Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Super Power Carries Super Responsibility

The United States has far more power than any other country in the world, but now shrinks from being a world power. Its purpose in 2002 should be to resolve this truly fateful paradox. It needs the help of friends and allies who must make better sense of their own ambivalence -- between demand for U.S. presence and action, and distaste for it when it happens. But at bottom, the challenge is to Washington: how to define the global interest, which nobody else can so effectively advance, in terms that extend beyond the national interest of bully Uncle Sam.

The Afghan war highlights the choices. Plainly, it's possible to invade and bomb one of the world's feeblest countries and succeed in a vital cause. This may even mark the beginning of the end of al-Qaida. But what next? Moving on to Somalia, Sudan, then Yemen and even Iraq might do something to clinch the anti-terrorist assault. But unless the superpower peers toward a wider horizon, how permanently will the world order have changed for the better?

The static out of Washington doesn't signal much cause for confidence for many of us here. For a brief moment, it looked as though the crime perpetrated by Osama bin Laden would persuade U.S. President George W. Bush to rethink the defiant unilateralism his campaign had proposed as the leitmotif for U.S. foreign policy. But the Afghan triumph seems only to encourage the simplicities of the Republican right. Its talk grows harsher and appears to scorn, even more deeply than a year ago, the complexities of global crises, not to mention the prudent generosity of outlook demanded of the sole surviving Great Power.

The Afghan experience requires a wiser response. War and bombing are not enough. Vast inequalities; the need for a development strategy; the imperative of Middle East peace; the onset of environmental self-destruction; the fundamentals of democracy and human rights: These are world concerns and should be the United States'.

Ending terrorism is a good cause but surely doesn't set the limit of U.S. idealism or, on any but the shortest-term view, self-interest. As the superpower, the United States is super-responsible. It is both a perpetrator and, as Sept. 11 showed, a victim. Can it rise to the 21st-century challenge of a world that turns out not to fit Jesse Helms' blueprint? Or must it shrink into the homeland, guarded by the daisy-cutter, the dollar and missile defense?

Hugo Young is a political columnist for Guardian newspaper. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.