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.