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j u l y / a u g u s t 2oo2

American Primacy in Perspective
Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth

Volume 81 • Number 4

American Primacy in Perspective
Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth
from strength to strength More than a decade ago, political columnist Charles Krauthammer proclaimed in these pages the arrival of what he called a “unipolar moment,” a period in which onesuperpower, the United States, stood clearly above the rest of the international community (“The Unipolar Moment,” America and the World 1990/91). In the following years the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s economic and military decline accelerated, and Japan stagnated, while the United States experienced the longest and one of the most vigorous economic expansions in its history. Yet toward theclose of the century readers could find political scientist Samuel Huntington arguing here that unipolarity had already given way to a “uni-multipolar” structure, which in turn would soon become unambiguously multipolar (“The Lonely Superpower,” March/April 1999). And despite the boasting rhetoric of American o⁄cials, Huntington was not alone in his views. Polls showed that more than 40 percent ofAmericans had come to agree that the United States was now merely one of several leading powers— a number that had risen steadily for several years. Why did the unipolarity argument seem less persuasive to many even as U.S. power appeared to grow? Largely because the goal posts were moved. Krauthammer’s definition of unipolarity, as a system with only one pole, made sense in the immediate wake of aCold War
Stephen G. Brooks is an Assistant Professor and William C. Wohlforth an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College.


American Primacy in Perspective that had been so clearly shaped by the existence of two poles. People sensed intuitively that a world with no great power capable of sustaining a focused rivalry with the United States would be verydiªerent in important ways. But a decade later what increasingly seemed salient was less the absence of a peer rival than the persistence of a number of problems in the world that Washington could not dispose of by itself. This was the context for Huntington’s new definition of unipolarity, as a system with “one superpower, no significant major powers, and many minor powers.” The dominant power insuch a system, he argued, would be able to “eªectively resolve important international issues alone, and no combination of other states would have the power to prevent it from doing so.” The United States had no such ability and thus did not qualify. The terrorist attacks last fall appeared to some to reinforce this point, revealing not only a remarkable degree of American vulnerability but also adeep vein of global anti-American resentment. Suddenly the world seemed a more threatening place, with dangers lurking at every corner and eternal vigilance the price of liberty. Yet as the success of the military campaign in Afghanistan demonstrated, vulnerability to terror has few eªects on U.S. strength in more traditional interstate aªairs. If anything, America’s response to the attacks— whichshowed its ability to project power in several places around the globe simultaneously, and essentially unilaterally, while eªortlessly increasing defense spending by nearly $50 billion—only reinforced its unique position. If today’s American primacy does not constitute unipolarity, then nothing ever will. The only things left for dispute are how long it will last and what the implications are forAmerican foreign policy. pick a measure, any measure To understand just how dominant the United States is today, one needs to look at each of the standard components of national power in succession. In the military arena, the United States is poised to spend more on defense in 2003 than the next 15–20 biggest spenders combined. The United States has overwhelming nuclear superiority,

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