With American casualties in Iraq passing 1,000, and regions of the country descending into more destructive violence, the limits of U.S. military power are on display. The Bush administration's scramble to strike repeated compromises in Iraq, and its failure to achieve stability there, raise fundamental questions about the limits of American power.
Since the end of the cold war, the image of the United States as imperial hyperpower in a unipolar world has enjoyed wide currency. In fact, it's a myth that needs re-examination if we want to build a more realistic understanding of world power in a globalized era.
There never was a unipolar world. The "unipolar moment" that commentators saw when the cold war ended was pretty much that - a hallucinatory moment in history. And describing the United States as the world's first "hyperpower" was little more than French hyperbole. These terms should be retired. Other possible descriptions such as "indispensable power" or "leader of the democratic world" might instead be re-examined to serve as credible definitions of America's status in the world today.
There is a huge gap between America's military capacity and its actual ability to bend events according to its wish. America's installed capacity as the sole superpower at the end of the cold war was, and remains, beyond dispute. A $11 trillion economy that facilitates enormous technological prowess and a defense budget that exceeds the combined total of the next 25 powers should leave no doubt about the potential of the United States.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it recently, "Preponderance should not be confused with omnipotence." It has been obvious since the later stages of the Vietnam War that overwhelming firepower is not enough for victory. Though the American death toll was significantly lower than the Vietnamese (58,000 versus 3 million), the superpower was unable to avoid defeat; media coverage of the devastating happenings eventually undermined credibility both at home and abroad.
The war in Iraq and its chaotic aftermath, however, highlight the basic unipolarist misconception that sophisticated military and economic power are sufficient to subdue any adversary.
The United States possesses by far the largest pile of sophisticated weaponry on earth, yet its conventional military power is severely stretched in fighting one and a quarter wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Further, its nuclear edge is tempered by the other nations - including China, India and Russia, which have large, conventional forces and demographic depth - that have the means to respond with substantial nuclear retaliation. Even tiny North Korea, with maybe a half-dozen bombs, has become hard to tackle.
The "war on terrorism," for its part, is far more complex than a massive deployment of men and munitions against a clearly perceived enemy-state or coalition of states. In this war, terrorism is not the enemy; it is a battle tactic used by an elusive, globally dispersed, well-funded enemy. Building a worldwide coalition of allies to fight such an enemy is not a policy choice. It is the only option in a war without conventional battlefields.
The formidable superiority of U.S. economic power is also under threat. The rapidly ballooning expense of the Iraq war is increasing budget deficits that were already huge. This is also intensifying a gathering U.S. fiscal crisis of growing debt, now financed by foreign capital. Thanks to persistently large current account deficits, the United States last year borrowed from abroad at an unprecedented rate of $4 billion a day.
Asian, European and Middle Eastern lenders are buying what they see as dollar assets. But if the dollar's value keeps declining, as it has by 30 percent over 2002 and 2003, foreign investors will need higher returns by way of interest rate increases. Or, if push comes to shove in U.S. economic prospects, they might move to another currency; the euro, for instance, holds the potential eventually to replace the dollar as the world's reserve currency. This is to say nothing of the influence that large creditor nations might have over U.S. foreign and trade policymaking.
At the end of the cold war, the world indeed seemed unipolar. At the time, it was assumed that the United States could act without significant cooperation or approval from other states to tackle international problems or resolve crises. In this world, no state or combination of states would be able to stop it from doing so.
Today, we are by no means in a multipolar world, one in which a coalition of major powers, acting consensually, would be invariably necessary to resolve international crises. But it is clearly not a world in which America can act unilaterally to resolve crises or wage simultaneous wars - including pre-emptive ones - without being constrained by limited resources and reach.
In that fictional world, the sole superpower might be tempted to act as if others didn't matter, while regional powers would strive toward multipolarity. But the world can be stable only to the extent that these conflicting tendencies can be balanced.
The United States today, even with its travails in Iraq, remains much more than the world's dominant power. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once asserted, America is still the world's "indispensable power." It can create avoidable crises by plunging into poorly planned wars of choice, as in Iraq; or it can intervene as a coalition head to create relatively benign outcomes, as in the first Gulf war. But it would be hard to resolve a major world crisis without the active help of the United States.
In other words, America continues to occupy the world's leadership position. But it's a board chairman's job, requiring persuasion, the creation of consensus and discreet flexing of power, as well as popular acceptance. Its tasks cannot be performed by a lone maverick. If the United States wants to reassert itself as a widely accepted, and respected, leader of the democratic world, it will have to carry the world with it. Its efforts will fail if it continues to believe it can wield unilateral power indefinitely in a unipolar world.
Gautam Adhikari is a former executive editor of The Times of India.
Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online, (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu) a publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
Copyright © 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization