10 September 2006

The sole superpower

Anti-Americanism is on the rise in many parts of the world, notably among western Europeans (who ought to know better), and even some Americans are dismayed at how the US has wielded its unique power since the terrorist attack of September 11. To some extent, this is understandable. The spectacle of a single country -- especially when it isn't one's own -- holding such immense military superiority over all others is an intimidating one. During the Cold War, each of the two superpowers, by its very existence, exerted some restraint on the actions of the other; each also needed to heed world opinion to an extent, since that opinion carried some weight as a weapon in the struggle between the two rivals. Today, there are no such checks on the behavior of the US except insofar as it freely chooses to observe them. Russia still has a large nuclear arsenal, but is so outclassed by the US in every other way that it is unlikely ever to try to use that arsenal to deter us over any issue less vital than its own national survival (which the US has no interest in ever threatening anyway). No other country or institution has any plausible means of preventing the US from carrying out absolutely any action it chooses. We can't expect the rest of the world to feel entirely comfortable with this situation.

Nevertheless, to those who constantly criticize and bemoan the ways the US has used its power since it was so barbarically attacked five years ago, I would say: Get some perspective. What other country do you think would have behaved better, given such a monopoly of power? What other country would have behaved even equally well?

Here's a thought experiment. Try to imagine that the ending of the Cold War had gone the other way and that the United States had broken up and collapsed, leaving the Soviet Union as the world's sole superpower, with all the unrestrained freedom of action that implies. How do western Europeans imagine that they, or the rest of the world, would be faring today if that had happened?

I doubt that there would be Red Army troops occupying London and Paris. From the Soviet viewpoint it wouldn't be worth the effort. The Soviet ambassador in every capital city in the world would simply be a de facto imperial viceroy. The implicit penalty for disobedience on any but the most trivial issues would guarantee cooperation. Given the belligerence and irrationality of the Islamists, a few Middle Eastern capital cities might have to be Dresdenized before the remaining regimes got the idea. And overenthusiastic Soviet troops who improvised degrading abuses of captured enemies would be very unlikely to get hauled up in front of tribunals by their own government for doing so.

Such global domination might persist indefinitely. The Soviet regime, commanding the whole world's resources at prices of its own choosing, would finally be able to deliver a decent standard of living to its people, thus gaining domestic legitimacy. If the USSR became universally hated, that hatred would express itself only through words, not deeds, and even then only very quietly. Certainly there is no way the triumphant USSR would ever put up with the kind of obstructionism the French are always throwing at the US in the real world.

Would a world with the Soviet Union as its sole superpower really be that bad? If you're honest, I think you'll agree that it would be at least that bad.

It was probably inevitable that, sooner or later, some one country would end up dominating the planet. The critics and complainers should consider the alternate possibilities and be thankful that history's verdict turned out the way it did.

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