The U.S. as a Hyperpower

Print edition : June 08, 2002

The United States remains unmatched in history in its awe-inspiring military clout, economic might and political weight. But its unilateralism and overbearing power are alienating its own allies.

NOTHING has highlighted the growing tensions between the United States and its Western European allies as George W. Bush's recent week-long visit to some major capitals in that continent. Bush was greeted by anti-militarist Left-wing protestors in Paris, Berlin, Rome and even Moscow. The reception accorded to him by Western Europe's government leaders ranged from the lukewarm and indifferent to the downright suspicious.

Even loyal ally Tony Blair's attempt to heal the growing "trans-Atlantic divide" or rifts between sympathetic critics of the U.S. in his neighbourhood, and the Europhobes who abound in the U.S. - was not particularly successful. It is only in Putin's Russia, where a remarkably pro-American regime has decided to submit itself to Washington's demands, virtually without negotiation, that Bush was officially received with warmth and enthusiasm.

The open acknowledgement of the trans-Atlantic divide and the impending visits of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are a good occasion for a hard look at the nature and magnitude of American power. The coming Armitage-Rumsfeld visits highlight the stark truth that the U.S. is now the cornerstone of India's foreign and security policies. Under the Vajpayee dispensation, America has become India's principal interlocutor, adviser, ally, partner, and even the virtual arbiter of its fate. The reverse is not true.

That the Indo-U.S. relationship is deeply asymmetrical and one-sided is cause for worry. But policy-makers and officials in both countries exult over the emerging Indo-U.S. "strategic alliance", which they hope will increase the U.S. tilt towards the Vajpayee government. Thus, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca not only described "our two democracies" as "natural partners", but went on to talk about the "transformation" in Indo-U.S. relations as they work "together more intensely than ever before to make the world freer, more peaceful, and more prosperous".

Rocca underlined Indo-U.S. military-to-military cooperation, and the "vibrant relationship" the two countries have built "in the war against terrorism". She noted that "Indians are also excited about the transformation of our relationship as it demonstrates your country's assumption of ever-greater responsibilities as a major power in the region and in the global arena" all within the context of the U.S.-India "strategic partnership", which is entering "an exciting phase".

"Exciting" or not, the U.S. is not known for treating its allies with much respect. Disparities between the U.S. and them, growing since the end of the Cold War, have now reached unprecedented proportions. Never before has the U.S. cared less for its own allies' views on a wide range of sensitive issues: from global warming to the targets and magnitude of its "anti-terror" campaign, and from building "missile defences" to the handling of the West Asian crisis. On each of these issues, America takes unilateral and adversarial positions - riding roughshod over its allies.

Today, as an American diplomat points out, the Europeans have replaced once-non-aligned Third World countries such as India as the principal critics of the U.S., and India is fast replacing the loyal Western Europeans of the 1980s as America's fawning, trusting friend. Yet, both groups are equally impotent when it comes to influencing American policy and conduct - except to a minuscule degree.

WHY is the U.S. so unconcerned about, or contemptuous towards, its allies? Quite simply, because it is strongly asymmetrical in relation to them. America remains unmatched in history as a global power. So do the disparities of power between it and the rest of the world. Says Paul Kennedy, Yale University historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: "Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defence spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years... and no other nation comes close."

"The Pax Britannica", says Kennedy, "was run on the cheap, Britain's army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies - right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy." Kennedy reminds us: "Charlemagne's empire was merely Western European in its reach. The Roman empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia, and a larger one in China." By contrast, the U.S.' empire is truly global in its political clout, military reach and economic might.

Today, the U.S. has 12 armadas or battleship groups, each based on a giant aircraft carrier, like the Enterprise, which patrol the seven seas round the clock. The Enterprise is as high as a 20-storeyed building and 330 metres long. It houses a crew of 5,600 and 70 state-of-the-art aircraft which can take off and land by day or night. Accompanying it at any time are 15 warships, including two attack submarines, two cruisers and six destroyers, and 14,300 men and women. The rest of the world's navies appear puny beside America's carrier force.

The U.S. is the world's sole power which has mastered a combination of four military technologies: precision-guided missiles and bombs that can be delivered from a "safe" distance; Special Operations groups with night-vision equipment, which can conduct round-the-clock operations in any climate or terrain; sophisticated, secure communications that cannot be penetrated by adversaries; and the logistical capability - thanks to large transport aircraft, and 200-plus military bases worldwide - to deploy quickly large numbers of troops in far-flung battlefields. And of course, no one matches America's awe-inspiring arsenal of mass-destruction weapons, which it refuses to dismantle.

The U.S.' annual military budget is a mind-boggling $350 billion, of the same order as India's entire national income. This equals the defence spending of the next 14 highest countries - combined. The Pentagon's demand for an increase in military spending next year - driven by a post-September 11 "national security" obsession - is a staggering $48 billion, or roughly four times India's defence budget, or twice that of Italy's. Today, the U.S. accounts for about 40 per cent of global military spending (India's share is 1 per cent, China's 2 per cent).

America's military spending is disproportionate even to its own economic might, although this has grown greatly. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the U.S.' share of total world product declined steadily, as Western Europe's and Japan's increased. But after the late 1980s, this percentage has grown from 22 to an estimated 30. This increase is partly explained by the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and the relative decline of Western Europe and Japan, and partly by U.S. superiority in contemporary technological fields, for instance information technology, telecommunications, and biotechnology. Also at work are factors such as corporate restructuring, leading to cost-cutting and significant increases in productivity.

THE U.S. economic might is built on great inequalities of wealth and income, and callously inadequate social security. It has ecologically disastrous effects, including global warming, deforestation, and oceanic pollution. But American might is without parallel. Even the European Union - itself a group of mutually competing, disparate national economies - is not about to overtake the U.S. Only China could come somewhere near America in 30 years from now - if it sustains the 8 per cent growth it has recently recorded, and is free of internal strife.

This unique combination of economic and military might permits the U.S. to take an extraordinarily arrogant, imperious, unilateralist stand, defining "threats", and ripostes, as it pleases - ignoring the United Nations and the rest of the world when it likes, using them when that suits it. The U.S. is a giant (for Kennedy, "a 500-pound gorilla") who has not learned to wield his power lightly, with subtlety, or to play a healthy, balancing global role. Rather, the U.S. is a Hyperpower which is reshaping the world in its own image.

No one has summed up the Hyperpower idea (without using that term) more accurately than ideologue and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who sees the post-Cold War world as consisting of only two categories of states: America's "vassals" and "tributaries". In this world, the U.S. must be free to pursue its interests without hindrance. It will brook no restraint on its choice of instruments, respect no authority, follow no moral or political discipline. It can use, abuse, manipulate, bypass or simply ignore all or some of the rest of the world, depending on its whims.

It is noteworthy that the U.S.' instinctive response to the September 11 attack was to declare war, not on a particular state, but on "global terrorism". The operative principle behind U.S. policy is not this or that conception of the "national interest", but the overarching goal of world domination. The U.S. can extend the "anti-terrorism" war, as and when it likes, to any part of the world, on the solidly irrational foundation of its "Axis of Evil" thesis - ignoring its allies' pleas, for example, against attacking Iraq.

Washington's capacity for greatly increased military spending should not be underestimated. Today, it spends a little less than 3.5 per cent of its gross domestic product on the military. But at its mid-1980s peak during the Second Cold War, the U.S. was spending 6.5 per cent.

Buttressing this military, economic and political clout is U.S. domination of global popular culture through Hollywood, Walt Disney, televised serials, comic strips and music. Nine of the world's 12 biggest media groups are American. Equally important is U.S. leadership in many fields of science and technology. The U.S. accounts for about one-half of the global software market and 45 per cent of the world's Internet traffic. The bulk of the globe's IT and biotechnology firms are in the U.S.

That is not all. About three-quarters of the world's Nobel prize winners in the sciences (including medicine) and economics work or live in the U.S.. Says Kennedy: "A group of 12 to 15 U.S. research universities have, through vast financing, moved into a new super-league of world universities that is leaving everyone else - the Sorbonne, Tokyo, Munich, Oxford, Cambridge - in the dust, especially in the experimental sciences..."

Argues Kennedy: "The top places among the rankings of the world's biggest banks and largest companies are now back, to a large degree, in U.S. hands. And if one could reliably create indicators of cultural power - the English language, ...advertisements, youth culture, international student flows - the same lopsided picture would emerge."

HOWEVER, U.S. domination is unlikely to continue for centuries. America's clout is premised upon relatively robust economic growth through the 1990s. Should growth now falter, or should other powers emerge, America could still become a victim of what Kennedy once called "imperial overstretch".

But until this happens, the U.S. will remain an overwhelming, imperious and unbalanced power. Even in its less powerful days, between 1950 and 1990, it had arrogated to itself the role of the world's gendarme, intervening overtly or covertly in countries as varied as Afghanistan and Brazil, Chile and Greece, Indonesia and Nicaragua, and Panama and Zaire.

It is on such an overpowering "ally" that India's present leadership is now relying for support in its rivalry with Pakistan. Tomorrow, the U.S. could just as easily turn against India as it has tilted in its favour in the last few years - for narrow and self-serving, not principled, reasons. At minimum, the U.S. could play a skewed role in the region. It hardly needs much wisdom or prescience to see the dangers of putting all of India's eggs in the American basket.

Yet, so obsessed are Vajpayee, Advani, Fernandes, Jaswant Singh & Co with trying to settle scores with Pakistan - without convincing proof of its involvement in the May 14 outrage - that they are unlikely to pause and think. If we are not to end up paying the price for their policies and actions, especially through a ruinous war, we citizens must oppose the government's reckless sabre-rattling.

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