Time to Retire `Superpower'

THE issues faced by the United States in today's world would be clearer if the phrase ``the world's only superpower'' could be struck from the debate.

The US is strong economically and is a technological leader. It possesses a military with an unsurpassed capacity for global deployment. But it is precisely this possession of force that creates assumptions of ``superpower'' status - and trouble.

The vision of a nation more powerful than any other leads its citizens and the United Nations to assume that US forces can be used effectively, either for unilateral intervention or to lead a multinational coalition. US military power indeed exists, but American support for putting men and women at risk does not. Without such support, the ``superpower'' appellation is irrelevant and misleading.

The world, in a sense, has returned to a pre-colonial era. If external influence is to be exercised at all, it must come through intervention, at times prolonged and often confronting leaders who cling to the profits and perks of power. Such people are not easily dislodged by threats or sanctions. For leaders like Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras in Haiti, the alternatives appear to be to hold on to the luxuries of authority or to face exile or death. The experience to date in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti has demonstrated the reluctance of the international community - including the US - to pay the price in lives and resources of confrontations with determined adversaries.

US caution toward involvement is not necessarily regrettable; it is motivated by a hard look at the potential costs of long-term international involvement balanced against domestic needs. What is regrettable is the reluctance of a large part of the public to accept policies that flow from this caution. US Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff was criticized for suggesting that the US would likely play a less assertive role in international affairs, yet much that has unfolded since then suggests that he was more realistic than his critics.

This is not to suggest that the US lacks influence. By a judicious use of economic resources and timely rhetorical support, Washington has influenced events in Russia. US diplomatic efforts in several administrations developed into a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Ironically, US influence is most tentative in countries where an American military presence is present or proposed: Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia.

The administration has appeared to be unfocused in presenting its foreign-policy case. The president has been free with his rhetoric, becoming, in effect, the daily spokesperson for the administration. Presidential declarations should be reserved for significant moments. Other officials have differed from each other in the nuances of their speeches. But much of the criticism has been based more on the images than on the realities of the new scene Washington confronts. The scene of the ship turning away from Haiti, for example, prevailed over any examination of the wisdom of a UN-brokered agreement that assumed lightly armed forces could successfully confront an entrenched military regime.

As do other nations, the US faces a turning point in world affairs. The phrase, ``the world's only superpower,'' with its implication, is no longer appropriate.

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