THE BLOG
09/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Death of a Superpower: Twenty Years After

In 1991, our great Cold-War rival, the Soviet Union, disintegrated and disappeared. Now, nearly two decades later, it seems a good moment to consider what the consequences have been for our nation and its foreign policy. The initial American reaction was facile celebration: American-led capitalism had triumphed decisively over its principal enemy--Russian-led collectivism. The U.S. was entering a new era of security, prosperity, and global power.

The first policy that followed during the Clinton administration was a considerable geopolitical retreat. The U.S., feeling secure, cut defense spending to record lows, and the country ultimately balanced its budget for the first time in decades. The economy enjoyed a major investment boom. A great inflow of private foreign capital during these dot.com years permitted the U.S. to combine high investment with high consumption. The Federal Reserve collaborated by keeping monetary conditions easy. Inflation of prices and wages seemed not to be a problem, thanks to a rapid increase in productivity and competition from low-cost producers like China. Ultimately, "asset inflation" did set in, as the Clinton boom turned into the Bush bubble -- in the stock market and then in real estate, arguably, there were the first acts of today's financial drama.

Meanwhile neo-conservative pundits and the Clinton administration itself were evolving a second line of policy with quite opposite implications for U.S. foreign policy. The end of the Cold War -- with its "bipolar" world order -- was interpreted to mean that a "unipolar" world order would follow. There would now be only one superpower, the U.S. itself. Exerting global hegemony was therefore seen to be America's national duty and interest. The most significant early sign of this new policy was President Clinton's fervent support for NATO enlargement into former parts of the Soviet Union, a policy that alienated the Russians and logically presumed American hegemony over Eurasia. The new triumphalist policy received a further boost when Europe failed to deal effectively with the breakup of Yugoslavia. President Clinton's reaction was to declare the U.S., "the indispensable nation" for maintaining order throughout the world. During the Bush years, particularly after the atrocities of 9/11, the influence of this "unipolar" world view over American foreign policy was greatly accelerated. In due course, it put us in opposition to most other world powers. We ended up contesting France and Germany for the leadership of Europe, Russia for its own near abroad and China for Asia. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has committed us to an interminable contest with Arabs and Iranians for control of the Middle East.

From our present perspective, we can see how these two lines of post-Soviet policy have led us to a bad place. Clinton's balancing the budget was doubtless a sound idea, but the subsequent high borrowing and heavy consumption, particularly of imported goods, have severely weakened the national economy. Bush's launching two wars and returning military spending to Cold War levels, while cutting taxes, has led the country deeper and deeper into financial chaos, making the dollar itself an increasingly toxic asset. Meanwhile our wars spread in the Middle East and our alienation of China, Russia and Europe continues. Under these circumstances, the U.S. appears to be replicating the same sort of broad systemic breakdown that destroyed the Soviet regime twenty years ago. Ironically, the root cause of our present predicament lies in our failure to understand that the end of the Soviet Union pointed not toward a "unipolar" world under American hegemony but toward a plural world of several great powers. The process had been underway well before the Soviet demise itself. By now, this prolonged misreading of the geopolitical future has put us in great peril. The Soviet Union dead has proved a greater threat to us than ever during its lifetime.

We can hope that Obama will eventually lead us out of this geopolitical cul de sac. But enduring success will require something more fundamental than a skilled and graceful leader. To stop generating policies so ill-suited for the world coming upon us, we will need to purge the prevailing uniplar consciousness from our nation's mind and spirit. This is a project demanding support from liberals and conservatives alike. We will need to rejuvenate the spirit of our own constitutional tradition, and project that spirit into a better understanding of the global system itself. The Iraq war has revealed how wayward American power can become. To preserve our own domestic balance, something beyond a purely national constitutional framework is required. We will need to recognize that the U.S., like all great powers, needs to be checked and balanced. Among states, as among individuals, balancing is often better done among friends than between enemies. For our own sake, we had better rejuvenate our lapsed interest in a stronger and more united European partner. Its talent for conciliation proves more useful for bringing order to a plural world than the preposterously outsized military power and grandiose vision we can no longer sustain.