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U.S. Boasts It's the Only Superpower, but Winds of Change Are Blowing

June 10, 1996|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — America is the world's only superpower. America is the world's only superpower. Its leaders keep chanting this incantation. It is as if Americans need, desperately, to be reassured that nothing has changed.

And yet a look abroad shows signs that Uncle Superpower is making quiet but important compromises of the sort it did not used to make. In Europe, in East Asia, even in the Middle East, a more limited role for America is gradually being worked out in the post-Cold War world--but Americans are not admitting it to themselves.

A pattern is emerging: U.S. policymakers realize that the United States can't do what it used to do, often because it doesn't have the money. The United States needs much more help from other countries, such as Germany, Japan, France or Britain. These major powers then press for important changes in U.S. policy and obtain much of what they want as the price for their support.

Finally, after the United States makes these quiet adjustments, there is a public ritual. Uncle Superpower declares that nothing really has changed and that America is still the king. And our allies genuflect politely.

The latest example came last week when the United States went along with changes in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that give the nations of Western Europe greater authority than they have ever had to conduct military missions on their own.

For decades, throughout the long history of the Cold War, the United States had worked hard to prevent the nations of Western Europe from developing their own independent military capability. When France pushed for European self-sufficiency in defense, the United States argued that it would weaken the unity of NATO.


Now, in the wake of years of fumbling over who should do what in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the United States has yielded to the desire of European leaders to have greater responsibility for the defense of the continent. Some U.S. officials insisted that the changes were not that significant, and others argued that they were a wonderful idea. "This is a win-win situation for everyone," maintained Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Robert W. Tucker, a perceptive scholar of American foreign policy, says that the United States is caught in a contradiction: It still wants to give orders to the rest of the world, yet it is increasingly unwilling to pay the costs of doing so.

"The great issue of American foreign policy today may be simply stated," Tucker wrote in National Interest magazine. "It is the contradiction between the persisting desire to remain the premier global power and an ever deepening aversion to bear the costs of this position."

The words of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) capture perfectly America's attitude toward the world these days. "I'm a hawk, but I'm a cheap hawk," he said last year.

What happened at NATO is happening elsewhere too. America is undertaking less on its own and is opening the way for its allies to do things it would once have opposed. U.S. foreign policy, meanwhile, is often the result of quiet compromises with its allies.

In East Asia, President Clinton signed a new security declaration with Japan in April that will permit the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to expand their scope of operations in the region. Under that agreement, Japan--working with the United States--will take on greater responsibility for preserving the peace throughout Asia.

America and Japan seem to have worked out a partnership that suits the psychological needs of both sides. Japan lets the United States play the role of superpower, taking the public initiative and the heat that comes with it. Meanwhile, the United States embraces Japan's policies in Asia, sometimes doing things for Tokyo that Japan would be reluctant to do on its own.

Look at the current U.S. moves toward providing North Korea with the food and, perhaps, the economic aid that will be necessary to keep alive Kim Jong Il's tottering Communist regime.

These policies will clearly serve the interests of Japan, which fears that the collapse of North Korea would open the way for a reunified Korea, a big new country likely to be hostile to Japan. It is not so clear why keeping North Korea alive is in the interests of the United States.

Even in the Middle East, America is having more trouble than in the past in preserving the image of the superpower.

During Christopher's last trip to the region in April, his attempts to arrange a cease-fire in Lebanon had to compete for attention with separate efforts by France, the European Union, Russia and Iran. French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette, in particular, pushed French initiatives so vigorously that U.S. officials were forced to insist, on a daily basis, that "we're the only game in town."

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