Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2004 that the predominance of U.S. power in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union was a “staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome.” Krauthammer and his fellow neoconservatives famously concluded from this disparity in power that the United States needed to adopt an aggressive foreign policy agenda to enhance and continue its dominance in the “New American Century.”
This conclusion was the wrong lesson from history and from any reasonable and compassionate view of the desirable future arc of humanity. Rather than consolidate and expand U.S. power in the 21st century, with a mix of military, economic and cultural coercion — the neocon strategy — the United States should instead seize what is still our unique unipolar moment and work toward a truly multilateral and multipolar world.
The last two centuries have been dominated by one nation — the hegemon, which comes from the Greek for “leader.” Britain was the first global hegemon, and indeed the “sun never set on the British empire.” Britain’s dominance was fueled, literally, by coal, which allowed the industrial revolution to work its magic first in Britain. This led to great economic might, which was translated into military might. With a sense of cultural superiority, the “White Man’s Burden,” the British empire was ruthless in its domination of areas of the world as far-flung as North America, India, Jamaica, Gibraltar and Australia. Britain at its peak, however, never comprised more than 10 percent of the global economy.
The United States, fueled by coal and oil, which was first found in Titusville, Pa., in 1859, an expansive and ever-growing territory that spanned a whole continent, and a sense of “American exceptionalism,” was the successor to the British empire, reaching 19 percent of global economic output in 1913, at the verge of World War I, and 35 percent at the height of World War II. The United States is now about 20 percent of the global economy, its share shrinking as other nations grow rapidly. The United States’ historical wealth of oil, coal and natural gas allowed it to grow to such a dominant economic and military position that it is truly deserving of being called an empire.
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