The Phantom Superpower?

By Samuelson, Robert J. | Newsweek, May 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Phantom Superpower?


Samuelson, Robert J., Newsweek


The United States thinks of itself as the world's "sole remaining superpower," but the war in Kosovo reminds us that this flattering rhetoric deludes as much as it describes. At the core of U.S. foreign policy in the post-cold-war era lies a strong conviction that the goodness of our ideas and ideals--coupled with our economic and military power--can slowly fashion the world into a prosperous and peaceful place. This is our mission, and if we could accomplish it, everyone would be better off. The trouble, of course, is that we can't.

The "superpower" concept has always confused our standing among nations with our power to make the world behave as we wish. By the first measure, the United States indisputably reigns supreme. We have more cruise missiles, stealth fighters, personal computers and McDonald's than anyone else. But these indicators of military might and economic well-being do not automatically enable us to cause others to conform to our bidding. This crucial distinction has been forgotten in many dreamy discussions of the post-cold-war world.

It certainly was forgotten in Kosovo, where we are witness to a humanitarian tragedy that--however the war ends--we didn't prevent. In that sense, the war has already been lost, even if Slobodan Milosevic ultimately withdraws his troops and most Albanian refugees return home. You can debate the causes of this defeat: whether it stemmed from inept U.S. and NATO leadership--the refusal to deploy or threaten the use of ground troops; or whether it was inevitable, because no threat would have deterred Milosevic. One way or another, the defeat remains.

Guns, though, are clearly not America's preferred instrument for redesigning the world. Our weapons of choice are economics and ideas. We hope that other countries will adopt the "American model." By this, we mean that the pursuit of prosperity will lead them toward freer markets (the best path to prosperity) and that freer markets will, in turn, inspire freer societies. Growing middle classes will demand democracy and personal freedoms. And free markets won't flourish without political freedom.

Interestingly, both the general public and large parts of America's foreign-policy elite subscribe to these assumptions. Here, for example, is how Winston Lord--former ambassador to China and former head of the Council on Foreign Relations--recently assessed China's prospects: "China will either become freer and richer or more repressive and poorer. It will not become more repressive and richer."

The ultimate benefit of America's global vision (we believe) is that it fosters peace. Countries that are economically interdependent may argue over, say, trade barriers or banking regulations--but they don't shoot at each other. Prosperous and democratic electorates discourage that. They're too content, and there's too much to lose.

What's wrong with this vision is that it's neither inevitable or self- fulfilling. The lesson of Kosovo is that many conflicts--big and small--exist outside its reassuring framework. Hatreds endure, nationalism survives and poverty rules. We have overestimated our ability to export the U. …

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