It’s too early to draw broad conclusions about what war in Eastern Europe means for the future of America in the world. But there are enough clues to suggest that America’s power has limits, and indeed it always has. With the Soviet Union’s demise, the United States achieved global dominance for a brief unipolar moment. Then President George W. Bush squandered it through destructive (and expensive) misguided regime-change wars. Subsequent presidents gaslit the American public on progress in the Middle East in two conflicts that killed hundreds of thousands. Despite all those unforced errors, the United States remains a superpower, though the limits of non-military power have been exposed.
Thomas Pickering, who served as ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, says that the “caricature” of America as a superpower has obscured the way most Americans think about how the world works.
As a career diplomat over four decades, Pickering witnessed America’s global position change from the Cold War to the breakup of the Soviet Union to the height of US supremacy at the turn of the millennium. “If your assumption is that a superpower can do anything, anywhere, anytime it wishes, without suffering the consequences of risk and uncertainty, then you misperceived the current world situation,” he told me.
When the Cold War ended in the ’90s, the United States possessed unrivaled economic and military power. Scholar Francis Fukuyama claimed the “End of History” and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserted the centrality of American exceptionalism in her coinage, “the indispensable nation.”
Some argue that that unipolar moment was overstated. “Look, the Americans suffered from hubris after the end of the Soviet Union,” said Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who has written widely about American power. “The unipolar moment, I think, was always illusory.”
At the end of the Cold War, the US did continue to hold itself out as the guarantor of security. “The United States appointed itself as responsible for peace, security, and democracy in Europe,” Stephen Wertheim, a historian of US foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. In response to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the United States, through NATO, took military action against Serbia. The intervention was relatively limited, and the outcome of it was a successful projection of US might.
But that unilateral moment, real or imagined, was short-lived.