Is the United States still a superpower? This is a facile question inviting a polemical response. However, it deserves an answer.
What is a superpower? Obviously a country which possesses surpassing material, industrial and military resources -- as does the U.S. One which believes that its own society is a model for others. Americans have that belief. However, the operative element in being a superpower is the willingness and ability to use power to impose a certain order on the international scene, together with a willingness to pay the costs of doing so.
The United States possessed that quality in the past. It paid for Europe's postwar reconstruction and to build a global alliance against the Soviet Union. It went to war, reluctantly but resolutely, in Korea and Vietnam. Public and government opinion were fundamentally united on what had to be done, and on paying the costs.
Even when popular opinion turned against the Vietnam War, doubt chiefly concerned the realism and attainability of what the United States wanted to do, rather than the rightness of its goals.
Does the country today still have the will to lead? Perhaps more to the point, will it still pay the price of leadership? These questions are being asked abroad. The conservative press in Britain and France say America's nerve has cracked, faced with Saddam Hussein's intransigence. The Israeli press speaks of a ''Munich'' if the U.S. does not go to war with Iraq.
These critics cite polls which show that the American public is reluctant to follow Mr. Bush into an Iraqi war. They note congressional and press criticism of the president's policies.
They see a larger failure of superpower will in the fact that the U.S. government asks others to pay for a Persian Gulf intervention unilaterally decided by Washington. Superpowers are supposed to pay their own way. They question the unilateralism of American policy making -- the fact that new talks with Baghdad were decided without a word to the allies. (That could as well be taken as evidence of superpower arrogance as of decline.)
The critics find further indication of America's unwillingness to support a superpower role in the apparently unbreakable stalemate between Congress and the Bush administration over fiscal and budget measures suited to sustain American world economic leadership. The failure of last week's GATT talks on tariff reductions -- a failure for which the U.S. was in part responsible -- will contribute to the protectionism and unilateralism that are already important factors in U.S. trade policy.
The president's policy in the gulf began with superpower panache and ambition, as if the United States would and could impose its will on anyone -- certainly on Saddam Hussein. The American public largely supported Mr. Bush until the decision, in late November, to reinforce the American expeditionary force in the gulf by another 200,000 troops. That suddenly made war not only a plausible option but, it seemed to many, the probable one.
Since then public and congressional support for what Mr. Bush is doing has declined. The situation is fluid, but if Iraq remains obdurate, Jan. 15 is the date when Mr. Bush prospectively confronts not only Baghdad's army but a crisis of U.S. domestic opinion.
The peculiarity of Mr. Bush's conduct has been to escalate goals and promises beyond the essential, creating a situation in which any outcome short of Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's overthrow and elimination if Iraq's capacity to produce mass-destruction weapons could be interpreted as U.S. defeat. Even an Arab-brokered settlement short of America's proclaimed goals could prove a form of defeat.
The reluctance of the public to support Mr. Bush's present course is interpreted by critics as evidence of a popular unwillingness to bear the responsibilities of leadership. It might equally be explained as a reasonable response to facts. This is a point the critics are unwilling to concede. Blind combativeness is not a necessary criterion for superpower rank. Public intelligence is not automatically equivalent to faltering superpower nerve.
Power in sufficient quantity is enough to make a superpower, if a country is willing to use that power. A country equally can have great power and not use it, as with Japan today. It can possess power and be prevented from using it because of internal divisions of opinion. This is what critics say about the U.S. today. The challenge surely is to use power well, in a way that commands popular support in one's own country as well as respect abroad.
It is not unreasonable today to question whether the American public really wants to pay for the world role it assigns itself. But one explanation for that may be the national leadership's failure to define a policy -- a superpower role -- able to command public support. Sound policies unify public opinion. Mr. Bush had no problem with public support for sanctions against Iraq or defense of Saudi Arabia. It's war that gave people pause. That's not an unreasonable reaction; it's a perfectly sensible one, even in a superpower.