The Colossus With An Achilles Heel
Paul Kennedy is a professor of history at Yale and
author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and Preparing for the
New Haven, CT - At 8:45a.m. Tuesday, Sept.
11, 2001-and not the first day of the year 2000-America fully entered
the 21st century.
The millennial celebrations in New York's Times Square were mere ephemeral
acts. The devastation of the World Trade Center, only a few miles to the
south, was an epic, transforming event.
Twenty months ago the American public could rejoice in their nation's
good fortune, geographical location and material resources, technological
prowess and sheer military clout, all of which combined to make the United
States the most powerful and influential nation the world had known since
Imperial Rome, relative to other states. The Soviet Union had collapsed,
and its Russian successor was slowly imploding. The Japanese "challenge"
had evaporated. The world was embracing American-style capitalism, the
Internet, MTV and the expectations of Wall Street.
The 21st century, one rosy-tinted book had confidently asserted even a
decade earlier, "will be American." That confidence evaporated
amid the smoke plumes that arose from the damaged Pentagon and the collapsed
World Trade Towers. It is hardly likely to return in the near future,
No sooner had the news networks screened that amazing clip of the second
aircraft diving into the south building than Americans began to think
of Pearl Harbor, an earlier surprise attack upon this nation that shook
it out of its complacency and sense of innocence and security. But the
Pearl Harbor analogy is useful only to be held up in contrast.
Although Americans 60 years ago were shocked to their knees, the policy
response to that sneak attack was both obvious and feasible. The military
aircraft of another sovereign state, Japan, had struck the military aircraft
and warships of America. In response, the US launched a primarily military
campaign on land, sea and air to defeat its recognizable enemy; and since
the American GDP at that time was about 10 times that of Japan's, the
eventual outcome of this unequal conflict could be foreseen. An angry
and fully mobilized America smote its underhanded foe, and unconditional
victory was achieved. And this, of course, is what American citizens expect
will happen in response to the terrorist attacks. Stores and homes have
put up placards saying "Mr. President, Bomb Them NOW!" But it
is precisely here that the Pearl Harbor analogy peters out.
This time around America has not been struck by another state's military
aircraft but by its own, hijacked civilian planes-with devilish symbolism,
planes that belonged to American Airlines and United Airlines, the two
largest and best-known US carriers. The attacks were perpetrated by incredibly
well-organized terrorists who exploited America's strengths-its technology,
its open society, its easily accessible airlines, even its television
networks-to strike fear and sow confusion. And this enemy is shady, de-centralized,
not easily identifiable and certainly not very easy to destroy.
Defeating Japan was like shooting an elephant; defeating the terrorists
who inflicted these wounds upon America is like stomping on jellyfish.
The impudence and the irony of the attack can escape no one.
I recently did some recalculations of US "power" today, as measured
by the standard social science criteria, and the overwhelming impression
that emerged was of how far this single nation stood above all possible
contenders as the global hegemon. True, America contains only about 4.5
percent of the world's total population, but sheer numbers of human beings
are rarely a good indicator of comparative heft. By comparison, it possesses
approximately 30 percent of total world product, a percentage that has
actually increased in recent years because of the paralysis of Russia's
economy and the languishing of Japan's.
Even more remarkable is the size of the American military preeminence.
Last year, fully 36 percent of all the world's military spending was done
by the Pentagon; in fact, the US defense budget was equal to the defense
budgets of the next nine largest military spenders, a statistic that (so
far as I can judge) has never before existed in all of history. Comparative
technological and education/science indicators further increased America's
lead; its share of world Internet traffic is around 40 percent, its share
of Nobel prize winners (1975-2000) is around 70 percent. Putting these
measures of comparative national power together presents an awesome amalgam.
Truly, America is our modern-day Colossus, bestriding the world with its
aircraft-carriers, communications systems, giant corporations and heavy
cultural impress. And yet this Colossus is also extremely vulnerable to
weapons that are far different from Yamamoto's aircraft carriers and Hitler's
It has an Achilles heel that is, to a great extent, of its own making.
Its cultural and commercial superiority and the relentless drumbeat of
its free-market doctrines have been seen as a threat to many religious
and class groups, especially in traditional societies. Its powerful corporations
are viewed by America's critics as having an undue and powerful influence,
say, in blocking international agreements on climate control, in forcing
changes upon restricted markets, in overawing weak Third World governments.
Its strong support of Israel-to an extent that would have astonished,
US President Dwight Eisenhower-riles enemies across the Muslim world.
Its invention of the Internet and its prominent role in creating 24-hour-a-day
trading markets make it immensely wealthy but also incredibly vulnerable
to sabotage. Its liberal immigration policies (at least as compared to
Europe's) and the openness of its universities to foreign students mean
that it contains a vast melting pot of individuals from all over the world,
some of whom may be suborned for terrorist acts.
This is not Fortress America at all; in fact, it is the very opposite.
This contradiction between the appearance of unchallenged American might
abroad and the reality of grappling with the ''new'' security threat of
terrorism at home was perhaps nowhere better captured than in reports
that three US carrier task groups were headed into the waters off the
East Coast in the wake of the attacks. In many ways, such a group of powerful
modern warships (each would contain a massive aircraft carrier with more
than 100 aircraft, an Aegis cruiser, several destroyers and a submarine)
represents the most overpowering sign of America's global reach, thousands
of miles from their home bases; these are the forces that cruise off the
Taiwan Strait, or patrol the lower reaches of the Persian Gulf. No other
navy's forces can take them on. But this week they scurried home, though
their mission was unclear. Would they ?y patrols over the White House,
or rescue survivors from the World Trade Center? At any rate, these were
not missions for which they were originally designed. This brings us,
then, to the critical question of whether America's (and, more generally,
the West's) armed forces are ready for the possible security threats of
the new century.
For the past 10 to 20 years, growing numbers of experts in international
affairs and military relations have suggested that the Pentagon had been
too focused on World War II/Cold War stereotypes of fighting, but very
reluctant to take seriously alternative views of both the sources of conflict
and the changed nature of struggles.
No one can say that there will never again be Nazi-like aggression by
one state against its neighbors, and it is prudent to keep efficient armed
forces as an insurance policy and to make the international security mechanisms
like NATO and the UN Security Council as robust as possible. But main
battle tanks and carrier task forces are not much help against such sources
of instability and conflict as population pressures, illegal mass migrations,
environmental disasters, malnutrition and human-rights abuses-conditions
we have seen so often in Africa, the Balkans, Haiti and the Middle East,
and in which young recruits for suicide-bombing and other terrorist acts
can be found.
Moreover, the US' multibillion-dollar large weapons platforms are also
not much use in the battle against international crime and/or drug cartels.
Finally, they really are of only moderate utility in combating the acts
of terrorism which we witnessed on Sept. 11.
No one doubts that Osama bin Laden and fellows will be pursued, and that
smart bombs will be sent into hillsides and caves; but the terrorist organizations
have a loose cell-like structure and no real headquarters, new successors
will emerge to lead those cells, and fresh youths are waiting to join
in the fight.
Both President George W. Bush and the American media have made references
to ''hunting down'' the perpetrators, as if the terrorists were like bank
robbers in the Wild West who had galloped off into the Montana hills and
were being followed by the sheriff. If only it were that easy. Thus, the
chief weapons and force structures that the Pentagon has invested in are
neither helpful in reducing the sources of instability in today's world,
or in preventing determined suicide bombers from doing damage, or in exterminating
the terrorist threat.
This conclusion is neither shocking nor new. After all, at the beginning
of the year former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, who head the US
Commission on National Security, issued a thoughtful report about threats
to American national security that explicitly called for greater attention
to be paid to these newer forms of danger and for the defense forces to
be restructured accordingly. Alas, at that time, policy-makers and strategists
were concentrating their attention on the president's campaign to get
acceptance of his national missile defense, and Hart-Rudman was mostly
Given the severity of Sept. 11's catastrophes and the desire of all Americans
to show solidarity, no one has yet been impolite enough to ask the president
or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to explain how spending $80 billion
on a shield against incoming ballistic missiles could have defended the
World Trade Center.
But the time for such questions will undoubtedly come-and soon.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that not only is the threat of terrorist
attacks not going to go away, but also that we are not going to be very
successful in preventing them. The genie is out of the bottle with a vengeance;
the car-bomb has now become the plane-bomb. Worse still, if the terrorist
world rejoices at the deaths of thousands and thousands of innocent Americans,
why should we imagine that crashing an aircraft is the worst blow that
totally ruthless and well-organized villainy can deliver? How far away
are we from an atrocity like setting off a small atom bomb in the Chicago
Mercantile Exchange, or spreading anthrax through the San Francisco subway
That pleasant, kindly Norman Rockwell age of the 1930s, when Americans
felt safe and good about themselves, was already shaken at Pearl Harbor.
Tuesday it was blown to pieces, just like the two skyscrapers. This is
not what Americans like to hear. This sounds too pessimistic, too defeatist.
The calls on all sides are for swift, retributive action, and they are
natural enough, given the horrors we have suffered.
The American culture celebrates quick and decisive blows, clear-cut victories,
and lots and lots of freedoms: freedom from government, freedom from taxes,
freedom from international governance, freedom to drive enormous gas-guzzling
cars and to demand cheap petroleum, freedom to walk on and off an aircraft
with lots of hand-baggage, freedom to be completely safe and secure from
external troubles. The weariness and the wariness that characterize the
inhabitants of Belfast or Jerusalem or Kashmir are things that most Americans
have never experienced and which I suspect they are psychologically unprepared
All of this leaves the political leaders of this vast, complex democracy
with a problem that, so far at least, they have not honestly addressed.
They have not said, pace Winston Churchill, that they only offer blood,
sweat, toil and tears. They have not said that this new foe can probably
hurt Americans much more than Americans can hurt them. They have not said
that the old verities may be no more, and the old ways of military effectiveness
and strategy may be over. They have not cautioned that America's traditional
home liberties may never be the same again. They have not said that, on
Tuesday, Sept. 11, the United States got a glimpse of what the 21st century
may hold for all of us, and that the way ahead may be tougher and rockier
than the collapse of buildings in Wall Street and a glancing blow to the
back to index