The Power of One

by Lorenzo Meyer

Reforma (Mexico City), Aug 5, 1999 (World Press Review)


All modern empires have had limits to their spheres of influence and have faced rivals with the capacity and the will to displace them. Now, in the case of the most recent empire-the United States-these two characteristics have disappeared. The United States presently has no rival in its domination of the international system. It is indeed the first global empire, and for better or for worse, the fate of the rest of the international system depends largely on its character and evolution.

The United States already has a long history as an imperial power. Yet, for most U.S. citizens, the rest of the world has scant importance. At the same time, U.S. citizens are aware that their country was the victor in the Cold War and that, for the time being, no other nation represents a serious military threat. A recent Gallup poll shows that the four major problems that concern most Americans have nothing to do with foreign policy, as was indeed the case from the Second World War until the fall of the Berlin Wall. The four problems that dominate the U.S. agenda today are: family values and ethics, criminal violence, education, and controlling privately owned weapons (The New York Times, Aug. 1,1999). Although the lack of interest in the rest of the world is a long-standing American trait, the feeling of complete national security is relatively new.

The size of the United States, first of all, and its wealth make it almost inevitable that for most of its citizens the world boils down to their turf-in other words, their country or region. Isolationism has long existed in U.S. society, although the imperial impulse usually has won out over those who want nothing to do with other countries. For example, President Woodrow Wilson pushed the country at the last minute, and very successfully, into the First World War against the wishes of the majority.

For a time, Soviet studies in the United States absorbed a great deal of attention, resources, and talent. Today, however, the CIA and other specialists in international security and espionage receive most of their funding for protecting industrial secrets or pursuing the pirates who hurt Nike, Calvin Klein, and hundreds of other firms. The remaining political spies have lowered their guard so much that when the CIA planned the American bombing of Belgrade, it did not realize that one of the targets it chose was not a facility of the Serbian government but rather the Chinese embassy.

The new twist in the international system is the absence of challenges to American hegemony. The great empires of the modern era always faced powerful rivals that forced them to invest huge amounts of material and human resources in preserving their areas of dominance and their economic advantages. This mounting expenditure on armies, administrators, colonial wars, and wars between empires ultimately caused the demise of each of these historic empires. The exception to the rule is the United States, which is in the unusual position of dominating the international system without having to respond, in practice, to anyone except itself. In this regard, the United States is the last remaining sovereign nation. Not even a great nation like China can claim Taiwan, because Washington will intervene.

Since the United States does not have a military rival, it no longer has to spend a substantial portion of its surpluses on an arms race. Washington today has a budget surplus. Consequently, the political battle between Congress and the president is over how to allocate those billions of dollars that no longer have to be earmarked for the military. Should they be given back in the form of tax cuts for the wealthy, as the right would like, or should they be invested in the Social Security system for the less wealthy, as the president proposes?

That president can impose his will today by using force in both the Balkans and in Iraq, almost without incurring U.S. casualties. By virtue of its enormous technological superiority in air warfare, a bomber can leave its base in the United States, drop its bombs on Serbia, and return home safe and sound in a little more than 30 hours, in time for its crew to sleep in their own beds.

The only rivals that the United States has today are in the economic realm: Europe and Japan. Although Russia has many atomic weapons, it can hardly pay its army and has no surplus to invest in new military technology. Today, only China shows the will to begin to narrow the military technological gap with the United States. Only China is the great potential rival of the United States.

The relative lack of interest of the American people in the world around them has a real basis: They are their own principal market. And this enormous domestic market continues to ride a wave of prosperity and expansion that has few precedents.

One result of U.S. political and economic leadership at the end of the millennium is a society of superfluous consumption that is reaching levels that seem not only immoral but absurd as well. For example, young engineers and the managers of high-tech companies in California are so fond of BMWs that importers cannot fill all the orders. In Palo Alto, a not particularly impressive home that went on the market a few months ago for $2 million was sold within a week for $3 million, because buyers abounded. On Tiburon peninsula, no one finds it absurd that there is a store that specializes in gifts for dogs and cats. Bill Gates, the creator of Microsoft, is expanding his fortune at such a pace that by the time the size of his holdings is published in the annual list in Forbes Magazine, it is already obsolete. The concentration of income inside the United States is striking, but it pales in comparison with the concentration worldwide to which the economic system headed by the United States has given rise. Estimates are today that the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's population accounts for 86 percent of income, while the poorest 20 percent must make do with just 1 percent.

In short, political democracy and the rule of law are the dominant values in the global empire of the United States, and there is no point in denying this great contribution to global civilization. But the other side of the system presided over by the United States is the brutally unfair distribution of wealth in this world: The very few have increasingly more, but all too many have very little and will have proportionately even less in the future, because for now there is nothing to stop this dynamic of fundamental injustice.

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