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[Published in the New York Times, Sept. 29, 2002]

Contradictions of a Superpower


Presumably President Bush is disappointed by the coverage given his landmark national security manifesto. Reporters, after wading through 13,000 words on his strategic vision, focused mainly on two controversial doctrines: preserving overwhelming American military superiority indefinitely; and pre-emptively attacking nations deemed threatening rather than relying on traditional deterrence. Less was said about the more high-minded stuff, like fostering peace, prosperity and democracy around the world.

But the narrow focus of the press may have done the president a favor. The more broadly you view the new national security strategy, the clearer its contradictions become.

Mr. Bush is right to champion free trade and global prosperity, since an economically integrated world will be a more stable one. And he is right to hope that China in particular stays on the free-market path. But if China, with its 1.2 billion people, does keep up its brisk economic growth, won't the day come when it can match America's defense budget without breaking a sweat? How can America then afford to keep its military so potent as to "dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States"?

Apparently the administration is counting on China to undergo a kind of spiritual transformation. "In pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, China is following an outdated path that, in the end, will hamper its own pursuit of national greatness. In time, China will find that social and political freedom is the only source of that greatness." Meanwhile, the United States will somehow escape this particular epiphany, and will follow the outdated path of pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors and, for that matter, all polities in the known universe. The Bush report doesn't explain why China won't find this trend alarming and rush to counter it.

Unfortunately for any strategy premised on enduring American hegemony, the decline of great economic and military powers is a perennial of history. So is one major reason for it: the secrets of a superpower's success seep beyond its borders, empowering others. Just ask the Romans who were beset by barbarians using Roman military techniques. Or ask the Chinese who were subdued by Mongols using Chinese weapons technology.

Similarly, as America's free-market philosophy spreads prosperity abroad, and the microelectronic revolution that America started goes global, the American advantage in, for example, precision-guided weaponry will likely fade. The Bush report cheerily observes that free trade "fosters the diffusion of technologies and ideas that increase productivity and opportunity." Indeed.

America has one advantage over the ancient Romans and the 13th-century Chinese. The world is now much closer to being a community of interdependent, law-abiding states, a place where military pre-eminence is not a prerequisite for national security. There are those who think that a superpower facing eventual decline but for now possessing unprecedented influence would be wise to sustain this trend, encouraging respect for international law and the evolution of international policing structures.

President Bush isn't one of these people. In dramatically lowering the threshold for pre-emptive attack, he undermines the civilized world's consensus against unprovoked transborder aggression, a principle central to international law (and to his father's rationale for the Persian Gulf war).

And as for international policing structures: the Bush manifesto says nothing about, say, adding an enforcement mechanism, complete with tough inspections, to the toothless Biological Weapons Convention. Nor does it mention the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the world's other two major attempts to police weapons of mass destruction. This omission is striking, given that the Bush vision purports to be organized around the threat of such weapons getting into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. "The gravest danger our Nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology," President Bush writes in the introduction to the report.

But the report's biggest failing may lie in ignoring radicalism's intersection with another kind of technology. It is information technology satellite TV, Web sites, e-mail, cell phones that with growing efficiency will convert amorphous hatred of the United States into the organized radicalism that can employ weapons of mass destruction.

Thus the global diffusion of technology means American policies that generate hatred "on the street" abroad will be more and more likely to lead to terrorism. For that matter, the willingness of foreign governments to join in the fight against such terrorism will itself depend more on public attitudes toward America, thanks to the wave of technologically abetted democratization that the Bush report rightly celebrates and encourages. This rapidly strengthening link between popular sentiment abroad and America's national security is of epic importance, and the national security report's failure to mention it does not inspire confidence.

One thing that creates hatred of America is resentment of its wealth, so the Bush strategy's emphasis on spreading prosperity is welcome. But another big source of hatred is resentment of American power. So the president's insistence that America remain unchallenged global hegemon, and his willingness to attack nations unilaterally even in the absence of clear provocation, is a stance peculiarly ill-suited to the global technological environment that is taking shape.

Defenders of this stance may credit it with a kind of nobility. Mr. Bush seems sincere in wanting to use American power on behalf not just of America but of peace and freedom everywhere. Notwithstanding boilerplate references to coalitions and multilateral institutions, the president's national security strategy puts the burden of saving the world squarely on American shoulders.

Nobility is a nice feature in a president, but not as nice as wisdom. Declaring yourself global sheriff would in any age be generous, since you're bearing a burden that should be shared by all who benefit from global civilization. But in an age when hatred abroad morphs easily into mass murder on your own soil, the line between generosity and martyrdom begins to blur.

And if you do insist on being chief law enforcer in such an age, you should at least try to make sure that the world believes the laws are fair and fairly enforced. Yet the Bush administration, with its limited regard for both international law and world opinion, is making America not just sheriff, but judge, jury and executioner. This strategy could lead to a number of outcomes, but national security isn't among the more likely.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of  Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.