The sole remaining superpower acts unilaterally because it can get away with it. Europe, via Britain, must respondby RW Johnson / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
The puzzle persists: why is the world not “ganging up” against “the last remaining superpower?” wrote Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, in June last year. History and theory alike, he claimed, showed that the international system abhors imbalance, that “great power will spawn counter-power.” When the Soviet collapse ended the cold war, the US-led coalition assembled to oppose the Soviet bloc should have broken up and a new alignment of power to balance the US should have emerged. Joffe argued that one reason this did not happen was that the US did not use its power to dominate territory in the traditional way, rather it relied heavily on “soft power,” its ubiquitously popular culture and technology. European intellectuals resented this and tried in various ways to suggest that the US was socially, morally and culturally retrograde, argued Joffe, but real balancing was left to three relatively minor arenas-Russian and Chinese attempts to maintain and build a military challenge, Europe’s implicit balancing through its rapid reaction force and a terrorist threat from Bin Laden and a few rogue Arab states.
For the US itself, the removal of the USSR and Warsaw Pact from the scene had such congenial results that it was difficult to see what policy could beat doing nothing. The US turned inward, acting-as Henry Kissinger lamented-as if it “needed no long-range foreign policy at all and could confine itself to a case-by-case response to challenges as they arise.” Kissinger pointed out that not only did opinion polls show American interest in foreign affairs at an all-time low, but that the 2000 presidential election “was the third in a row in which foreign policy was not seriously discussed by the candidates.” Such isolationist complacency clearly belongs, after 11th September, to a bygone age. But can we now see the outlines of the new political universe we seem to have entered? And if so, what are its characteristics?
The UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in August last year was the last great international gathering held before 11th September. Attending the conference made you feel that Joffe had missed that the real counter-attack on the US was cultural rather than military, and came not from Europe but from the third world, with Muslims leading the charge. At Durban, 155 governments were represented and many times more NGOs and it was clear from the outset that there…