WASHINGTON — In his book ''In Search of History'' the late, great, American chronicler Theodore H. White wrote about what happened in Tokyo Bay in 1945 aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
Japanese officials approached a table to sign documents of surrender, ending World War II. The overcast skies began clearing. Then there was a hum, then a thrum, then a roar. Four hundred American B-29s, coming from Guam and Saipan, flew low overhead. They were joined by 1,500 planes from the fleet, darkening the sun.
The incredible fly-by was designed to remind the Japanese who was boss. In the bay, White saw a massive naval armada.
White believed that the Pacific had become an American lake. He said American power and influence was at its zenith. The United States was the world's premier power. Later on, after Vietnam, Teddy White (and many others) thought American influence had waned. Maybe so. And maybe not.
Now, in another time, at another place, the sun, and this time the stars too, are again blotted out as American planes roar through the sky. Another remarkable naval armada has been assembled.
By showing intellectual rigor along with military virtuosity, Kuwait can be restored, hopefully sooner, but possibly later, without high-casualty ground action. Air war and sanctions are complementary, not in opposition. Such a low-casualty result would save American lives. It would yield greater domestic political support for future assertiveness. That provides more international credibility to keep dictators from breaking the crockery. All that works in the service of a new, more peaceful world order.
With so much now in motion, the old geopolitical speculation should be raised again, as Teddy White and so many others have raised it: Is there a greatest nation of them all?
It is not a speculation of vanity, or gloating. It is a part of the games that nations play, a tradition going back to antiquity. It is a way to try to understand how the world works.
The world doesn't work in the old way. In 1945, just over the horizon from Tokyo Bay, was the Soviet Union, a massive military and ideological competitor. But today the Soviets are writhing in internal agony, and gone as a global power. Only America is now a big-league player.
In the first shared experience of the Cable Age, the human race is seeing, in real time, that America is the pre-eminent military and political power. But there is much more. A global language is emerging: American, or, if you prefer the archaic term, English. America owns the universal culture -- movies, television, VCRs, music. Our universities are the world's best; we win the Nobel Prizes. Immigrants from everywhere flock to America.
Despite our problems, which are real, we have the world's highest standard of living, and the biggest gross national product. We're the biggest importers, and the biggest exporters, the biggest debtor, the biggest investor -- and on and on.
The events in the Gulf should wean us from the dangerous, narcotic incantation: ''America is in decline.'' It is not true. It is a way of bugging out. Asserting that we're not Number One means that we don't have to act like Number One.
I think America-as-Number-One is good for America and good for the world. Others think otherwise. But what we ought to think about -- forgetting the good or bad for a moment -- is this: It is so. We are, for now, by far, the most influential and powerful nation in the world. We may well be the most influential nation in history.
As the rubble settles in Iraq, as a new world order forms, we should think about what we want to do with that influence. If anything.
*Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''