WASHINGTON — Every Tuesday morning, a computer screen on the third floor of the Pentagon lights up with a row of figures, white against a dark background: $250,000,000.00.
"Our weekly check," one official wryly describes it. Each computer entry is an installment on the emir of Kuwait's $2.5-billion contribution to the U.S.-led effort to free his oil-rich nation.
President Bush hailed the emir's contribution, along with similar funds from Japan and elsewhere, as a heartening sign of "a new world order," a grand alliance against a common threat from Iraq.
It is also the first time in history that a U.S. military operation has been subsidized by foreign governments. As such, the novel arrangement--like the crisis that spawned it--reflects profound changes in the way the United States and other nations exercise power in a new era.
The Persian Gulf crisis has shown clearly that the United States stands alone as a world leader; no other nation approaches its combination of military might, economic muscle and political sway. Yet never before in what was once called the "American Century" has Washington's freedom to flex its muscles been so circumscribed, so dependent on the political and financial cooperation of allies.
Once, America could send hundreds of thousands of troops into foreign combat largely at its own discretion. Today, as a practical matter, Bush can resort to military force only with the support of others--from the emir of Kuwait to the leader of the Soviet Union, in the case of the gulf crisis. And what is true for George Bush is truer still for the leaders of the other developed nations of the world.
From Washington and London to Tokyo and Bonn, world leaders are struggling to cope with two sweeping changes in the realities of power.
The ending of the Cold War means that the age of the nuclear superpowers, in which every nation had to define itself in terms of the titanic East-West struggle, is over. Its passing lifts the threat of Armageddon, but it also dissolves the political structures that gave the world a generation of stability. And it removes those structures at a time when smaller countries, many still in conflict with their neighbors, are amassing ever more destructive weaponry.
"The control that used to be imposed by the Soviet Union and the United States will disappear," warned Gen. Hiroomi Kurisu, a former chairman of Japan's joint chiefs of staff, "and the national interests of all countries will come increasingly into conflict."
At the same time, the globalization of the world economy has changed the concept of national power. "Economic power, as a base for political power and a political voice, has grown because the danger of a big war has receded," said former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
"For stability and confidence-building, political and economic power--not military power--is important," he said.
"The period which we call the Cold War was a period entirely dominated by military issues," agreed Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president of France. "We lived in the expectation of war. . . . But economic issues are now taking the lead."
Globalization has forced every nation to refocus its energies on an international competition for markets and profits. "Markets are becoming more important than countries," said Israel's former finance minister Shimon Peres. "Economics is beginning to be as important as strategy."
French President Francois Mitterrand put it even more simply last spring when he offered his countrymen a modern-day summons to greatness. "The French must have a conquering mentality," he said. "The French must learn to sell."
To do that, national governments are finding that they must cede increasingly significant portions of their authority "upward" to regional institutions such as the European Community and "outward" to international financial entities such as global credit markets.
This increased focus on economic competition has not eliminated the importance of military power, as the gulf crisis attests, but it has made military adventures appear more costly. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have drawn a major lesson from the stunning economic success of Japan, which forswore offensive armament after World War II: The "national security" the old superpowers built out of missiles and guns was sapping their economic strength.
Moreover, as economic competition sharpens in the 1990s and beyond, some countries will be left behind--a circumstance that will increase the potential for conflict between the generally prosperous Northern Hemisphere and the generally struggling Southern Hemisphere.