The myth of the superpower

For US, spirit of 'triumphalism' after cold war gives way to

Maybe this "world's only superpower" business isn't all it's cracked up to be. For a nation that is supposed to bestride the globe like a colossus, the US is suddenly getting diplomatic doors slammed in its face.

Look at US relations with Russia and China. They're as strained as they've been in years - and now those old comrades are talking common solutions for the Kosovo crisis.

Meanwhile, the UN is trying to leap into Kosovo talks. Europe, taken aback by all the F-16s jammed on its bases, is again vowing to become less dependent on US military protection.

This is not the world of nine years ago, when the US dominated the international response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. That unipolar moment may have passed.

As the Kosovo conflict makes clear, the US more and more has to take into account the opinions of other nations that may feel threatened by its power.

"Virtually all major regional powers are increasingly asserting themselves to promote their own distinct interests, which often conflict with those of the United States," writes Harvard international relations professor Samuel Huntington in a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs

The US remains the most important nation, by far. It is the only country able to project a full range of types of power, from military to economics to culture. But it is no longer imperial Rome, if it ever was. It can't solve global problems by itself.

The spirit of American "triumphalism" that followed the end of the cold war has now faded, says Eugene Brown, a political scientist at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

Two things now threaten American primacy, Mr. Brown says. One is general disinterest on the part of the US public in playing a large role in world affairs. The other is a natural defensive reaction of weaker rivals.

"Whenever there is a singular superpower, inevitably that creates fears that that superpower can reach out and harm your interests at any time," he says.

The Chinese, for one, appear to firmly believe that the US is a potential major threat to their interests. Thus the inadvertent NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade tapped into a deep strain of resentment in China's people.

Many in economically struggling Russia feel the same way. "Russia and China have a common interest in trying to offset the US as a sole superpower," says Joshua Goldstein of American University here. "It's logical and natural that they draw closer together, and that's happening in a variety of venues."

Thus Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin unexpectedly detoured to Beijing this week to brief Chinese leaders on his Kosovo peace efforts.

Russia and China would like to see the issue of Kosovo dragged back into the UN, where both have a seat on the Security Council. The US might support that, because it could make a Kosovo solution stick. But US -UN relations aren't fabulous now, either.

The US is behind in UN dues and has been critical of UN peacekeeping roles in Somalia and Bosnia. The State Department has tried to keep Secretary General Kofi Annan from creating a role for his office in Kosovo talks.

"That [negative] element is coming back to haunt us," says Professor Goldstein. "We really need the UN in a situation like this."

If the United States is the world's dominant nation-state, why does it need anybody, or anything? Because the US is "The Lonely Superpower," in the words of Professor Huntington.

The world is not unipolar, as it was during imperial Rome's heyday, writes Huntington. Today's geopolitical outlook is a strange hybrid, a uni-multipolar system with one superpower and a number of major powers.

Russia and China aren't the only nations getting together to counterbalance US strength. Saudi Arabia and Iran have had a bit of a rapproachement, for example. Even the Western European Union, the far-from-vital military wing of the continent, met in Berlin this week to vow it will develop a stronger military policy, to reduce reliance on the US for response to future Kosovos.

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