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#19 - JRL 7011
January 10, 2003
America Could Lose Its Superpower Status
A View From Washington
by Nikolai Zlobin,
Director of Russian and Asian Programs at the Center for Defense Information

In summing up the past year, we need to take note of how many important changes that seemed inevitable did not actually occur. First, it proved impossible for the world's major powers to unite within a framework of an anti-terrorist coalition. It would seem that a common enemy should have brought everyone together but, on the contrary, relations between the world's leading centers of power are far from harmonious. Last year witnessed growing European dissatisfaction over the fact that Washington pays more attention to engaging Russia and China rather than appeasing its European allies. The jealousy-stricken Europeans, in turn, have repaid their overseas brethren with an explosion of anti-Americanism and compared Bush to Hitler.

Second, there were no fundamental changes in relations between the rich North and the poor South, between the post-industrial West and the oil-reliant East - changes that all the world leaders talked about in the wake of September 11. And the embers of regional ethnic and religious conflicts are glowing ever hotter.

Third, despite the attempts of numerous countries, weapons of mass destruction and the technology for their creation is beyond control today to an even greater extent than a year ago. The recent nuclear confessions of North Korea, its expulsion of international observers, as well as the months-long negotiations with Iraq to accept UN inspectors all demonstrated the vulnerability of the current system of international control in that area.

Forth, regardless of place of residence - in Washington, Moscow, Tokyo or Buenos Aires - we all felt, as evidenced by our pockets and bank accounts that the world economy was unable to come out of its recession.

Fifth, the world's superpower - the United States - strengthened the element of unilateralism in its policies. None of the hopes or calculations for an internationalization of Washington's approach to global affairs proved true. Moreover, it seems that more and more Americans lean to the view that the US national security strategy is not attainable through internationalizing the country's policies or by hunting terrorists around the world, but by limiting its involvement in the international process and by creating various defense barriers around the country's borders.

The US has a long history of fencing itself off from problems in other parts of the world, and has had a successful experience as a regime of self-imposed isolation. With the exception of the Iraq question, actively being touted by the White House, the general picture currently being formed is that Americans have decided to focus their attention mainly on ensuring the safety of their own interests and territory. This is an extremely dangerous tendency. If the world's only superpower begins to systematically decrease its role and responsibility in world affairs, the situation threatens to have catastrophic consequences in the future.

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, a significant portion of the American ruling elite were convinced of the necessity of a strategic pause, a breather of sorts, which the US, in their opinion, could at that time afford. The absence of a major opponent, the laurels of victory, and the illusion that America's foes simply wouldn't notice a Washington time-out on the world scene, formed a certain euphoria within the US elite, a geopolitical slackening. Of course, America continued to be an active country, but each manifestation of its activity during that period, be it in Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti or Panama, was not a part of some overarching strategic plan, and possessed an ad hoc, subjective character. Bush's current Iraqi odyssey seems to have the same characteristics.

US defense spending has fallen dramatically in the past 10 years and even now, when the White House administration undertook an unprecedented spending increase, the share of military expenditures in the country's budget is almost half of what it used to be twenty years ago. Moreover, in the majority of cases, attacks against US interests - from Lybia in 1983 to Yemen in 2000 - resulted only in he US movement of forces to the region, without carrying out a retaliatory response. This, as became apparent later, only strengthened the conviction of America's enemies that the world's sole superpower can be influenced by terrorist methods. All this directly led to the tragedy of September 11.

It must be acknowledged that the nature of international terrorism facilitates unilateral responses. While terrorists present a threat to the entire world, they attack specific countries. Governments who have been subjected to a terrorist attack, as a rule, immediately take a much harsher stance toward terrorists, while countries who have not become targets prefer a softer, partly philosophically-observant role, even an academic one. That's why, for instance, France, Russia, Israel and England never attain a general approval of their struggle, and were forced to develop their own anti-terrorist strategy. America took that path only recently, but has already weathered harsh criticism for its unilateralism.

Washington bears part of the guilt for this. The proponents of a strategic "breather", who worked under the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations, simply ignored an old law - a superpower must constantly, without breathers and pauses, increase its leading role and activity in the world, or risk quickly losing its status. The graveyard of former world giants is filled with victims of that mistake. One cannot sing praise to the status-quo and rest on the laurels of victory, no matter how large the gap from the rest seems at the time. The whole world competes against a great power, whether voluntarily or not. Its allies dream of taking her place. Its opponents use every occasion to throw down the gauntlet. In the 1990s America made a strategic mistake and, truth be told, led its opponents to greater activity. If George Bush doesn't form the world order, attracting, say, Blair or Putin in the process, than that role could be taken by Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or someone else from that crowd.

America in the 20th century has fully proven its devotion to collective actions. Everything that forms the basis of today's world order - from the UN to the IMF, from GATT to the WTO, bears the stamp "Made in USA". But the war on terrorism, which the US had ignored for so long, caught the American elite napping. The famous Russian principle "maybe it'll blow over" did not work for America. Today the US is only beginning to awake from its slumber, and, in essence, facing a choice: to begin behaving itself as a superpower, with all the consequent difficulties and expenses, or build an anti-missile defense, limit visa allowances to the minimum, bottle itself up within its boundaries and observe everything with they eyes of a snake-pit visitor.

The past year must be given its due. Although much did not happen, a global catastrophe did not occur, and a world war did not begin. Was it only a breather before the maelstrom of 2003? On New Year's eve, many Americans followed tradition and crossed their fingers, hoping for a safe future.

Translated by Seva Gunitskiy

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