October 22, 2005
The End of a Superpower

By Richard Reeves

PARIS -- Once upon a time in the 1980s, when I was reporting from Europe, there was an overrated superpower known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The nightly television news from the capital of the USSR, Moscow, routinely opened with an official in a badly made suit handing flowers to a worker who had exceeded his or her production quota of cabbage or wing nuts.

Then came several stories that I called "The West in Flames" or, many nights, "The United States in Flames." The film, lifted from Western broadcasts, was all fire, flood and plague in democratic, capitalist countries. Believing Russians, the few, must have gone to bed thinking they would wake up to unconditional Western surrender in the Cold War. The opposite happened, of course.

But the news in Europe, West and East, is still showing America in flames, flood, etc. Cities are shown underwater; befuddled American officials are shown trying to explain why we are actually winning the war on terrorism, the war for a free Iraq and a modern Afghanistan. They also try to ignore or explain the torture of Muslim prisoners in concentration camps, indicted members of Congress and reporters thrown in jail.

Unconvincingly, I'm afraid. The president of the United States is uniformly projected as a fool, anti-freedom, anti-science, anti-common sense. Sometimes unwitting, sometimes witting.

"Superpower" is dead by most definitions, except for the one used to describe both the Soviet Union and the United States in the good old days -- that is, possession of huge stores of weapons of mass destruction. Luckily, most of those mocking us and our works night after night have not reached the point of suggesting we are going to use those weapons. They are pretty useless right now.

The single-superpower model lasted little more than a decade. In fact, when a single superpower is mentioned around here, folks are often talking about China rather than the USA.

Whatever one thinks of President George W. Bush and his unilateralist crew, most of the people laughing at us do not think we are evil. What they think is that we are naive and incompetent.

But, at the same time, belief in a single superpower means that a nation (ours) is held responsible for not having or using powerful tools to do something about the bad things coming from the sky and Earth these days. It is perfectly obvious that no one nor any single country can save the world from the horrors of tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and winged influenza.

The American answer to those doubts and complaints is that people suffer, and probably deserve to, because they will not follow our dictates; for some reason they are reluctant to become like us. The latest bone in the world's throat, barely reported in the United States, is the U.S. vote against a "cultural diversity" agreement last week at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to promote local languages and cultures in the face of "globalization," the flat-Earth phenomenon that we interpret as speaking English and bending to the significant power of market capitalism. Only one other country voted no. That was Israel, the 51st state, and, as often is the case, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they are voting with us or we are voting with them.

It is not really our fault that superpower is waning. It just happens that we are still fighting the last war. The new war of more generalized threats to countries and regions requires different strategies than ballistic missiles and economic pressures. The distressing events of these past weeks require new thinking. A world relatively free of war needs quick responses to both regional military threats and natural disasters.

The logical way is to create response armies and teams on an international scale. That would seem to be a proper role for the United Nations or some other international grouping. But that is not going to happen because the United States is not about to give up the old dream of single well-meaning superpower, which we worked and fought and sacrificed to win -- only to win a mess of pottage, only to become another former superpower.

Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate

Richard Reeves

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