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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

A second American century?

The U.S. stands supreme. The struggle to overthrow it is the story of tomorrow

By Charles Krauthammer


December 20, 1999
Web posted at: 1:17 p.m. EST (1817 GMT)

Last week's handover of the Panama Canal neatly brackets the American Century. It begins with Theodore Roosevelt conceiving the canal and, with it, America ascending to the rank of Great Power. It ends with America so great a power, so serenely dominant in the world, that it can give away T.R.'s strategic jewel with hardly a notice.

But if the 20th century was the American century, the 1990s--bracketed by demonstrations of overwhelming American power in Kuwait and Kosovo--were the supreme American decade. How supreme? No other nation has exercised such military, economic, diplomatic and cultural reach since Rome. And Rome's world was little more than the Mediterranean.

The American triumph in the '90s came as a rude surprise to some. Only a decade ago, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers ushered in the conventional wisdom that America, suffering from "imperial overstretch," was in decline. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it was assumed that the world would go from cold war bipolarity to multipolarity. After all, was not Japan flourishing, Europe unifying, China rising?

Remember that late-'80s joke: The U.S. and Russia waged a cold war for half a century. Who won? Japan.

Well, it did not turn out quite that way. Japan went into economic decline. The U.S.S.R., then Russia, collapsed. Europe entered a decade of economic stagnation and diplomatic fecklessness (as displayed in the Balkans until the U.S. cavalry arrived). And China, though rising, remains decades away from being able to pose a global challenge to the U.S.

As everyone now recognizes, the world at the turn of the 21st century is not multipolar but unipolar. America bestrides the world like a colossus. Such hegemony is rare in history because coalitions of rival powers invariably rise to challenge and cut down the big guy. Two centuries ago, Russia, Prussia, Britain and Austria rallied together to defeat Napoleonic France's bid for European hegemony. The miracle of the '90s has been the dog that didn't bark: Where is the opposition, where are the coalitions of second-rank states rising to challenge Pax Americana?

The main reason for the absence of a serious challenge to American hegemony is that it is so benign. It does not extract tribute. It does not seek military occupation. It is not interested in acquiring territory--indeed, it specializes in giving it up, as shown in the Philippines and Panama. Economically, the world has prospered under the open trading system the U.S. supports. And culturally, America is a hit. Arnold is a universal icon. Latvians like their Levi's. And everyone loves McDonald's.

Well, not everyone, and there's the rub. Americans, happy in their getting and spending, are largely oblivious to their massive world influence. But others are not, particularly foreign elites. Some chafe, like the French Minister of Culture who called Disneyland Paris a cultural Chernobyl. Some rant, like the Malaysian Prime Minister who rose at the U.N. in September to denounce "the true ugliness of Western capitalism...backed by the military might of capitalism's greatest proponent."

And some are quietly assembling the building blocks of the coming world opposition. Two events in the closing weeks of the 20th century give a hint of the new world to come in the 21st. On Dec. 9, Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin bear-hugged in Beijing, then issued a communique noting "negative" world trends including "the forcing of the international community to accept a unipolar world pattern and a single model of culture, value concepts and ideology." The very next day, the European Union announced the establishment of a "rapid reaction force" of 60,000 to be controlled by Europe alone. Just a complement to NATO, they said. But no one believes that. It is the seed of a European army--independent of the U.S.

True, there is no guarantee that any Sino-Russian alliance will last. Nor that Europe will have the political will to boost defense spending and sustain a true rival to the American military. And, of course, none have the power to challenge America now. The unipolar moment will surely last for at least a generation. But the opening chapter in the history of the 21st century has just been written. The world is stirring.

America cannot defy all the laws of history at once. We have somehow managed to defy the laws of economics, enjoying low employment, low inflation and rapid growth all at the same time. We have reversed the trajectory of social decay, with unexplained and unpredicted declines in such indexes of social pathology as crime, dependency and even teen pregnancy.

But the laws of international politics cannot be defied forever. Not since Rome destroyed Carthage has a great power risen to the heights we have. And not since then has any country bidding for hegemony been able to avoid creating, simply by dint of its own power, a serious and concerted coalition of opposition.

History has not ended; it only looks that way. The great struggle of the 21st century--to dethrone America--has already begun.


Cover Date: December 27, 1999

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