in the New York Times today basically argues that US unilateralism is okay because the US is the only superpower in the world. The argument that the US is the lone, unchallengable superpower is put out so often by the right and left (in this article, two Dartmouth professors suggest it is no longer even debatable) that it is worth examining critically. The argument rests on three features (military, economic, and cultural strength), only two of which are referred to in the article, namely military and economic strength.
On the former, much is made of the fact that the US spends vastly more on arms than anyone else, indeed, more than the next fifteen powers combined. Presumably this makes it powerful. But what exactly does one do with arms? Two things--first and foremost, one defends ones own turf (why many people say they want to own one gun), secondly, one intimidates others into doing ones wishes. On the first point, September 11 represented a crushing blow to claims of US power. The largest military in world history could not stop a handful of terrorists from murdering 3,000 people, including many from the most privileged parts of US society. The current administration, at least in its public statements, has been quite pessimistic about its capacity to stop similar attacks in the future.
On the second point, the US has been able to intimidate a number of forces to do its wishes. Milosevic had to leave Kosovo, and, in good part because of the NATO bombing campaign, he was overthrown shortly after. In the face of US military force, the Taliban basically evaporated. These were impressive victories. Currently, the US is poising for an attack on Iraq. Saddam Hussein may be more trouble than Milosevic or the Taliban, but he also might not be. Nevertheless, it is worth asking about some other forces in the world. Although none have built up armies remotely comparable to the US, it is worth asking whether the US could use its arms to intimidate the European Union, China, Russia, Japan, or even Brazil or India. The consequences of attacking any of these would seem to be too great--in terms of loss of global prestige, and potential loss of American life (although the US stockpiles endless amounts of arms, it does not appear to like to sacrifice many lives in miiltary pursuits these days). Yet these powers, and not Yugoslavia or Afghanistan, are the ones who have some potential in the future to take steps to organize the world in ways the US might object to.
US economic strength is also emphasized. The US is more than twice as large as its next rival, Japan. First of all, this presumes we are comparing the US to Germany, Italy, et al, whereas the latter are amalgating in the European Union, which is quite a bit larger as an economy than the US, or even NAFTA (the latter is not as unified as the EU). In fact, on the crucial question of whether the US can continue to play by its own rules in the world economy--running up endless debt, without ever facing the austerity measures of all other debtor nations--it appears the emergence of the EU poses a significant challenge. There is now another currency to compete with the dollar. It remains to be seen whether East Asia will also emerge as an autonomous actor.
Right now, the prospect of having power rivalry is extremely unappealling, literally endangering humanity. So no one is rushing to do so. But if the US can no longer convince the world that it is bringing order and security, or if its economic attitudes are seen as excessively overweening, we may see a rapid evolution in other directions.