Today's date:
Winter 2002


Surpassing Rome

If the US plays its cards well and acts not as a soloist but as the leader of a concert of nations, the Pax Americana, in terms of its duration, might become more like the Pax Romana than the Pax Britannica. If so, our soft power will play a major role. As Henry Kissinger has argued, the test of history for the US will be whether we can turn our current predominant power into international consensus and our own principles into widely accepted international norms. That was the greatness achieved by Rome and Britain in their times.

Unlike Britain, Rome succumbed not to the rise of a new empire, but to internal decay and a death of a thousand cuts from various barbarian groups. While internal decay is always possible, none of the commonly cited trends seems to point strongly in that direction at this time. At the start of the century, terrorist threats notwithstanding, American attitudes are both positive and realistic. The initial response to September 2001 was encouraging. The public did not turn to isolationism and the Congress and administration curbed their unilateralism. The public is also realistic about the limits of American power and expresses a willingness to share. "While 28 percent say America will remain the major world power in the next 100 years, 61 percent believe the United States will share this status with a few other countries. (Fewer than one in 10 thinks the US will no longer be a major power.)" Large majorities oppose a purely unilateralist approach. "Upwards of two-thirds of the public oppose, in principle, the US acting alone overseas without the support of other countries." The American public seems to have an intuitive sense for soft power even if the term is unfamiliar.

On the other hand, it is harder to exclude the barbarians. The dramatically decreased cost of communication, the rise of transnational domains (including the Internet) that cut across borders, and the democratization of technology that puts massive destructive power (once the sole preserve of governments) into the hands of groups and individuals all suggest dimensions that are historically new. In the last century, men such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao needed the power of the state to wreak great evil. Such men and women in the 21st century will be less bound than those of the 20th by the limits of the state, and less obliged to gain industrial capabilities to wreak havoc. Clearly the threshold for small groups or even individuals to inflict massive damage on those they take to be their enemies is falling dramatically. Countering such terrorist groups must be a top priority. Homeland defense takes on a new importance and a new meaning and will require an intelligent combination of hard and soft power. If such groups were to produce a series of events involving even greater destruction and disruption of society than occurred in September 2001, American attitudes might change dramatically, though the direction of the change is difficult to predict. Isolationism might make a comeback, but greater engagement in world events is equally plausible.

-Joe Nye