The world begins 2002 in a situation without precedent in human history. A single nation, the United States, enjoys unrivaled military and economic power, and can impose itself virtually anywhere it wants.
Even without nuclear weapons, the United States could destroy the military forces of any other nation on earth. If it should so choose, it could impose complete social and economic breakdown on almost any other state.
Its own weapons are mostly invulnerable, deployed under and above the oceans, or in hardened sites inside the United States. The nation's cities, if Washington's current ambitions are gratified, are to be defended by anti-missile systems.
It seems to many Americans and others that the United States is already potentially head of a modern version of universal empire, even of a willing empire whose members are volunteers.
Western civilization has always been influenced by the idea of a universal empire that would be the earthly counterpart of the spiritual imperium of God. This was not an ambition in most other civilizations. China and Japan, for example, held themselves to be surrounded by lesser peoples incapable either of challenging them or of successfully imitating them.
The West always took for granted that it provided the universal norm, and that the rest of the world would eventually have to conform to Western standards and beliefs. Its conviction of superiority began in religion, in which both Jews and Christians claimed exclusive truth, and was translated into secular terms during the Enlightenment.
The West asserted that its new ideas about human rights, individual freedom and (in America's formulation) the individual pursuit of happiness were valid for all the rest of the world.
In recent years, even the Americanization of global popular culture has seemed to many to presage a coming Americanization of global political and economic values. Americans themselves have always believed that American society represents what is best and most advanced. Hence the common, though mistaken, American notion that other peoples "hate America" because they envy it.
The country has nonetheless changed from the America of "the good war," which became the America of the early Cold War, when the best in American society were engaged in shaping a revitalized Europe and a new Atlanticism.
The most important recent change has been the elevation of the role of money in determining how America is governed. This was never small, but acquired a new dimension with the Supreme Court ruling that declared money spent to elect candidates and promote private and commercial interests in Washington is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. That changed a representative republic into a plutocracy.
The fundamental issue of the next two to three decades will inevitably be how the United States employs the amazing power it now exercises. Before Sept. 11, the country was already close to a universality of influence and even domination of international society that no previous empire ever possessed. It lacked the political will to impose itself. Sept. 11 supplied that will.
Intrinsic to the quality of an empire is whether it is imposed culturally, as well as militarily and economically. If it is to succeed, acquiescence, if not conversion, is required on the part of the elites who are potential citizens of the empire.
Successful past empires all shaped history through their cultural power. The Western empires of the past were slight in scale and absolute power by comparison with the United States. However, their former colonial possessions are what they are today because of the cultural impact of Western imperialism - clearest in exactly those places where the colonizers were violently expelled in the name of Westernized ideas of human rights and national independence.
By contrast, the Soviet empire collapsed in a flash at the end of the 1980s, leaving behind hatred of Russia and virtually no positive cultural legacy. The Soviet empire had rested on power, and on nothing else.
The question now is whether the new world order will rest only on American power, or whether the United States will possess the intellectual and cultural dynamism to evoke a real conversion of values.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune