America is a wonderful country, with jaw-dropping wilderness and wide open spaces that seem as far removed from New York or Los Angeles as the moon. America has the best universities with the most brilliant scientists who win a host of Nobel Prizes year after year.
This is also home to the world's leading think tanks, where highly impressive studies are conducted on topics like the future of world politics, religion and capitalism. These institutions produce works written in a readily understandable language based on a firm belief in the power of reasoning, rather than ivory tower musings with no connection to reality.
In all cultural spheres, from classical to trash, this is where the avant-garde emerges, time and again. Capitalism is regularly reinvented in America before it sets out again to conquer the world. America still attracts immigrants from countries around the globe. And, of course, from a historical perspective, it remains a uniquely superior power.
This country believes that it has a predetermined role in the history of mankind -- a manifest destiny.
America? A horrendous country that betrays its own values every few years, thus forfeiting its moral right to lead the Western world. It elects presidents who know nothing about the world, and have no interest in learning more, which explains why they readily succumb to errors and illusions, only to reveal their utter amazement when they finally -- and usually too late -- admit their mistakes. Since 1945, America has been fighting wars in countries that it knows very little about, and under premises that have almost nothing to do with reality.
America is a superpower around the globe, but a Third World country at home, with an infrastructure that defies description. There are collapsing bridges, power failures along the entire East Coast, and homes in places like Florida, North Carolina and Texas are regularly destroyed every year by hurricanes that flatten houses as if they were beach bungalows in Haiti.
There is also the obscene contrast between rich and poor, which has hardy interested or shocked any administration since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What is even more obscene is the ignorance of a government that allows millions of people, in the richest country in the world, to live without health insurance. This is a government that stands by idly as the (primarily black) city of New Orleans disappears under floodwaters. Yes, the most obscene aspect of all remains the unacknowledged racism in this country of pragmatic enlightenment -- the ongoing prejudices of whites against blacks.
America is an extreme country, and no one feels indifferent about it. No matter whether you live in Karachi, Hamburg or Tbilisi -- you are bound to have an opinion about America. The US has friends and enemies all around the globe. America serves as a role model for Western industrialized societies, a model based on the spirit of Protestantism. But it also provides a paragon example of the downsides of this approach: materialism, unbridled consumerism, reckless exploitation of people and natural resources. This country the size of a continent has fascinating strengths and unparalleled weaknesses. It inspires both devoted admiration and aggressive contempt.
In 1987, Paul Kennedy, a British historian who teaches at Yale, published his famous work "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." Kennedy presented the US and the Soviet Union with the possibility that the arms race during the Cold War could rob them both of their status as superpowers. Four years later, the Soviet Union had collapsed and its empire had vanished. America, which had suffered crisis after crisis during the 1980s, quickly turned things around and experienced a surprisingly long economic boom during the 1990s. Suddenly, the US was the only remaining superpower, with unique possibilities, and incomparably stronger than the Persian, Roman or British empires had been in earlier centuries.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, the grandson of Japanese immigrants who had been interned in the US during World War II, published his book "The End of History and the Last Man." In this work, he postulated that the fall of communism heralded the advent of the age of liberal democracy, which he interpreted as the final objective of history. Sooner or later, he wrote, all countries on earth would adopt a combination of a market economy, democracy and the rule of law. After 9/11, Fukuyama's manifesto of optimism became the bible of the neoconservatives in the US administration and certain members of the media. Their ideal was to transform autocratic and dictatorial countries into liberal democracies, starting with the Middle East, in the hope that the rest of the world would follow.
Today, in the autumn of 2008, precious little remains of this exuberant optimism. The Middle East is just as plagued by conflict as ever. Everything seems plausible and possible, a war with Iran, peace with Syria, an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, or even a third Intifada. Things could improve in Iraq, or a civil war could break out between Sunnis and Shiites.
It is frequently up to the US, as the world's only superpower, to tip the scales one way or another. The administration vacillates between unilateral and multilateral actions, between punitive sanctions and diplomatic initiatives. This ambivalence stems from the past few years, which have been extremely difficult for the US, with its 'can-do' mentality. It has also been a sobering experience for America to see how little can be gained from its overwhelming military superiority, and how little can be achieved using war as a political tool to solve elementary problems.
For the time being, all dreams of omnipotence have evaporated, gone is the illusion that America could handle everything, either alone or in concert with its allies, as it sees fit, pursuing either its own interests or for more altruistic reasons. The world is far more unmanageable than Fukuyama and the neoconservatives would like to believe. It is safe to assume that a superpower becomes increasingly unpopular as it exerts a greater degree of superiority. And when it indulges in self-righteous behavior, forfeits basic democratic rights, and grants powers to its president that are not easily reconciled with democratic principles, then it also loses the moral right to put things in order elsewhere.
The following rule of thumb can be derived from this situation: A superpower like the US would be well advised, despite its superiority, to seek support and backing among its allies, even if this is nothing more than a ploy to dissipate suspicions that it is only acting in its own interests.