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The Wall Street Journal
The Risk of Being a Superpower
By Ion Grumeza
From military and economical points of view, only a global superpower can assure a safer and more orderly world. The ancient Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans almost achieved that status. In the Middle Ages, the Spanish and the British built colonial empires, while Napoleon’s ambition was to create a modern United States of Europe. Across the ocean, the United States of America kept adding more stars to its striped flag, building a most successful capitalistic empire.
Hitler took a big goose-step and envisioned his Third Reich ruling the entire world for the next one thousand (peaceful) years. Just like Genghis Kahn and Timur the Lame who built equestrian empires, Hitler failed in his conquering mission because he spread his divisions too thin and too wide in too many continents.
The armed race between the Americans and the Soviets for world supremacy ended after more than seventy years, only after the Red superpower collapsed under its own military weight. With its market-oriented approach, backed by military might, the USA felt entitled to be the arbitrator of a world in perpetual turmoil. This ambition was supported by more humanitarian help provided to the underprivileged world than any other nation had ever attempted to offer. But that generosity came with the immense “accidental” risk givers often experience: being hated by the takers who see the givers as having too much control and power.
The American concept of making the Earth a better place has created another problem: a near-rejection attitude from most other nations. Traditional western allies (with reluctant Great Britain) united under the Euro currency and tacitly fought back the American economy and the sacred dollar itself.
Fanatical Muslims reacted in a violent way, sending suicidal Jihad warriors to crash hijacked planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon. Suddenly the American superpower proved to be not only vulnerable, but defeatable. This seemed to confirm Mao Tze-tung’s ironic naming of the U.S. as a “paper tiger.”
Our angry president decided to show the triumphant American flag to the world, and he sent his high tech armadas to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq in a manner reminiscent of the German blitzkrieg. Preventive attacks were perceived by the Muslim world as attacks on their religious establishment, and by the rest of the world as America flexing its military muscle.
Once again, superpower America did as it pleased, but a risk was imminent: the U.S. was minimally backed up by the United Nations and NATO, and had almost no support from the Euro nations. France and Germany, with large Muslim populations, simply refused to be a part of the newly created war. With too many serious problems of its own, Russia decided to wait and see to whom it might sell weapons.
China, the next contender to the superpower title, responded in a global manner, manufacturing more and cheaper products, driving American companies out of business. With a capacity to mobilize almost 200 million soldiers, China develops global markets which eventually will have to be conquered with armed force.
For the time being, a significant number of the United States’ armed troops are deployed around the world, either to impose or maintain order in distant and rebellious lands. The entire situation is amazingly similar to that of the Roman Empire, which tried in vain to dominate three continents, only to be crushed by barbarian invasions. Like a lion attacked by too many hyenas, any superpower finds itself in a vulnerable position when facing too many front lines.
However, the ultimate risk is right at home, where the U.S. public reacts negatively to the steady loss of its soldiers and the cost of war that is skyrocketing the national debt. Historically speaking, a victorious war brings plunder to the victorious nation. But the occupation of Iraq, with most of its wealth in oil, increased the cost of gasoline in the United States.
The concept of a superpower has always carried many risks, as illustrated time and again historically. Yet the title itself is such a lure that all lessons are ignored, so that a few may experience global fame and personal gains.
Realistically speaking, the U.S. represents only five percent of the global population, a number too small to generate sufficient military divisions to keep order on all continents and their oceans. By a sad coincidence, the Roman Empire had the same proportional military resources for controlling the ancient world, but failed in its mission after 400 years of imperial bellicose domination.
The good news by analogy is that the U.S.A. may have at least 100 years more to be a superpower before reaching what history indicates will be an inevitable decline.
© 2003 Ion Grumeza