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The Greatest Superpower Ever
Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale University and director of international security studies. He has written and edited 15 books, including The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and Preparing for the Twenty-First Century.
New Haven, CT.- On September 11, the nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier USS Enterprise was on routine patrol in the Indian Ocean when news began pouring in of the terrorist attacks upon New York and Washington D.C.
The Enterprise is a vessel that defies the landlubber's imagination. It is more than 1,100 feet long and its flight deck is 250 feet across. It is as high as a 20-story building. An entire village-no, a small town-lives within its powerful steel frame, but it is a garrison town that can move across the oceans at more than 30 mph.
It has a crew of 3,200 to run the ship alone, plus the 2,400 pilots and air crew who fly and service the 70 state-of-the-art aircraft that roar on and off the flight deck day and night.
But this super-dreadnought never travels alone. It is always accompanied, at the very least, by an Aegis-type cruiser, a large surface ship designed to shoot down incoming missiles; by a bevy of frigates and destroyers to protect it from enemy submarines; by a lurking hunter-killer submarine or two; and by some supply vessels and other specialized craft. Marine troops and their helicopters will be in the task force. In offensive and defensive terms, this is a behemoth.
It is difficult to estimate the exact costs of a carrier battle group, but it certainly goes into many billions of dollars. The ships, the aircraft, the logistical supplies and the personnel, together, probably equal a quarter or more of the defense budget of a medium-sized country.
What is more, no equivalent concentration of power to a US carrier task force exists in the world; the few UK, French and Indian carriers are minuscule by comparison, the Russian ones rusting away.
Leaving aside nuclear weapons, which are always problematic and perhaps destined to be forever inapplicable, this group of warships constitutes the strongest and most flexible core of military force today. A carrier force is virtually indestructible, and yet it has the capacity to deal out death and destruction across most of our globe.
The US possesses 12 such carriers (another, the USS Ronald Reagan, is to join the fleet soon), each with the attendant group of complementary warships. There are also smaller carriers designed, not for open-ocean combat against all, but to take powerful Marine Corps battalions ashore.
This array of force is staggering. Were it ever assembled en masse the result would be the largest concentration of naval and aerial force the world would have seen.
But the US carrier battle groups are never assembled together, because they are carrying out a worldwide mission-the preservation and enhancement of US interests in a volatile, unpredictable world, and the support of America's many obligations abroad.
At the beginning of September last year, for example, three carrier groups were in the North Atlantic and Caribbean, one in the South Atlantic, one off the Persian Gulf and two in western Pacific-east Asian waters. Another five were in home bases for maintenance and crew rotation; and one was being worked up for commissioning.
Given these facts, most shrewd punters would assume only a madman would attack a country with that much clout. On September 11, messianic, US-hating fundamentalists did just that, and truly staggered and hurt the Number One nation.
In the weeks that followed, strategic pundits everywhere (including this one) wrote of the vulnerability of the US to so-called "asymmetric" attacks; that is, blows by enemies who could not match American conventional forces but who could hurt by unorthodox ways. This is still true.
But the other side of the coin was that, stung by the indiscriminate terrorist blow, America sallied forth to deploy the vast forces at its disposal: forces, ironically, that had chiefly been designed for the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union but turned out to be just as suitable for the battle ahead.
The whereabouts of the US Navy's vessels, large and small, were available on the Navy's own central web site before September 11, partly for public relations reasons, partly to let families know where their loved ones were. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, the terrorist attacks led to a clampdown on such information.
Still, in the age of the communications revolution it is possible to learn-from, of all places, the Enterprise's own web site-about the enhanced force that composed the battle group by mid-January. Accompanying the enormous flagship by that time were two cruisers, six destroyers and frigates, two attack submarines, two amphibious vessels with their troops, and supply-dock ships-in all, 15 vessels and 14,300 men (including 3,250 troops).
By then, this force had been joined by other fleet carriers, whose aircraft were pounding Afghan targets day and night, and by the helicopter-Marine carriers.
The global reach of these instruments of war is truly impressive. The second carrier to join the Enterprise was the USS Kitty Hawk, which was being overhauled in Yokosuka, Japan, last September. It covered 6,000 miles in just 12 days and then took up position as the "forward staging base" for hundreds of flights in support of the Marines and US Special Forces into Afghanistan.
Far above the carriers, b-1 bombers flew all the way from the US mainland to drop every manner of hardware on al Qaeda and the Taliban, and b-52s lumbered up from Diego Garcia to reduce hillsides to rubble.
American Special Forces were also flown to the area from Central Asia, and then backed by extraordinary logistical and stealth-technology support as they in turn functioned as "pinpointers" to aerial attacks through smart weapons. The military campaign is virtually over, apart from Taliban hunts in the distant hills; and the early ground forces, the air squadrons and warships such as the Kitty Hawk are returning to base, with hardly a casualty in sight.
What is more, those bases are not restricted to the continental US. American forces poured into the combat zone from Japan, the UK, the central Pacific, Germany, Italy, the Middle East and elsewhere; that is, they were summoned from the largest array of bases the world has seen since the British empire was at its height a century earlier.
What does this all mean?
It is easy to say that when Osama bin Laden assaulted the world's remaining superpower, he and his network and those who supported him got their just desserts and appropriate oblivion.
But that conclusion is almost beside the point. The larger lesson-and one stupefying to the Russian and Chinese military, worrying to the Indians, and disturbing to proponents of a common European defense policy-is that in military terms there is only one player on the field that counts.
For political and diplomatic reasons, the US invited the world to combine in the fight against Bin Laden, just as so many other countries had been invited by Washington to oppose Saddam Hussein's aggression a decade earlier.
But who else in the coalition really counted in this amazingly one-sided Afghan spat? The "Brits"-one of President George W. Bush's genuinely favorite words-qualify for certain things: shared intelligence, the SAS going in first (probably) to the mountains, a dozen Tornado bombers, Prime Minister Tony Blair's supportive stance, the post-victory garrison role, all helped. Indeed, to the American public they are the only other significant ally, albeit in a small-ish way.
Was there anyone else? As the campaign unfolded, the Japanese government rather desperately dispatched three destroyers to the Indian Ocean. This was a bold political deed given domestic anti-militarist constraints, but a contribution that in reality was mere tokenism. It had as much effect on the outcome as Brazil joining the Allies late in the Second World War.
To put it another way, while the battle between the US and international terrorism and rogue states may indeed be asymmetrical, perhaps a far greater asymmetry may be emerging: namely, the one between the US and the rest of the powers.
How is this to be explained? First, by money. For the past decade and well before that, the US has been spending more on its defense forces, absolutely and relatively, than any other nation in history. While the European powers chopped their post-cold war military spending, China held its in check, and Russia's defense budget collapsed in the 1990s, the US Congress duly obliged the Pentagon with annual budgets ranging from about $260 billion in the middle of the decade to this year's $329 billion.
Everyone knew that, with the Soviet Union's forces in a state of decrepitude, the US was in a class of its own. But it is simply staggering to learn that this single country-a democratic republic that claims to despise large government-now spends more each year on the military than the next nine largest national defense budgets combined.
Only a few Americans realize that fact, and many have denounced former president Bill Clinton for allegedly under-funding the US military. Had that really been the case-and there have been many comparisons to Baldwin and Chamberlain in the 1930s-then it is difficult to see how the US armed forces could have produced such an impressive and overwhelming display of power in recent months.
Still, just last week Washington insiders reported that Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, plans to ask Congress for an increase of $48 billion next year, a sum more than twice Italy's entire annual defense budget.
To put this another way, a couple of years ago the US was responsible for about 36 percent of total world defense spending; its share is now probably closer to 40 percent, if not more. Even Enterprise carrier groups are affordable on an annual budget of $350 billion.
Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defense spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain's army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies-right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy.
Charlemagne's empire was merely Western European in its reach. The Roman empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia, and a larger one in China. There is, therefore, no comparison.
But this money has to come from somewhere, primarily from the country's own economic resources (in long wars, powers often borrow from abroad). Here again is an incomparable source of US strength, and one that has been increasing in the past few years.
During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the US share of total world product steadily declined, so that by the late 1980s it may have possessed only about 22 percent of global gross domestic product compared with a far higher share in the Truman and Eisenhower years.
Had this decline continued for another decade or two, America would have come troublingly close to "imperial overstretch." Moreover, the Soviet Union still seemed powerful, and some touted Japan as the coming "Number One."
Then three things happened. First, the Soviet empire collapsed, and its successor states imploded economically (Russia's GDP is less than that of The Netherlands). Second, Japanese growth stalled, its banks got into trouble, the strong yen faded, and the country entered a puzzling era of economic malaise. Third, US businessmen and some politicians reacted strongly to the debate about "decline" by taking action: cutting costs, making companies leaner and meaner, investing in newer technologies, promoting a communications revolution, trimming government deficits, all of which helped to produce significant year-on-year advances in productivity.
Thus, as the Russian and Japanese share of the world economic pie shrank, the US share steadily expanded; right now, it contains about 30 percent of total world product, perhaps a little more.
This steady economic growth, along with the curbing of inflation in the 1990s, produced the delightful result that America's enormous defense expenditures could be pursued at a far lower relative cost to the country than the military spending of Ronald Reagan's years.
In 1985, for example, the Pentagon's budget equaled 6.5 percent of gross domestic product and was seen by many as a cause of US budgetary and economic-growth problems. By 1998, defense spending's share of GDP was down to 3.2 percent, and today it is not much greater. Being Number One at great cost is one thing; being the world's single superpower on the cheap is astonishing.
Reinforcing this disproportionate military and economic heft are further elements in the grand amalgam of US power in the world today. Indeed, a statistician could have a wild time compiling lists of the fields in which the US leads.
A full 45 percent of all Internet traffic takes place in this one country. About 75 percent of the Nobel laureates in the sciences, economics and medicine in recent decades do their research and reside in America. A group of 12 to 15 US research universities have, through vast financing, moved into a new superleague of world universities that is leaving everyone else-the Sorbonne, Toyko, Munich, Oxford, Cambridge-in the dust, especially in the experimental sciences.
The top places among the rankings of the world's biggest banks and largest companies are now back, to a large degree, in US hands. And if one could reliably create indicators of cultural power-the English language, films and television, advertisements, youth culture, international student flows-the same lopsided picture would emerge.
What are the implications, for the world and for America itself?
First, it seems to me there is no point in the Europeans or Chinese wringing their hands about US predominance, and wishing it would go away. It is as if, among the various inhabitants of the apes and monkeys cage at the London Zoo, one creature had grown bigger and bigger-and bigger-until it became a 500 pound gorilla. It couldn't help becoming that big, and in a certain way America today cannot help being what it is either.
It is interesting to consider the possible implications for world affairs of the existence of such a giant in our midst. For example, what does it mean for other countries, especially those with a great-power past such as Russia and France, or with great-power aspirations such as India and Iran?
Russian President Vladimir Putin's government is faced with the difficult choice of trying to close the enormous power gap, or admitting that would merely overstrain Russia's resources and divert the nation from the more sensible pursuit of domestic peace and prosperity.
French Europeanists need either to recognize that the chances of creating a true equal to American military, diplomatic and political weight in world affairs are an illusion, or they need to exploit the recent display of Europe's bystander role to make fresh efforts to unify the fractured continent.
Think, also, of the implications for China, perhaps the only country that-should its recent growth rates continue for the next 30 years and internal strife be avoided-might be a serious challenger to US predominance. More immediately, relish the message this mind-boggling display of American capacity to punish its opponents has sent to those nations who had hoped to change the local status quo-in the Korean peninsula, in the Taiwan Straits, the Middle East-in the not-too-distant future.
As the crew of the Kitty Hawk and other vessels of the US Navy take their shore leave, one hears the distant rustle of military plans and feasibility studies by general staffs across the globe being torn up and dropped into the dustbin of history.
Reflect also on the implications for international organizations, especially those involved in western defense and/or global peace and security. True, some NATO armed forces played an ancillary role, and European states lent their airbases to the US, supplied intelligence, and rounded up suspected terrorists; but the organization's other members may have to face the prospect of either being a hollow shell when the Americans don't play, or an appendage to Washington when they do.
Can one have a reasonably balanced UN Security Council when there now exists, in addition to the gap between its five permanent veto members and the non-permanent members, a tremendous and real gulf in the power and influence of one of the five and the other four?
Even before the present victories, the US played the game of using international organizations when it suited its own interests and paralyzing them when it disapproved. Yet probably nothing could be worse for global stability than the US steering a zig zag course.
Think, then, of what might be the implications for the American democracy itself. It is, perhaps, simply a historical irony that the republic whose first leader cautioned against entangling alliances and distractions abroad is now, a quarter way into its third century, the world's policeman.
After all, a political culture that dislikes interference by governments and cherishes its anti-colonial roots may not take kindly to being required to put its forces into Africa, central Asia and east Asia should dire crises arise. But nobody else can do the job, or chase terrorists to the far corners of the globe, forever.
Will this "unipolar moment," as it was once called, continue for centuries? Surely not.
"If Sparta and Rome perished," Rousseau said, "what state can hope to endure forever?"
It is a fair point. America's present standing very much rests upon a decade of impressive economic growth. But were that growth to dwindle, and budgetary and fiscal problems to multiply over the next quarter of a century, then the threat of overstretch would return. In that event, the main challenge facing the world community could be the possible collapse of US capacities and responsibilities, and the chaos that might ensue from such a scenario.
But from the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, that scenario seems a long way off for now.
How America is Viewed by Others-And Does it Matter? ? "By what right," an angry environmentalist demanded at a recent conference I attended, "do Americans place such a heavy footprint upon God's Earth?" Ouch. That was a tough one because, alas, it's largely true.
We comprise slightly less than 5 percent of the world's population; but we imbibe 27 percent of the world's annual oil production, create and consume nearly 30 percent of its Gross World Product and spend a full 40 percent of ALL the world's defense expenditures. As I have noted, the Pentagon's budget is nowadays roughly equal to the defense expenditures of the next nine or 10 highest defense-spending nations-which has never before happened in history. That is indeed a heavy footprint. How do we explain it to others-and to ourselves? And what, if anything, should we be doing about this?
I pose these questions because recent travel experiences of mine-to the Persian Gulf, Europe, Korea, Mexico-plus a shoal of letters and e-mails from across the globe all suggest that this American democracy of ours is not as admired and appreciated as we often suppose. The foreign sympathy for the horrors of Sept. 11 was genuine enough, but that was sympathy for innocent and beloved lost ones: the workers at the World Trade Center, the policemen, the firemen.
There was also that feeling of pity that comes out of a fear that something similar could happen, in Sydney, or Oslo, or New Delhi. But this did not imply unconditional love and support of Uncle Sam.
On the contrary, those who listen can detect a groundswell of international criticisms, sarcastic references about US government policies and complaints about our heavy "footprint" upon God's Earth. Even as I write this piece, a new e-mail has arrived from a former student of mine now in Cambridge, England (and himself a devoted Anglophile), who talks of the difficulty of grappling with widespread anti-American sentiments. And this in the land of Tony Blair!
It's lucky he's not studying in Athens, or Beirut, or Calcutta.
Many Americans may not really care about the growing criticisms and worries expressed by outside voices. To them, the reality is that the United States is unchallenged No. 1, and all the rest-Europe, Russia, China, the Arab world-just have to accept that plain fact. To act as if it were not so is a futile gesture, like whistling in the wind.
But other Americans I listen to-former Peace Corps workers, parents with children studying abroad (as they themselves once did), businessmen with strong contacts overseas, religious men and women, environmentalists-really do worry about our earthly "footprint" and the murmurs from afar. They worry that we are isolating ourselves from most of the serious challenges to global society, and that, increasingly, our foreign policy consists merely of sallying forth with massive military heft to destroy demons like the Taliban, only to retreat again into our air bases and boot camps. They understand, better than some of their neighbors, that America itself has been largely responsible for creating an ever more integrated world-through our financial investments, our overseas acquisitions, our communications revolution, our MTV and CNN culture, our tourism and student exchanges, our pressure upon foreign societies to conform to agreements regarding trade, capital ?ows, intellectual property, environment and labor laws. They therefore recognize that we cannot escape back to some Norman Rockwell-like age of innocence and isolationism, and fear we are alienating too much of a world to which we are now tightly and inexorably bound. After my recent travels, this viewpoint makes more and more sense to me.
So what is to be done? One way to clearer thinking might be to divide outside opinion into three categories: those who love America, those who hate America and those who are concerned about America. The first group is easily recognizable. It includes foreign political figures like Lady Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev; businessmen admirers of US laissez-faire economics; foreign teenagers devoted to Hollywood stars, pop music and blue jeans, and societies liberated from oppression by American policies against nasty regimes. The second group also stands out. Anti-Americanism is not just the hallmark of Muslim fundamentalists, most non-democratic regimes, radical activists in Latin America, Japanese nationalists and critics of capitalism everywhere. It also can be found in the intellectual salons of Europe, perhaps especially in France, where US culture is regarded as being crass, simplistic, tasteless-and all too successful.
Since there is little that can be done to alter the convictions of either of those camps, our focus ought to be upon the third and most important group, those who are inherently friendly to America and admire its role in advancing democratic freedoms, but who now worry about the direction in which the Republic is headed. This is ironic, but also comforting. Their criticisms are directed not at who we are, but at America's failure to live up to the ideals we ourselves have always articulated: democracy, fairness, openness, respect for human rights, a commitment to advancing Roosevelt's "four freedoms."
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that three times in the past century most of the world looked with hope and yearning toward an American leader who advocated transcendent human values: for Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy made hearts rise abroad when they rejected narrow "America First" sentiments and spoke of the needs of all humankind.
It is a return to this tolerant and purposeful America that so many worried and disappointed foreign friends want to see. Unilateralist US policies on land mines, an international criminal court and Kyoto environmental protocols fall well below those expectations. Underfunding the United Nations seems both unwise, and contrary to solemn pledges. Committing an extra $48 billion to defense, but not committing to amounts or percentages for next month's Monterrey conference on financing development looks hypocritical. In fact, a few of these US policies (for example, on the early Kyoto proposals) can probably be well defended. But the overall impression that America has given of late is that we simply don't care what the rest of the world thinks. When we require assistance-in rounding up terrorists, freezing financial assets and making air bases available for US troops-we will play with the team; when we don't like international schemes, we'll walk away. My guess is that every American ambassador and envoy abroad these days spends most of his time handling such worries-worries expressed, as I said above, not by America's foes but by her friends.
Finally, individual policy changes matter much less than the larger issue. There is a deep yearning abroad these days for America to show real leadership. Not what Sen. William J. Fulbright once termed "the arrogance of power," but leadership of the sort perhaps best exemplified by Roosevelt. This seems to be what EU external affairs commissioner Chris Patten wants when he voices his worries about America shifting into "unilateral overdrive."
It would be a leadership marked by a breadth of vision, an appreciation for our common humanity, a knowledge that we have as much to learn from others as we have to impart to them. It would be a leadership that spoke to the disadvantaged and weak everywhere, and that committed America to join other advantaged and strong nations in a common endeavor to help those who can scarce help themselves. Above all, it would be a leadership that turned openly to the American people and explained, time and time again, why our deepest national interest lies in taking the fate of our planet seriously and in investing heavily in its future.
Were that to happen, we would fulfill America's promise-and probably get a surprise at just how popular we really are.