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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 Century.''

-- 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, or ever.

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 ignored.

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 system?

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 to handle.

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 Pentagon.

(c) 2001, NPQ. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
EMBARGO: England
For immediate release (Distributed 9/14/01)