The word “again” is included in the title since this country (USA) was once referred to as a “superpower” after the end of the Cold War (1991) but has since relinquished that title either by choice or by chance. If by choice means deliberation: that both political leaders and the population have chosen to concentrate on home or domestic issues and allow global leadership either to lapse or fall to others, or to nobody. If by chance, it means that it was accidental: that, despite the best of intentions, the country is unable to continue as “super” and, by definition, must concentrate on those issues that it can control.
There is still a third alternative, however unlikely, that the U.S. continues as a superpower but there are no challenges to that title or that it has become so innocuous that it is now “taken for granted.”
Enter the fourth alternative, argued here: that “choices” were never made in any deliberate fashion, nor was it any accident. The thesis states that the political “will” for global leadership was neither a choice nor a chance, that it was unknowingly thrust upon a country that had neither the alternative to refuse nor accept, i.e. design of “nature,” as easily won as lost.
The explanation for option four is contained neither in technology, military prowess, numbers, economy, nor any other “empirical” design that can be calculated by statistics. In 1945, when our time as a “superpower” began, the country had about 140 million people. It now has more than double that number, close to 340 million. In 1945, the U.S. had two atomic bombs, both used over Japan. In the years as a superpower, the U.S. was able to develop over 70,000 nuclear weapons, distributed all over the world and more than all other countries combined. In 1945, the U.S. lacked any ally save the British Commonwealth, allied in the war. In the Cold War, the U.S. developed over 40 alliances, including 12 in NATO, over 20 in the OAS, and others in Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East. By 1980, the U.S. had bases and other military installations in approximately 800 locations worldwide. In the Reagan Administration, the Soviet Union had its own nuclear arsenal and was challenging Western civilization around the world. In December 1991, it ceased existence and went back to what it always was, Russia.
If those indicators aren’t “super,” then the word has no meaning.
Nor have they declined by any precipitous degree. True, nuclear weapons have sharply declined but by agreement. NATO has nearly tripled to 32 members, and Russia can’t control its neighbor Ukraine, while the U.S. has poured almost $100 billion to them in just ten months. China is the only country that can take the mantle of “superpower” away, but even this is distant, vague, and questionable.
So what happened to “superpower”?
The numbers are decent, but is there sufficient will? Minus willpower, numbers are almost without meaning. If one is 6’6’’ and 280 pounds but hates the sight of blood, what can he do? Even the Ukraine case says something.
Willpower, purpose and intellect, anticipation, deterrence, and prevention are attributes of a true superpower able to control the global environment. Deterrence was the hallmark of the American nuclear arsenal throughout the decades of the Cold War. It existed to “prevent,” not to use. Deterrence has since vanished, while Russia is free to invade, regardless of cost.
I recently attended a conference where one speaker noted with pride how the U.S. had spent eight years supplying Ukraine with weapons to resist Putin. Publicly, I asked him if we spent an equivalent time reminding the Russian President of the “consequences” of invasion. He wasn’t sure but didn’t think so.
His answer is the equivalence of the “loss” of superpower status by the U.S., regardless of what happens in Ukraine. “Surprise” is, by definition, a lack of control over the strategic environment, and the lack of control is equivalent to the status of a strategic “bystander.” Not only should NATO, led by America, have anticipated an invasion, but they should have done this in the year 1992, not the day after. Putin, moreover, should have been made aware of the “consequences,” not the day he was sworn in, but the day before!
Is America, even slightly, to blame for the invasion of Ukraine? To a degree, of course, not by what we did but by what we didn’t do. Or to put it another way, what we are, not what we were. Historically, eighty years later, can we accept “responsibility” for another day “of infamy”? Or was Japan the only country involved in December 7, 1941? We are now concerned about another Pearl Harbor, but from Russia.
So what is the “cause” of this current situation, dimly understood and even questioned? Is it biology, politics, sociology, deliberate, or accidental? To summarize, a little of each. Any country defined by “systemic racism” will not and cannot supervise the world. Nor can a people worried about “white supremacy” do the same any more than those who argue over “a woman’s right to choose” or whose first line of defense is against “police brutality.”
With due deference to the social contenders in today’s America, one is reminded of Lincoln’s response when the Cabinet wanted to declare war with Britain over its support for the Confederacy. “Gentlemen please,” he replied, “one war at a time” (1863).
America as a Superpower, RIP.