Take a look around the world and it’s hard not to conclude that the United States is a superpower in decline. Whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, aspiring powers are flexing their muscles, ignoring Washington’s dictates, or actively combating them. Russia refuses to curtail its support for armed separatists in Ukraine; China refuses to abandon its base-building endeavors in the South China Sea; Saudi Arabia refuses to endorse the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal with Iran; the Islamic State movement (ISIS) refuses to capitulate in the face of U.S. airpower. What is a declining superpower supposed to do in the face of such defiance?
This is no small matter. For decades, being a superpower has been the defining characteristic of American identity. The embrace of global supremacy began after World War II when the United States assumed responsibility for resisting Soviet expansionism around the world; it persisted through the Cold War era and only grew after the implosion of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. assumed sole responsibility for combating a whole new array of international threats. As General Colin Powell famously exclaimed in the final days of the Soviet era, “We have to put a shingle outside our door saying, ‘Superpower Lives Here,’ no matter what the Soviets do, even if they evacuate from Eastern Europe.”
Imperial Overstretch Hits Washington
Strategically, in the Cold War years, Washington’s power brokers assumed that there would always be two superpowers perpetually battling for world dominance. In the wake of the utterly unexpected Soviet collapse, American strategists began to envision a world of just one, of a “sole superpower” (aka Rome on the Potomac). In line with this new outlook, the administration of George H.W. Bush soon adopted a long-range plan intended to preserve that status indefinitely. Known as the Defense Planning Guidance for Fiscal Years 1994-99, it declared: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.”
H.W.’s son, then the governor of Texas, articulated a similar vision of a globally encompassing Pax Americana when campaigning for president in 1999. If elected, he told military cadets at the Citadel in Charleston, his top goal would be “to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity — given few nations in history — to extend the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to project America’s peaceful influence not just across the world, but across the years.”
For Bush, of course, “extending the peace” would turn out to mean invading Iraq and igniting a devastating regional conflagration that only continues to grow and spread to this day. Even after it began, he did not doubt — nor (despite the reputed wisdom offered by hindsight) does he today — that this was the price that had to be paid for the U.S. to retain its vaunted status as the world’s sole superpower.