HOW does one make sense of recent contradictory actions in Washington? In one week a leaked Pentagon planning document proposed that the United States remain "the only superpower;" Congress declined to provide funds to the secretary of state for United Nations peacekeeping operations; and President George Bush, responding to ex-President Richard Nixon, talked of "fiscal restraints" that precluded dramatic help to the democracies emerging from the former Soviet Union.
More is involved in this puzzle than the end of the cold war and the election campaign. The seemingly conflicting directions implied by these actions suggest that the US is wrestling with a fundamental change in its relationship to the rest of the world - not unlike the situation faced by Britain and France when their overseas empires dissolved. Even though their citizens tired of the imperial burden, pride of empire died slowly and, with many, reluctantly.
The US has not had an empire in the British and French sense, but for 40 years the US has been astride the world. Its policies have dominated NATO; its worldwide forces have provided global security against the perceived threat of communism for many countries, including the economically advanced nations of Europe and Asia. Unilateral military actions have been taken with scant attention to world opinion. Washington could ignore UN decisions not to its liking. The US was "No. 1," and Americans took pride in that position and resented assaults on American preeminence.
The US is still a strong nation - both militarily and economically. But its imperial-like presence is declining. Flags are being lowered at military bases around the world and troops are coming home. Other nations - Germany in Yugoslavia is an example - seem less responsive to the will of Washington. And more and more the US is asking others, such as Japan, to bear the financial costs of maintaining the interests of democracies around the world.
Some will argue that the Gulf war demonstrated that the US is still the superior power. Without American military might, Iraq could not have been expelled from Kuwait. American diplomacy formed and dominated the UN coalition. A closer look at the Gulf war, however, shows that US power could only be effective when others, primarily the Gulf Arabs, were paying the bill.
And although the US-dominated UN coalition could be counted on to expel Iraq from Kuwait, neither the world community nor the US public appeared ready to continue the war to unseat Saddam Hussein. The American people cheered the action, but might not Desert Storm, like Margaret Thatcher's reconquest of the Falkland Islands, be one of the last gasps of an imperial reach?
Britain and France survived the ends of their empires by seeking different relationships, both with their former colonies and within the new European Community (EC). Diplomacy and economics replaced the imperial emphasis on force and domination. This same approach is open to the US.
For four decades, the confrontation with the Soviet Union provided a single focus for US foreign policy. Military actions and economic aid were justified within this context. The rationale for this focus no longer exists.
The active and substantial involvement of the US in world affairs is still essential for global peace and for the security of this nation. But the effectiveness of that involvement will not be enhanced by unrealistic dreams of continued efforts, including unilateral military means, to remain the sole superpower, a concept that seems today at variance with both the mood of the American public and of the world community.
Neither, on the other hand, will it be enhanced if the US is unwilling to pay its share of the cost to maintain peace in troubled areas of the world. Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others will be increasingly reluctant to pay the costs of essentially US enterprises; they will demand a growing voice in policy. US influence would, under such circumstances, decline.
Britain and France adjusted to the end of empire by active roles in the EC and in other multilateral organizations. The path today for the US must be a similar one of adjustment to preserve its interests not in a unipolar but a multipolar world.