As this century turns, pundits are debating whether the next one will be an American one like the last. The debate misses the point. The very phrase "American century" is misleading. The last century was an Atlantic century, and the next century seems certain to be one too.
The phrase "American leadership," often used as if to mean unilateral United States domination of the world, ignores the Western-alliance system that America leads, and which is the actual leading force in the world.
The alliance system, unlike America by itself, is certain to maintain its margin over all other powers for a long time to come.
The US has been the strongest single country for 100 years; the Atlantic-Western area has been the leading force in the world for 500 years, ever since Columbus arrived in America. Before 1900, however, the Western powers were divided, competing against one another. Their mutual wars were undermining their role in the world in the early 1900s.
America began leading the West in those decades, and it used its leadership after 1945 to organize the West into a unified grouping that comprises the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OSCE), and the Group of Seven countries. This salvaged Western leadership, then raised it to a new height at the end of the cold war.
People can reasonably doubt whether America alone will retain its singular status for another century as China rises and Europe unites. But not the Atlantic area. If it simply holds together, it is out of reach of any challengers.
"American leadership" is a misnomer. It plays well to national pride, but obscures what is needed to perpetuate America's standing in the world.
What is really at stake is Atlantic or Western leadership in the world - America's role being that of a crucial wheel inside a wheel. America's success in the world depends on the coherence of the West, not on US superiority over the rest of the West.
The West's leadership is virtually unchallengeable. The NATO-OECD system - which includes North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australasia, South Korea, and increasingly Eastern Europe - contains more than 60 percent of the world economy. This figure has not declined; it has held constant for decades and even grown as new democracies integrate into the West. It is an infinitely more secure basis for world leadership than the 20 percent share that America holds alone.
The West also has the vast bulk of the world's military power. It has the most effective forces, both conventional and nuclear. It can outrace all comers technologically and in ballistic-missile defenses. And, if it figures out how to integrate Russia, it will have the overwhelming bulk of raw nuclear firepower in the world. Where vigilance will then remain necessary is not against equal competitors but against rogue states and terrorists.
Where initiative will still be needed is in maintaining the unity of the West and integrating former enemies into this union. It is not enough to leave it to the European Union to do all the uniting; the wider unity of Europe and America also needs refurbishing. The advent of the euro points to a need for a world currency uniting the dollar, euro, and yen; or dollar-euro conflicts could plunge the global economy into chaos, as did the dollar-sterling conflicts in the 1930s.
American security requires stronger global institutions with an active US role. The emerging International Criminal Court, for instance, should be empowered further for the fight against terrorism. An organization of all democracies worldwide, on which Secretary Albright is working, could also be useful.
Three levels of effort - US, Atlantic, and global - are needed for sustainable leadership. They are usually complementary, and institutional jealousy between them is self-defeating. America led in Bosnia by using them all, and won credit for itself and for NATO. It bypassed the UN in Kosovo, and paid a price for it with China, Russia, and India.
The West can maintain its leadership for generations to come, but nothing lasts forever. The developing world is growing economically, democratically, and demographically. Michael Doyle, a founder of the theory of a pax democratica, predicts that sometime early in the new millennium the entire world will become democratic.
One way or another, the rest of the world is bound to be integrated with the West in this millennium. Maybe the faster developing parts of the third world will be brought one by one into the Atlantic structures. This would be the ideal solution for the West, gradually sublimating its leadership into a worldwide system. Meanwhile, stronger global institutions are necessary to deal with problems beyond the scope of the Atlantic institutions.
Early in the next millennium, humanity will have developed a worldwide federal government for managing its global problems. If we will be moving out into space, here on Earth we cannot remain divided. These developments are inevitable, barring our destruction. They will come in a better way if they are foreseen and handled intelligently.
*Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International, in Arlington, Va., and US coordinator for the independent Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society