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The Big Question: How Important Is America?

Updated Friday 11th February 2005

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Communism, America appeared to be the only superpower. But was the nation really so important?

My country, tis of thee: Condoleeza Rice Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

In 1989 the world watched as the Berlin Wall came down. Within a few years, the fall of Communism had started across Eastern Europe. Since then, one country has emerged as the most powerful in the world. The United States. The US economy is the world's largest; the American military possess enormous strength and the USA is sometimes described as the global policeman. The Big Question, though, is how important is America to the world?

So how did America become so powerful?

Harvard historian, Alex Keyssar dates America's rise on the international stage to the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century, followed by its intervention in the First World War .

"About 20 years later, America has to intervene again in the Second World War," he says. "The Second World War is the turning point, it's when America becomes a superpower. By the end of the conflict, it's clear that America has the strongest military force in the world, it has nuclear weapons technology, which no other country had at the time, and its economy is booming".

Washington channelled some of that wealth ($13 billion - equivalent to US$ 100 billion today) into the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Western Europe. "There was certainly a desire to encourage the economy of Europe," says Professor Keyssar. "But this was very much in the context of the Cold War , of a sense that communist and socialist parties in all of Europe were strong and had a certain amount of political prestige. The Marshall Plan was an early economic weapon."

So when does America become the only superpower?

Look on my works, ye mighty: Lenin presides over a European city Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission "Probably the biggest changes happened in the last 15 years, since the Soviet Union collapsed," says American journalist Michael Goldfarb. "Suddenly the US was the de-facto superpower. On top of that, the new technology revolution happened in the US. Suddenly America becomes very rich at the precise moment it became the de-facto most powerful country in the world."

"There is a kind of nostalgia for the time when there were two superpowers in the world to counter balance each other. In the Middle East, people are still looking for another power to bring this balance," Middle East analyst Rime Allaf tells the Big Question. "People are concerned that America seems to be one-sided in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But there is no other nation or even group of nations that could even begin to think about putting an influence on the US."

"The feeling is that Africa has been more marginalised now, because the US doesn't need to woo us," says Ghanaian journalist Cameron Doudu. He believes that Africa had more global influence during the Cold War: "During the communist era, they would come and ask our opinion, they wanted us to think that if we had an opinion our voices would count. All that now has gone."

"The US dominates economic, military and political areas, as well as - I would argue - the values issue," says Dr. Esther Brimmer from Johns Hopkins University. "What is important to understand is that the US, in its strongest moments, used that political advantage to try to create a benevolent world. One in which other powers also saw the predominance of the US as beneficial for a larger group of people in the world."

So what about the future?

"If we look over the next 50 years, clearly the US will not remain the only dominant power in all those different areas", says Dr Brimmer. "For example, in the economic side we should acknowledge the European Union. We should also look at the emergence of China as an economic and military power. The rise of other regional powers like India , Brazil and South Africa should also shift the balance overall."

But, adds Dr Brimmer "I think the US will remain a country which will be a main player in all fields of power over the next continuing generations. And that will make it unique."

This edition of The Big Question was originally broadcast on Saturday 12th February 2005

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