Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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5.1 The US as hyperpower before 9/11

The term ‘hyperpower’ was coined to describe the new US status of planetary dominance in 1999, eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (a competing superpower for several decades) and two years before 9/11. The removal of the USSR as a global competitor – most notably in its role as potential nuclear adversary and ideological competitor – left the US free to expand its global dominance. However, it also presented the US with major problems concerning the validity of its authority and how this enormous power might be exercised. At the onset of the twenty-first century, the US accounted for between 40 and 50 percent of global defence spending (more the double the total spending of its European allies, their number now augmented by former Soviet allies) and possessed military technology far superior to any potential opponent. Unlike imperial powers of earlier historical periods, it also had very substantial resources in other areas. The US was the third most populous country in the planet, had a birth rate at or near replacement rate (not the case in the great majority of developed countries), and accounted for nearly a third of the world’s economic production (Cohen, 2004). In this sense, it certainly merited description in terms that surpassed other current or previous global powers. But even before 9/11 uncovered the physical vulnerabilities of such a great power, it was apparent that the international position of the US left it with major challenges and political problems that stemmed from the very extent of its dominance.

In early 2001, before the Al Qaeda attack, G. John Ikenberry confronted the growing unease already felt at that stage about a global order so strongly dominated by US power (Ikenberry, 2001). He recognised that the US clearly had a ‘hegemony problem’: having started the 1990s as the world’s only superpower, growing disparities in economic and military power resulted in an 'extremely lopsided distribution of world power’ (p18). But it also retained an ‘unusual ability to co-opt and reassure’ (p20) and Ikenberry suggested that a key feature of the international status of the US after the end of the Cold War was that its power was largely accepted by the other democratic great powers.

... the most striking fact of international life in the decade since the end of the Cold War is that stable and cooperative relations between the democratic great powers continue largely unabated. In some ways these relations have actually deepened, such as with the creation of the World Trade Organization and the expansion of intergovernmental working groups under the auspices of the G-7. One reason for this is simple enough: There is a broad convergence of interests among the advanced industrial countries, all of which share deeply held common commitments to economic openness, democracy and multilateral management of global issues. The huge start-up costs of establishing an alternative to the U.S.-centered system also probably deter the other major states.

A critical ingredient in stabilizing international relations in a world of radical power disparities is the character of America itself. The United States is indeed a global hegemon, but because of its democratic institutions and political traditions it is – or can be – a relatively benign one. Joseph Nye’s arguments on ‘soft power’ of course come to mind here, and there is much to his point. But, in fact, there are other, more significant aspects of the American way in foreign policy that protect the United States from the consequences of its own greatness.

When other major states consider whether to work with the United States or resist it, the fact is that it is an open, stable democracy matters. The outside world can see American policymaking at work and can even find opportunities to enter the process and help shape how the overall order operates. Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo and even Beijing – in each of these capitals officials can readily find reasons to conclude that an engagement policy toward to United States will be more effective than balancing against U.S. power.

... In effect, the United States spun a web of institutions that connected other states to an emerging American-dominated economic and security order. But in doing so, these institutions also bound the United States to other states and reduced – at least to some extent – Washington’s ability to engage in the arbitrary and indiscriminate exercise of power. Call it an institutional bargain. The price for the United States was a reduction in Washington’s policy autonomy, in that institutional rules and joint decision-making reduced U.S. unilateralist capacities. But what Washington got in return was worth the price. America’s partners also had their autonomy constrained, but in return were able to operate in a world where U.S. power was more restrained and reliable.

(G. J. Ikenberry, 2001, p19–20, 21–22).

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