America will be tested by its own power this century

January 17, 2000|By Robert E. Hunter

THE tides of history pay little heed to the calendar, and certainly not to the accident of years that end in zeros.

In global politics, what we called the 20th century has been over for more than a decade and was only 75 years long. For the northern hemisphere, which still dominates the globe, the 19th century ended in August 1914, when 99 years of relative comity on the continent after the Napoleonic wars was shattered by what became the great European civil war. The end of that civil war was signaled by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Since then, we have sought, unsuccessfully, to make sense of the post-Cold War era. In the abbreviated 20th century, the struggles caused in major part by the industrial revolution and the political awakening started by our own "shot heard around the world" were, if not resolved, at least attenuated.

All the great European empires came to an end -- the newest, the Soviet, being the last to crumble. Two radical ideologies -- fascism and communism -- each asserted their monopoly in answering the great economic and social questions posed by the disruptions of the 19th century.

Both failed totally, the first in history's most destructive war, the second -- while lingering on in parts of East Asia and one Caribbean island -- being eaten from within.

The victor was a third potent ideology, liberal capitalism; and the country that gained most in power, wealth and stature was that ideology's primary proponent, the United States.

Since the European civil war has drifted into history -- with a few remaining skirmishes, as in the Balkans -- the world's last great power has been trying to make sense of its future in the world.

The United States finds itself with no serious natural enemies that pose direct threats to the homeland. It possesses more potential power -- military, economic, political and even cultural -- than has been vested in any one nation for centuries.

But it also has learned that there will be no single, unifying set of concepts to provide clarity and consistency, as seemed to be true during the Cold War.

With America's ascendancy, old debates about retreat are out of place, as U.S. political, economic, strategic and cultural engagement abroad consign "isolationism" to the realm of nostalgia. Other debates must take its place:

Whether the United States should seek militarily to outdistance all other countries, to forestall all challenges to its supremacy; the extent to which we should pursue our goals abroad by ourselves or with others -- a debate that is rapidly being resolved in favor of the latter course.

How much risk to accept from possible threats posed by terrorism or mass destruction weapons, as opposed to imposing new security controls at home and building a national missile defense; what role to play in parts of the world where the "balance of power" is still relevant (e.g., the Indian subcontinent) and how to come to terms with the rise of other ambitious states (China).

How much responsibility should the United States take in helping make peace and to advance human rights, and where to do so; how much to invest abroad in America's values -- especially the export of our most precious product, democracy -- and how to come to terms with competing values: secular, cultural and religious.

Whether our interests and values dictate that we reverse the decline in assistance to peoples left even farther behind in the rich countries' new digital age; and what weight to give to protecting the environment in contrast to sustaining an unrestrained climate for capitalism -- the 21st century analogues of the debate about production versus distribution; what to start doing, now, to shape a world that will be congenial to us when we are no longer the practical "hegemonist."

Since the passing of the Cold War, the United States has had thrust upon it the mighty responsibility of sole great power. But it has hardly begun to debate these and other critical matters.

Some useful work has been done in recent years -- liberalization of global trade, NATO's renaissance, Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the accent on democracy and human rights.

However, most of the work of building for the future, especially for a time when U.S. power is challenged, has barely started.

For a decade, we have enjoyed a "peace dividend" that permitted relative indifference to what is happening around us. But the next U.S. administration will have no such luxury, as it must begin confronting the daunting issues posed above.

And it must be totally committed to working with others, in terms of attitudes, practices, relationships and institutions. This work is vital to create a lasting basis for confronting successfully the great political, economic and social forces that will roil the post-industrial world as surely as 18th and 19th century revolutions convulsed the era just past.

Robert E. Hunter is a senior advisor at the Rand Corp.

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