, where they did not exist, it temporized with North Korea, where they apparently do exist, and now it seems at a loss for a policy that will stop Iran from taking the same path. The President has just announced that the “end of tyranny” is his goal, but in his first term the global democracy movement suffered its greatest setback since the cold war — Russia’s slide toward authoritarianism.

 

The shaky foundations of America’s power were on display in the President’s recent travels. Shortly before Bush landed in Brussels, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany quietly but firmly repudiated the President’s militarized, US-centered approach to world affairs. NATO, he heretically announced, should no longer be “the primary venue” of the Atlantic relationship. Did that mean that Europe would continue to take direction from Washington through some other venue? Hardly: He was, he said, formulating German policy “in Europe, for Europe and from Europe.” The superpower’s penchant for military action was also rejected. The chancellor said, “Challenges lie today beyond the North Atlantic Alliance’s former zone of mutual assistance. And they do not primarily require military responses.”

 

Schröder was standing on solid ground at home. A poll in the German newspaper Die Welt revealed that “Vladimir Putin is seen as more trustworthy than George W. Bush, France as a more important partner for German foreign and security policy than the United States. Closer harmonization of German foreign policy with America is not wanted, either.”

 

Meanwhile, offstage, in an apparent extension of constitution-building at home, Europe was taking the lead in building cooperative global instruments, including the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the International Criminal Court. No sooner had the President arrived in Europe than an economic trapdoor seemed briefly to open beneath his feet when the South Korean Central Bank stated that it intended to move some of its holdings from the dollar to other currencies, causing a 174-point drop in the Dow Jones average. The next day, the bank disavowed its report and the dollar recovered, but not before the fragility of America’s economic position in the world had been revealed.

 

In an atmosphere of programmed smiles and brittle celebrations, the presidential dinners and toasts compensated for local public sentiment rather than reflecting it. The less popular Bush was in a given country, it seemed, the jollier the summit meeting. Even in little Slovakia, where the festivities seemed more spontaneous than elsewhere, an opinion poll showed that a majority believed that the United States, not Russia, was the most worrisome threat to democracy.

 

In his meeting with Putin, Bush seemed almost obsequious, repeatedly referring chummily to an unresponding, scowling Putin (it’s an expression that settles naturally on his face) as “my friend Vladimir.” As for democracy in Russia, the man who would “end tyranny” everywhere in the world could only muster, “I was able to share my concerns about Russia’s commitment in fulfilling these universal principles.”

 

A portrait of a peculiar relationship with Europe emerged. To Bush’s Don Quixote, tilting, at God’s command, against imagined evils, Europe played Sancho Panza, humoring the Knight Errant but mocking him behind his back. Or perhaps it was more like that other great inverted relationship between master and servant, P.G. Wodehouse’s upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his sagacious, potent butler Jeeves, who contrives to get Wooster out of his ceaseless ridiculous scrapes in high society. The difference is that Europe’s rescue is only feigned. Yes, France will help in Iraq — with one officer, who will stay at NATO headquarters in Europe.

 

In history, the rise of imperial pretenders has usually led to military alliances against them. Such was the case, for instance, when a previous imperial republic, Napoleon’s France, conquered most of Europe but then was defeated by an oddly assorted alliance of Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Such is not the case today. Europe seems determined to bypass rather than fight the American challenge. And power? The American kind is poor in “future goods.” There is rivalry in the air, but it no longer takes a martial form. Instead, Europe seems bent for now on building itself up economically and knitting itself together politically — readying, it appears, another kind of power, based more on cooperation, both within its own borders and with the world, and less on military force.

 

 

Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.

 

Copyright C2005 Jonathan Schell

 

This article will appear in the March 21st issue of The Nation Magazine.

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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