Still the Colossus
The striking thing about the present international situation is the degree to which America remains what Bill Clinton once called "the indispensable nation." Despite global opinion polls registering broad hostility to George W. Bush's United States, the behavior of governments and political leaders suggests America's position in the world is not all that different from what it was before Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.
The much-anticipated global effort to balance against American hegemony -- which the realists have been anticipating for more than 15 years now -- has simply not occurred. On the contrary, in Europe the idea has all but vanished. European Union defense budgets continue their steady decline, and even the project of creating a common foreign and defense policy has slowed if not stalled. Both trends are primarily the result of internal European politics. But if they really feared American power, Europeans would be taking more urgent steps to strengthen the European Union's hand to check it.
Nor are Europeans refusing to cooperate, even with an administration they allegedly despise. Western Europe will not be a strategic partner as it was during the Cold War, because Western Europeans no longer feel threatened and therefore do not seek American protection. Nevertheless, the current trend is toward closer cooperation. Germany's new government, while still dissenting from U.S. policy in Iraq, is working hard and ostentatiously to improve relations. It is bending over backward to show support for the mission in Afghanistan, most notably by continuing to supply a small but, in German terms, meaningful number of troops. It even trumpets its willingness to train Iraqi soldiers. Chancellor Angela Merkel promises to work closely with Washington on the question of the China arms embargo, indicating agreement with the American view that China is a potential strategic concern. For Eastern and Central Europe, the growing threat is Russia, not America, and the big question remains what it was in the 1990s: Who will be invited to join NATO?
In East Asia, meanwhile, U.S. relations with Japan grow ever closer as the Japanese become increasingly concerned about China and a nuclear-armed North Korea. China's (and Malaysia's) attempt to exclude Australia from a prominent regional role at the recent East Asian summit has reinforced Sydney's desire for closer ties. Only in South Korea does hostility to the United States remain high. This is mostly the product of the new democracy's understandable historical resentments and desire for greater independence. But even so, when I attended a conference in Seoul recently, the question posed to my panel by the South Korean organizers was: "How will the United States solve the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons?"
The truth is, America retains enormous advantages in the international arena. Its liberal, democratic ideology remains appealing in a world that is more democratic than ever. Its potent economy remains the driving wheel of the international economy. Compared with these powerful forces, the unpopularity of recent actions will prove ephemeral, just as it did after the nadir of American Cold War popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
There are also structural reasons why American indispensability can survive even the unpopularity of recent years. The political scientist William Wohlforth argued a decade ago that the American unipolar era is durable not because of any love for
the United States but because of the basic structure of the international system. The problem for any nation attempting to balance American power, even in that power's own region, is that long before it becomes strong enough to balance the United States, it may frighten its neighbors into balancing against it. Europe would be the exception to this rule were it increasing its power, but it is not. Both Russia and China face this problem as they attempt to exert greater influence even in their traditional spheres of influence.
It remains the case, too, that in many crises and potential crises around the world, local actors and traditional allies still look primarily
to Washington for solutions, not to Beijing, Moscow or even Brussels. The United States is the key player
in the Taiwan Strait. It would be the chief intermediary between India and Pakistan in any crisis. As for Iran, everyone on both sides of the Atlantic knows that, for all the efforts of British, French and German negotiators, any diplomatic or military resolution will ultimately depend on Washington.
Even in the Middle East, where hostility to the United States is highest, American influence remains remarkably high. Most still regard the United States as the indispensable player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Bush administration's push for democracy, though erratic and inconsistent, has unmistakably affected the course of events in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon -- never mind Iraq. Contrary to predictions at the time of the Iraq war, Arab hostility has not made it impossible for both leaders and their political opponents to cooperate with the United States.
This does not mean the United States has not suffered a relative decline in that intangible but important commodity: legitimacy. A combination of shifting geopolitical realities, difficult circumstances and some inept policy has certainly damaged America's standing in the world. Yet, despite everything, the American position in the world has not deteriorated as much as people think. America still "stands alone as the world's indispensable nation," as Clinton so humbly put it in 1997. It can resume an effective leadership role in the world in fairly short order, even during the present administration and certainly after the 2008 election, regardless of which party wins. That is a good thing, because given the growing dangers in the world, the intelligent and effective exercise of America's benevolent global hegemony is as important as ever.
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes a monthly column for The Post.