For those who judge power by the size of military arsenals, the question whether the United States is still a superpower will come as a surprise. Over the past four years, America has spent almost a thousand billion dollars on defense, and its military strength, which has always placed it in the top bracket of the international list, has grown commensurately. The United States today is militarily stronger than for many years when there was no question of its status as one -- if not the only -- of the superpowers of the modern world.

So why should there be doubt over America's superpower status? The answer is that it takes more than military strength to qualify for that position. What distinguishes a superpower from all the other actors on the international stage is its willingness and ability to design and maintain a framework of international order that not only serves its own interests but also accommodates the interests of the large majority of weaker countries. It is the commitment not only to its own well-being, but to that of the international community as a whole.

In this respect, the Soviet Union has never been a superpower -- and is unlikely ever to become one. It is true that the Soviets have long harbored the dream of a world shaped in their own ideological image -- but this is less a blueprint for international order than a wholly unrealistic vision of a "socialist paradise." In practical terms, the Soviet Union has no concept of international order and has done nothing to develop such a concept. It has, instead, concentrated on shoring up its empire against outside influence and on demanding, from its neighbors as well as all others, respect based on its size and power.

There was a time when the United States was a superpower in the true sense: confident not only in its strength but also in its ability to build, together with others, a world of shared duties and rights, and to be ready to carry the major burden in this enterprise. None of the international organizations that exist today would have been created without this American readiness -- from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund, from the World Bank to the International Energy Agency.

But, judging by the mood in the United States today, these days are long gone. America's development aid to countries other than those judged of strategic interest in the Middle East and Central America has shrunk rapidly; a few weeks ago, David Rockefeller rightly called it "a pretty shabby performance."

High federal budget deficits are maintained without the slightest concerns for the effects either on the developing countries of the world or on America's more affluent partners. To the poor of the world, Washington preaches the virtues of the market economy, which is supposed to improve their lot and to combat the pressures of population growth.

In the United Nations, the administration has displayed little understanding for the legitimate diversity of international society and instead has preferred to take a hectoring stance of "them and us." After the president's dismissive remarks a year ago in connection with the possible change of the site for the U.N. headquarters -- "we aren't asking anyone to leave but if they choose to leave, goodbye" -- can anyone assume that, were the United Nations set up today, America would have both the generosity and the commitment to invite the organization to New York?

The sad truth is that America has given up the traditions it established after World War II, apparently not only without regrets but with a sigh of relief. Rather than accepting the challenge of formulating an international order that promises cooperation and stability for the 1990s, America prefers to pursue its own interests alone. It is no longer a producer of international order but -- in this respect, not dissimilar to the other military superpower -- a consumer.

As a European, one cannot, of course, point the finger accusingly at the United States alone for this sad state of affairs. It was probably always too much to expect that America could on its own maintain the spirit and the structures of internationalism, that it could generate the necessary generosity and the confidence without strong support from its major Western partners and friends.

In fact, the decline of internationalism is as much to blame on American nationalism as on European provincialism: Europeans have absorbed their energies in quarreling with each other over narrow national advantages rather than providing, for an internationally minded America, a supportive partner. The people and governments of Western Europe who often find it so convenient to blame America, have enough reason for blaming themselves.

But that does not remove the sadness. We once had the chance, when the United States was combining strength with generosity, of building a world in which might did not impose right alone. We are now back in one where the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must, where superpower, once again, is a measure of military strength alone.

It is true that the strong and the rich nations will cope much better in such a world than the weak and poor. But it would be comforting if Americans, rather than embracing with apparent relief the return to earlier periods of international Darwinism, had at least a tinge of regret and, perhaps, a bad conscience as well.