THE COLOSSUS WITH AN ACHILLES' HEEL
By Paul Kennedy
Paul Kennedy is a professor of history at Yale and author of "The
Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and "Preparing for the Twenty-First
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- At 8:45 a.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 to what
happened earlier this week.
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 United States 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 Tuesday's 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 U.S. 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.
Just a few weeks ago, I did some recalculations of U.S. "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 U.S. defense budget was equal to the defense
budgets of the next (ital) nine (unital) 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 panzer divisions.
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,
say, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower -- gives it 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. (It
has been reported that some suicide pilots trained in the United States.)
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 this past week
by reports that three U.S. carrier task groups were headed into the waters
off the East Coast. 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 fly 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 U.N. 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 U.S.' 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 Tuesday. 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 this week 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 U.S.
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 Tuesday'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
(c) 2001, NPQ. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International,
a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/14/01)