Home Alone: Can America Play the Superpower Role?

Home Alone: Can America Play the Superpower Role?

If you listen closely, you can hear a hollow ring to all the triumphalist talk about America’s superpower monopoly since the end of the cold war. True, it is a position without precedent for any government since the days of the Roman Empire. But the nation’s political leadership cannot agree on what to do with this power, and the American public may not be willing or able to sustain it. “The present danger,” wrote Robert Kagan and William Kristol in Foreign Affairs early this year, “is that the US . . . will shrink its responsibilities,” thereby “frittering away the opportunity to strengthen and extend an international order uniquely favorable to the US.” But it is not enough just to press for more military spending and a more vigorous doctrine of intervention, as these authors do. One needs to consider Americans’ post–cold war “battle fatigue,” as Stanley Hoffmann calls it in World Disorders: “fatigue with battles, fatigue both with unilateral interventions and with multilateral agencies and operations not controlled by the US.” American tradition, already overstrained by the great international tests of the past century, finds it hard to accommodate the country’s new, overweening, but nevertheless exposed position.

Survival and Triumph

A good way to understand Americans’ uncertainties as they confront their new world role is to recall two formative events in the early history of the American republic that set up paradigms—bundles of assumptions and reflexes—illuminating much in Americans’ thinking ever since. One of these was the War of 1812, the “second war of independence,” as it came to be known. Rightly or wrongly, that war went down in American history as the quintessential struggle of an infant democracy to preserve its liberty and assert its identity against a threatening world of evil powers. In The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Donald R. Hickey culled some contemporary expressions of this spirit: “We have stood the contest, single-handed, against the conqueror of Europe,” boasted Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, and Representative Charles J. Ingersoll of Pennsylvania declaimed, “Who is not proud to feel himself an American—our wrongs revenged—our rights recognized!” Not for nothing did the national anthem derive from that war: “Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just.”

The other early experience that shaped Americans’ outlook on the world had a very different direction. This was the so-called Second Great Awakening, the religious revival of the 1820s and 1830s that affirmed evangelical rectitude and stimulated American missionary activity all over the world. “Leaders of the Second Great Awakening,” says Robert William Fogel in his new study of American reformism, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, “preached that the American mission was to build God’s kingdom on earth.”


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