We're going to run these bastards down. We're going to lead, and everyone else is going to follow
- CIA director George Tenet, after September 11, 2001
If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
- 1 Corinthians 14:8, New Testament
At the beginning of the new millennium, a mere seven years ago, it was widely assumed that the character of the coming epoch would be determined by the interplay between two closely related and mutually reinforcing phenomena: US hegemony and globalisation.
The US was the confident possessor of overwhelming all-round power. It was "the benign superpower" that would provide the stability and security necessary for globalisation to proceed and thrive. In its turn globalisation would ensure the worldwide spread of American economic practices, technologies, culture and values. Indeed for many influential writers on the subject - Thomas Friedman in his huge bestseller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, for example - globalisation seemed to be more or less a synonym for Americanisation. The French foreign minister at the time, Hubert Vedrine, agreed: "American globalism dominates everything. Not in a harsh, repressive, military form, but in people's heads."
It is worth bearing this quite recent picture of the world in mind in order to appreciate fully how different things are now.
The US and the American people are experiencing a crisis of confidence. The country is bitterly divided and uncertain as to how it should proceed. Obsessed by immediate problems, there is little evidence of far-reaching strategic thinking, or of that much prized American commodity, vision.
In the rest of the world, anti-Americanism is at an all-time high. But it is not so much that the US is feared and hated; a superpower can comfortably cope with a lot of that.
What is more serious is the loss of respect and credibility that is evident, the diminished prestige and authority, and consequently a reduced ability to lead, persuade or overawe.
All this has resulted from an astonishingly inept American performance over the past few years. That in turn reflects the cumulative effect of a combination of factors: the profound shock of 9/11; the resulting outrage that had the effect of causing the country to behave in a fashion that in some ways betrayed its own best values; hubris, and the embracing of a doctrine that was so ambitious that it guaranteed failure; and an administration guilty of incredible incompetence in the implementation of policy. (The world witnessed a superpower that claimed to be able to fix the world, even as it failed miserably for months on end to deal with the impact of a hurricane on one of its cities.)
Does this matter for anyone apart from Americans? Well yes, it does. For one thing, to have a superpower that does not command respect is likely to tempt others to frustrate or ignore its will generally, and that is a dangerous state of affairs. For another, the less it is respected the more likely is the superpower to take drastic, and possibly reckless, action to remedy that state of affairs.
But perhaps the most dangerous consequence of a continuing loss of confidence in and by the US is that we would be left with a leaderless world. For there is no alternative leader in sight in the foreseeable future. The other developed Western countries lack the energy, confidence and will for the job. So does Japan.
China has great potential, but has limited recent international experience and for some time it is going to be preoccupied coping with the consequences of its extraordinary economic growth and the urgent problems that presents. The same is true of India. Russia possesses great destructive power and huge energy reserves, but although it has re-emerged as a serious player, it has no global leadership credentials.
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