By any standard measure, the United States is currently the most powerful country in the history of the world. Its defense budget of US$440 billion in 2007 (US$560 billion if one includes the budgets for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) is greater than the combined military expenditure of the rest of the world. In 2003 the International Institute for Strategic Studies calculated that the US defense budget was greater than the combined budgets of the next 13 countries and more than double the combination of the remaining 158 countries. Potential challengers cannot even begin to rival this power. The European Union can compete with the United States in terms of population and GNP, but it does not have the will or the institutional ability to act in concert on foreign or security initiatives. Russia, which until relatively recently was considered the closest challenger, retains vast armies but lags dramatically in military spending and technological development. The United States even outspends China, the nation most often mentioned as a challenger, by about seven to one. China is a formidable economic powerhouse, but only spends 3.9 percent of its GDP on defense, whereas it would have to spend about 25 percent to begin to rival the United States.
Yet in spite of this extraordinary and quite unprecedented preeminence, the United States has been unable to impose its will on the impoverished state of Afghanistan, on the sectarian chaos that is Iraq, or even on an organization, Al Qaeda, which is led by a few men believed to be hiding in caves in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. What does it say about traditional conceptions of the balance of power when the most powerful country on the planet cannot effectively apply its power to achieve its objectives?
The inability of the United States to achieve its security objectives is not due to the fact that other countries have balanced or "bandwagoned" against it, as traditional conceptions of a balance of power mechanism would have claimed. On the contrary, most of our would-be rivals share the United States' desire to destroy Al Qaeda, have supported its efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, and have acquiesced, albeit reluctantly, to its operations in Iraq. Indeed the United States has failed to achieve its security objectives because it has failed to appreciate the nature of the adversaries it faces and because of its inability to transform its military might into an effective arsenal against these adversaries.
Military Strength Misapplied
On September 11, 2001, a small substate group inflicted greater casualties on US civilians than any enemy government had ever inflicted on the United States before. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,403 servicemen and 68 civilians, and vastly more US citizens were killed by fellow countrymen in the course of the Civil War, but an attack from an enemy state of this scale was simply unprecedented. In the words of President George W. Bush, "September 11 changed our world." Vice President Dick Cheney was more specific, commenting on NBC News that "9/11 changed everything. It changed the way we think about threats to the United States. It changed our recognition of our vulnerabilities. It changed in terms of the kind of national security strategy we need to pursue, in terms of guaranteeing the safety and security of the American people."
The US government nevertheless responded in an entirely traditional way: it declared war. However, rather than declaring war on an enemy state, it declared war first on the tactic of terrorism and later, and even less sensibly, on the emotion of terror. As a practical matter, however, it waged a conventional war--first against Afghanistan, whose government had harbored the terrorists who committed the attacks on New York and Washington, and later against Iraq, whose government had no connection to these same attacks. Its overwhelming military force brought down both governments in short order and with little cost in terms of US lives. …