George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine


America’s current status as a hegemonic, unrivaled, unchallengeable “hyper-power,” the subject of Joseph Nye’s book, is exemplified in its military establishment. Before September 11, before President Bush proposed a 14 percent ($48 billion) increase in defense spending this year, the US was already in a league of its own. It has bases, ships, planes, and soldiers all around the globe. Washington spends more on its armed forces than any nation in history: the US defense budget will soon outdistance the annual defense expenditures of the next nine states combined. True, the member states of the EU between them have more soldiers than the US, and collectively their defense spending totaled nearly 70 percent that of Washington’s pre-2002 outlays; but the results in technology and hardware are simply not comparable. The US can intervene or make war almost anywhere in the world. No one else even comes close.

But the “America” that much of the world carries in its head is not defined by throw weights, smart bombs, or even GIs. It is more subtle and diffuse than that. In some places it is a fading memory of liberation. In others it is a promise of freedom, opportunity, and plenty: a political metaphor and a private fantasy. Elsewhere, or in the same places at other times, America has been identified with local repression. In short, America is everywhere. Americans—just 5 percent of the world’s population—generate 30 percent of the World’s Gross Product, consume nearly 30 percent of global oil production, and are responsible for almost as high a share of the world’s output of greenhouse gases. Our world is divided in many ways: rich/poor; North/South; Western/non-Western. But more and more, the division that counts is the one separating America from everyone else.

The anti-Americanism now preoccupying commentators should thus come as no surprise. The United States, by virtue of its unique standing, is exposed to the world’s critical gaze in everything it does or fails to do. Some of the antipathy the US arouses is a function of what it is: long before America rose to global dominion foreign visitors were criticizing its brash self-assurance, the narcissistic confidence of Americans in the superiority of American values and practices, and their rootless inattentiveness to history and tradition—their own and other people’s. The charge sheet has grown since the United States took the world stage, but it has not changed much. This “cultural” anti-Americanism is shared by Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians, secular and religious alike. It is not about antipathy to the West, or freedom, or the Enlightenment, or any other abstraction exemplified by the US. It is about America.1

Resented for what it is, America also stokes antipathy by what it does. Here things have recently changed for the worse. The US is often a delinquent international citizen. It is reluctant to join international initiatives or agreements, whether on climate warming, biological warfare, criminal justice, or women’s rights; the US is one of only two states (the other being Somalia) that have failed to ratify the 1989 Convention on Children’s Rights. The present US administration has “unsigned” the Rome Treaty establishing an International Criminal Court and has declared itself no longer bound by the Vienna Convention on Law of Treaties, which sets out the obligations of states to abide by treaties they have yet to ratify. The American attitude toward the United Nations and its agencies is cool, to say the least. Earlier this year the US ambassador for human rights called for the early dismissal of the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia—even though these are integral to any serious war on international terror and the US itself spent millions of dollars to bribe Belgrade into handing Slobodan Milosevic over to the Hague tribunal.

To many outsiders this inconsistent approach to international organizations and agreements, some of which Washington helped to establish, belies America’s claim to share international interests and seek multilateral partners for its goals. The same is true of American economic practices. The US is both advocate and exemplar of globalization—free-market capitalism untrammeled by frontiers, special interests, restrictive practices, protectionism, or state interference. But at home Washington applies steel tariffs, farm supports, and de facto government subsidies (notably for the defense industries) for domestic political gain. The European Union does this too, of course—the notorious Common Agricultural Policy consumes 45 percent of the Brussels budget and is at least as damaging in blocking the produce of African farmers as any US farm bill. But the cost to America’s image is far greater: the US is intimately identified with the very international norms it is transgressing.

To foreign critics, these contradictions in American behavior suggest hypocrisy—perhaps the most familiar of the accusations leveled at the US. They are all the more galling because, hypocritical or not, America is indispensable. Without American participation, most international agreements are dead letters. American leadership seems to be required even in cases—such as Bosnia between 1992 and 1995—where the British and their fellow Europeans had the means to resolve the crisis unaided. The US is cruelly unsuited to play the world’s policeman—Washington’s attention span is famously short, even in chronically troubled regions like Kashmir, the Balkans, the Middle East, or Korea—but it seems to have no choice. Meanwhile everyone else, but the Europeans especially, resent the United States when it fails to lead, but also when it leads too assertively.


The predictable backlash has been a new tone in American policy, an arrogant impatience with foreign opinion of any kind. The cold war is over, runs the unilateralist creed of the Bush administration and its supporters, and the dust has now cleared. We know who we are, and we know what we want. Foreign policy is about national interests. National interests are served by the exercise of power. Power is about arms and the will to use them, and we have both. In the words of the columnist Charles Krauthammer, in June 2001, “The new unilateralism seeks to strengthen American power and unashamedly deploy it on behalf of self-defined global ends.”2

In the immediate aftermath of September 11 the Bush administration’s unilateralist rhetoric was muted, to ease the search for allies in the coming war on terror. Overseas commentators, abashed by the carnage, earnestly returned the compliment—“We are all Americans now,” pronounced Le Monde, while NATO invoked Article V of its charter for the first time, committing all its members to solidarity with a United States under attack. But the honeymoon was short-lived. Most American allies firmly supported the war on Afghanistan, whatever their private misgivings. But in January 2002, when President Bush alluded in his State of the Union speech to an “axis of evil” (North Korea, Iran, Iraq), the breach was reopened.

What caused offense in that speech was less its substance than its form. Most of America’s allies doubt the wisdom of alienating Iran from the Western nations, and some of them question Washington’s way of handling Saddam Hussein. But these are not new disagreements. However, just four months after the administration declared itself keen to build alliances and collaborate closely with its friends in the struggle against a common enemy, Bush’s account of America’s global struggle against the forces of darkness didn’t even mention America’s allies. This raised hackles.3

The American response was to feign surprise—“So what unilateral action have we taken that has them all so shocked?” asked Colin Powell on February 17. But the Europeans had not misread the signs from Washington. Powell notwithstanding, the realist (some might say cynical) consensus in the administration was that since America’s allies are irrelevant to its military calculations and have no political choice but to tag along, nothing is gained by consulting them in advance or taking their sensitivities into consideration. In its crudest form this conclusion was well summarized, once again, by Charles Krauthammer:

Our sophisticated European cousins are aghast. The French led the way, denouncing American simplisme. They deem it a breach of manners to call evil by its name. They prefer accommodating to it. They have lots of practice, famously accommodating Nazi Germany in 1940…. We are in a war of self-defense. It is also a war for Western civilization. If the Europeans refuse to see themselves as part of this struggle, fine. If they wish to abdicate, fine. We will let them hold our coats, but not tie our hands.4

It is typical of the ugly mood in parts of Washington today that Krauthammer omits to mention not only that France lost 100,000 men in six weeks of fighting against the Germans in 1940, but also that the United States maintained full diplomatic relations with the evil Nazis for a further eighteen months, until Hitler declared war on America in December 1941.

Krauthammer, of course, is just a columnist. But the new tone of American foreign policy today is dryly summarized by Powell himself—for many foreigners the lone voice of multilateral moderation in Bush’s administration. Speaking in Rome, after the recent Bush–Putin meeting and the subsequent establishment of a NATO– Russia Council, he insisted that US foreign policy remains as “multilateralist” as ever. Our task, he explained, is to try to persuade our friends that our policies are right. But if that fails, “then we will take the position we believe is correct and I hope the Europeans are left with a better understanding of the way in which we want to do business.”5

It is this condescending indifference to outside opinion that grates on foreign ears and that has so disappointed America’s allies after the raised expectations of September 2001. Together with Bush’s recently pronounced strategic doctrine of “unilaterally determined preemptive self-defense” and the alarming prospect of new earth-penetrating nuclear weapons for possible use in Iraq—an unprecedented break with America’s historical reluctance to countenance first-strike weapons of this sort—it paints once more the picture of an American leadership deaf to criticism or advice.6 It is a leadership that all too often seems contemptuous and bellicose, and, in the words of El Pais, fuels “public alarm” by its obsessions and self-serving warnings of imminent Armageddon.


Joseph Nye is dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard and was a senior defense and intelligence official under President Clinton. His book-length essay on American foreign policy was written before the attacks of September 11 and hastily updated for publication, but it could not be more timely. Nye is not a Wilsonian idealist, bemoaning American reluctance to join the international community in a search for a better world—in 1990 he published Bound to Lead, in which he correctly predicted the coming American hegemony.7 He is not embarrassed by the reality of American supremacy.

Nevertheless, he has written a strong critique of unilateralism in American foreign policy—the widespread disposition to “go it alone,” paying a minimum of attention to the wishes of others. He is also implicitly skeptical of “realism,” the approach to international relations that disparages a priori concern with rights, transnational laws, or moral objectives and confines diplomacy to the advance of American interests by all appropriate means. But this is not a book about international relations theory.8 Nye’s objection to unilateralism, or realism in the sense used here, is not that they are conceptually insecure; his point is that they just don’t work.

In Nye’s view, international relations today resemble a particularly intricate game of three-dimensional chess. On one level there is hard military power, a terrain where the US reigns uncontested. On the second level there is economic power and influence: in this field the European Union already challenges the US in trade, the regulation of monopolies, and the setting of industrial standards, and outdistances America in telecommunications, environmental policy, and much else. And there are other players besides.

At the third level Nye places the multifarious and proliferating nongovernmental activities shaping our world: currency flows, migration, transnational corporations, NGOs, international agencies, cultural exchanges, the electronic media, the Internet, and terrorism. Non-state actors communicate and operate across this terrain virtually unconstrained by government interference; and the power of any one state, the US included, is readily frustrated and neutralized.

The trouble with the people in charge of shaping and describing US policy today, according to Nye, is that they are only playing at the first level, their vision restricted to American military firepower. In his words, “Those who recommend a hegemonic American foreign policy based on such traditional descriptions of American power are relying on woefully inadequate analysis.” Before September 11, Americans in Nye’s view were willfully deaf to the world around them. They blithely ignored even those, like the former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, who warned them in 1999 of a coming catastrophe: “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”9 September 11 ought to have been a clear call for a fresh perspective, but America’s present leadership appears not to be listening.

If the United States is to win its war on terror, if it is to succeed in its assertion of world leadership, it is going to need the help and understanding of others, particularly in dealing with poor Arab and Muslim states and others resentful at their own backwardness. This is perfectly obvious. International police actions and the regulation and oversight of intercontinental movements of currency, goods, and people require international cooperation.10 “Failed states,” in whose detritus terrorists flourish, need to be rebuilt—the US is culpably uninterested in this task and no longer much good at it, in depressing contrast to its performance after 1945. America does the bombing, but the complicated and dangerous work of reconstruction is left to others.

The European Union (including its candidate members) currently contributes ten times more peacekeeping troops worldwide than the US, and in Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere the Europeans have taken more military casualties than the US. Fifty-five percent of the world’s development aid and two thirds of all grants-in-aid to the poor and vulnerable nations of the globe come from the European Union. As a share of GNP, US foreign aid is barely one third the European average. If you combine European spending on defense, foreign aid, intelligence gathering, and policing—all of them vital to any sustained war against international crime—it easily matches the current American defense budget. Notwithstanding the macho preening that sometimes passes for foreign policy analysis in contemporary Washington, the United States is utterly dependent on friends and allies in order to achieve its goals.

If America is to get and keep foreign support, it is going to have to learn to wield what Nye calls “soft power.” Grand talk of a new American Empire is illusory, Nye believes: another misleading historical allusion to put with “Vietnam” and “Munich” in the catalog of abused analogies. In Washington today one hears loud boasts of unipolarity and hegemony, but the fact, Nye writes, is that

The success of US primacy will depend not just on our military or economic might but also on the soft power of our culture and values and on policies that make others feel they have been consulted and their interests have been taken into account. Talk about empire may dazzle us and mislead us into thinking we can go it alone.11

Soft power, in Nye’s usage, sounds a lot like common sense, and would have seemed that way to every post-war American administration from Harry Truman to George Bush Sr. If you want others to want what you want, you need to make them feel included. Soft power is about influence, example, credibility, and reputation. The Soviet Union, in Nye’s account, lost it in the course of its invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968. America’s soft power is enhanced by the openness and energy of its society; it is diminished by needlessly crass behavior, like Bush’s blunt assertion that the Kyoto agreement was “dead.” Scandinavian states, and Canada, exercise influence far above their weight in international affairs because of their worldwide identification with aid and peacekeeping. This, too, is soft power.

You don’t need to agree with Nye in every instance to sympathize with his overall thesis. What he is proposing, after all, is that the government of the United States pay what Thomas Jefferson once called “A decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind.” Far from representing a frustrating impediment to the pursuit of national interest, the judicious exercise of restraint and cooperation can only enhance it, in a world where America is anyway powerless to defend its many interests unaided. Nye has little patience for those, like the present national security adviser, in whose blinkered perspective the US should “proceed from the firm ground of national interest and not from the interest of an illusory international community.”

In Nye’s account, the national interest in a democracy “is simply what citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is.” Given the nature of modern democracy that is a little naive, but any definition of American interest could surely accommodate a modicum of reduced sovereignty in exchange for a basket of public goods whose benefits would be shared with the world at large.

The costs of American obstinacy are well illustrated by the recent international skirmish over the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Bush administration opposes the Court, claiming that Americans serving abroad would be exposed to frivolous prosecutions. Accordingly, in anticipation of the Court’s inauguration on July 1, 2002, the US in late June threatened to withdraw from UN peacekeeping missions and veto all such operations in the future unless Americans are guaranteed a blanket exemption from the Court’s jurisdiction. Perhaps taken a little aback by the refusal of other UN Security Council members to accede to such arm-twisting, the US agreed after lengthy and fraught discussions to a face-saving compromise: UN peacekeepers from countries that have not signed on to the ICC will have one year of immunity from prosecution, renewable every July 1.

The behavior of the US in this affair was deeply unseemly. There are only 700 Americans currently serving overseas in UN peacekeeping missions (out of a total of 45,000 personnel), and the ICC already contained clauses, inserted explicitly to mollify Washington, that virtually exempted UN missions from prosecution. The initial American position this June had clearly been taken with the object of undermining the International Criminal Court and UN peacekeeping activities—both of them scorned and abominated by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice. Washington’s stance is particularly embarrassing because it makes a mockery of American insistence upon the international pursuit and prosecution of terrorists and other political criminals; and because it provides American cover for countries and politicians who have real cause to fear the new Court. All of our allies on the UN Security Council voted against the US on this matter; meanwhile Washington’s opposition to the International Criminal Court is shared by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, Israel, and Egypt.12

Nevertheless, many widely sought goals could be reached merely by the US ceasing to oppose them: Washington has refused to sign the international Protocol on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and Congress won’t ratify the international Convention on Discrimination against Women: in the first case because the Pentagon wants to reserve the right to recruit a handful of seventeen-year-olds, in the second because of the anti-abortion lobby. Like racial segregation in the 1950s, such policies bring worldwide discredit to the US: a sure impediment to the pursuit of American interest, however you define it. Even the mere appearance of taking the world seriously would enhance American influence immeasurably—from European intellectuals to Islamic fundamentalists, anti-Americanism feeds voraciously off the claim that the US is callously indifferent to the views and needs of others.

There is a world of difference between encouraging others to want what you want and seducing them into wanting what you have. Many American commentators miss this distinction, and parochially assume that the world is divided into those who want what America has got and those who hate America for having it. Joseph Nye is careful to avoid such solipsism. But even he takes it for granted that the US and its Western allies are basically at one and share common values and goals: all that is needed to close the rift that has opened up between Europe and the US is a more subtle and sensitive exercise of American diplomatic clout. I am not so sure.


Superficially, the Atlantic gap is a by-product of post–cold war restructuring. The purpose of NATO is now unclear and opinion is split (in Europe as in the US) over whether and how Europeans should organize collectively for their own defense in the absence of a Soviet threat. The European Union, free to enlarge to its east, is absorbed by internal debates over how to do this and the consequences for its own governance. The “big” three members (Germany, France, Great Britain) are wary of having their actions constrained by more than twenty smaller states, while the latter cling nervously to their equal status within the Union. The world outside does not have Europe’s undivided attention.

For the sake of the euro the EU has imposed strict spending constraints on its members, just as postwar baby-boomers are retiring and placing heavy demands on national pension funds. And to this must be added the incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the far right. For all these reasons, and because of their erstwhile dependence on the American nuclear umbrella, Europeans are reluctant to divert public resources to military spending and for the most part they don’t fully appreciate America’s post– September 11 apprehension over terrorism—the British and the Spanish have lived with murderous domestic terrorism for over thirty years.

In any case, although Europeans today feel more “European” than they used to, the EU will never be a “superpower,” for all its economic heft.13 “Europe” does not think strategically, and even its largest members are in no position to do so in isolation. Even when they all agree—as in their anxious frustration at Bush’s failed Middle East policy—European leaders cannot line up as one to say so. Europeans are right to criticize the propensity of America to march out, dispose of its enemies, and then retreat to its fortress. As Chris Patten, the EU commissioner for external affairs, put it after the “axis of evil” speech, “True friends are not sycophants,” and the US needs its friends.14 But it is not as if they have an alternative strategy to propose.

But there is more to the breach within the West than squabbles over defense. The cold war and the Atlantic alliance concealed for half a century deep differences between two sharply contrasting sorts of society. The Europeans “underspend” on defense not just because the American guarantee allowed them to enter a garden of Perpetual Peace,15 but because in the third quarter of this century they chose to devote a lot of money to expensive (and very popular) public services. The result is that in many crucial respects Europe and the US are actually less alike than they were fifty years ago.

This observation flies in the face of claims about “globalization” and “Americanization” advanced not just by enthusiastic proponents of the process, but also by its angry critics. Yet there is less to the promise of a new American century than meets the eye. In the first place, we have been here before. It is a cardinal tenet of the prophets of globalization that the logic of economic efficiency must sweep all before it (a characteristically nineteenth-century fallacy they share with Marxists). But that was also how it seemed at the peak of the last great era of globalization, on the eve of World War I, when many observers likewise foresaw the decline of the nation-state and a coming age of international economic integration.

What happened, of course, was something rather different, and 1913 levels of international trade, communication, and mobility would not be reached again until the mid-1970s. The contingencies of domestic politics trumped the “laws” of international economic behavior, and they may do so again. Capitalism is indeed global in its reach, but its local forms have always been richly variable and they still are. This is because economic practices shape national institutions and legal norms and are shaped by them in their turn; they are deeply embedded in very different national and moral cultures.

Partly for this reason, the American model is not obviously more appealing to people elsewhere and its triumph is far from sure. Europeans and Americans live quite different sorts of lives. More than one in five Americans are poor, whereas the figures for continental Western Europe hover around 8 percent. Sixty percent more babies die in their first year of life in the US than in France or Germany. The disparity between rich and poor is vastly greater in the US than anywhere in continental Europe (or than it was in the US twenty years ago); but whereas fewer than one American in three supports significant redistribution of wealth, 63 percent of Britons favor it and the figures are higher still on the European continent.

Even before modern European welfare states were established, most employed Europeans had compulsory health insurance (since 1883 in the German case), and all Western Europeans now take for granted the interlocking mesh of guarantees, protections, and supports whose reduction or abolition they have consistently opposed at the polls. The social and occupational insecurity familiar to tens of millions of Americans has long been politically intolerable anywhere in the European Union. If fascism and communism were the European reactions to the last great wave of laissez-faire globalization (as Joseph Nye and others have proposed), then “welfare capitalism” is Europe’s insurance against a rerun. On prudential grounds if for no other reason, the rest of the West is not about to take the American path.

But what of the claim that Europeans, like everyone else in the world, will have little choice? Much is said about the coming ineluctable triumph of American economic practice at the expense of the lumbering, unproductive, inflexible European variant. Yet handicapped as they are by all the supposed impedimenta of their statist past, the economies of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands last year were actually more productive for each hour worked than that of the US, while the Irish, the Austrians, the Danes, and the Germans were very close behind.16

Between 1991 and 1998 productivity on average actually grew faster in Europe than in the US. The US nonetheless outpaces Europe in gross terms. This is because more Americans work; the state takes less from their wages (and provides less in return); they work longer hours—28 percent more than Germans, 43 percent more than the French; and they take shorter vacations or none at all.

Whether Europe (or anywhere else) would look more like America if the American economic model were adopted there is a moot point. The modern American economy is not replicable elsewhere. The “war on terror” is not the only matter in which the US is critically dependent upon foreigners. The American economic “miracle” of the past decade has been fueled by the $1.2 billion per day in foreign capital inflow that is needed to cover the country’s foreign trade deficit, currently running at $450 billion per year. It is these huge inward investment flows that have kept share prices up, inflation and interest rates down, and domestic consumption booming.

If a European, Asian, or Latin American country ran comparable trade deficits, it would long since be in the hands of the International Monetary Fund. The US is uniquely placed to indulge such crippling dependence on foreign investors because the dollar has been the world’s reserve currency since World War II. How long the American economy can operate thus before it is brought painfully to earth by a loss of overseas confidence is a much-debated topic; as is the related claim that it was these rivers of foreign cash, rather than the unprecedented productivity of the new high-tech sectors, that drove the prosperity of the 1990s.17 What is clear is that for all its recent allure, the American model is unique and not for export.

Far from universalizing its appeal, globalization has if anything diminished foreign enthusiasm for the American model: the reduction in public ownership of goods and services in Europe over the past twenty years has not been accompanied by any reduction in the state’s social obligations—except in Britain where, tellingly, governments have had to backtrack in the face of public opposition. And it is because they inhabit such very different societies that Europeans and Americans see the world so differently and value sharply contrasting international processes and outcomes.

Just as modern American leaders typically believe that in domestic public life citizens are best left to their own devices, with limited government intervention, so they project this view onto international affairs as well. Seen from Washington, the world is a series of discrete challenges or threats, calibrated according to their implications for America. Since the US is a global power, almost anything that happens in the world is of concern to it; but the American instinct is to address and resolve any given problem in isolation.

There is also a refreshingly American confidence that problems may indeed be resolved—at which point the US can return home. This emphasis upon an “exit strategy,” upon being in the world but not quite of it, always at liberty to retire from the fray, has its domestic analogue in modern American life. Like many of its citizens, especially since September 11, the United States feels most comfortable when retreating to its “gated community.”

This is not an option for Europeans and others, for whom today’s world is a spiderweb of interlocking legal regimes and agencies, regulating and overseeing almost every aspect of life. The problems facing Europe today—crime, immigration, refugees, environmental hazards, institutional integration—are inherently chronic and they all transcend borders. Governments habitually work in concert or through multilateral institutions. Just as the public sector has displaced individual initiative in many parts of national life, so the habit of collaboration shapes European approaches to international affairs. In these respects it is Europe that has successfully “globalized” and the United States that lags far behind.

For all these reasons, and because so much of American foreign policy is driven by insular considerations that will not soon change, it is hard to share Joseph Nye’s optimistic conclusions about the future of Ameri-can “soft power.” The US is quite literally its own worst enemy: it is when pandering to domestic constituencies that American presidents most often alienate foreign opinion. Bombastic rhetoric and unilateralist posturing go down well at home and may even intimidate foreign foes (though this seems uncertain). But they surely terrify and estrange a third constituency, America’s many friends and admirers abroad.

And yet America is still esteemed and even revered overseas, not because of globalization but in spite of it. America is not epitomized by MTV and McDonald’s, or by Enron or by Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom. America is not even particularly admired abroad for its awesome military establishment, any more than it is respected for its unparalleled wealth. American power and influence are actually very fragile, because they rest upon an idea, a unique and irreplaceable myth: that the United States really does stand for a better world and is still the best hope of all who seek it.

The real threat to America, which the Bush administration has not even begun to comprehend, is that in the face of American neglect and indifference this myth will fade and “large proportions of key societies [will] turn against the US and the global values of free trade and free society.”18 This would spell the end of “the West” as we have understood it for half a century. The postwar North Atlantic community of interest and mutual friendship was unprecedented and invaluable: its loss would be a disaster for everyone.19

What gives America its formidable international influence is not its unequaled capacity for war but the trust of others in its good intentions. That is why Washington’s opposition to the International Criminal Court does so much damage. It suggests that the US does not trust the rest of the world to treat Americans fairly. But if America displays a lack of trust in others, the time may come when they will return the compliment.

In the spring of 2001 the tiny south Balkan state of Macedonia was on the verge of civil war. Its Macedonian Slav majority confronted a rebellion by the frustrated, disadvantaged Albanian minority; the government, led by unreconstructed National-Communists, was itching to unleash a brutal and bloody “police action.” With great difficulty, intermediaries from Britain and elsewhere negotiated a fragile agreement: the insurgents would disarm and, in return, parliament would pass laws to protect and enfranchise the country’s Albanian citizens. For a few weeks everyone held their breath—if Macedonia “blew,” the South Balkans might explode, sucking Greece, Turkey, and NATO into the cauldron.

But Macedonia did not “blow” and the agreement held and still holds. At the crest of the emergency I asked an Albanian friend what was stopping the Macedonian government, demonstrably unhappy with the accords, from tearing them up and doing its worst. “Colin Powell’s fax machine,” he replied. The moral authority of America’s secretary of state (and it was only moral—the US had no intention of dispatching soldiers); the fact that Macedonia mattered enough to America for Powell to place his weight on the scales—these considerations sufficed to defuse a significant regional crisis.

So long as such obscure, faraway countries continue to matter to America, America will matter to them and to everyone else, and its power for good will continue. But if America stops caring, it will also cease to count. If Washington stops trusting, it will lose the trust of others. The fax machine will fall silent and we shall all be a lot lonelier and infinitely more vulnerable; the US above all.

This Issue

August 15, 2002