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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Peril of Too Much Power

STANFORD, California -- For most of the 20th century, the defining political question was: What do you think of Russia? At the beginning of the 21st century, it is: What do you think of America? Tell me your America and I'll tell you who you are.

Sitting in sun-dried California, I have been trying to work out exactly what I think. Quite a few European writers caricature America as a dangerous, selfish giant, blundering around the world doing ill, and as an anthology of all that is wrong with capitalism -- in contrast to morally superior European versions. But, of course, America can't be reduced in this way. Apart from anything else, it is just too large, too diverse, too much a cornucopia of combinations and contradictions to allow any simple interpretation. Here in Stanford there is the post-Sept. 11 "United We Stand" poster on the Japanese-American sushi bar, but also the bookshop that declares itself a "hate-free zone," with a notice in the window deploring attacks on Arab-Americans. There's the gung-ho unilateralism of Fox TV, but also the patient multilateralism of elder statesmen interviewed on CNN.

As Walt Whitman wrote: Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

So any simple generalization will be wrong. My own, more complicated conclusion is this: I love this country and I worry about its current role in the world. I use the word love loosely, of course, as we do in our increasingly Americanized English. I love the energy, the openness, the everyday cheerfulness of people in shops and on the street, the sense of freedom you get driving for hours down a California highway under those king-size skies, and the feeling that all people -- whoever they are, wherever they come from -- have a chance to shape their own lives. I love the accuracy of The New York Times, the vigor of television's "Crossfire," the probing tough-mindedness of the best universities in the world and the American activists I've frequently encountered in Eastern Europe and the Balkans who really do want other people to share the freedoms they enjoy.

Most people in the world will have some such list. For America is part of everyone's imaginative life, through movies, music, television and the web, whether you grow up in Bilbao, Beijing or Bombay. Everyone has a New York in their heads, even if they have never been there -- which is why the destruction of the twin towers had such an impact. This fascination with American culture, in the broadest sense of that term, is part of what Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, calls America's "soft power."

So why I am worried about this wonderful country's current role in the world? Partly because until President George W. Bush changed tack last week, I feared that if the United States were to attack Iraq without taking the lead in negotiating a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Islamic world would be united against the West while Europe would be divided from the United States, with disastrous consequences for years to come.

But my concern goes deeper than simply a worry about the Middle Eastern policy of a particular administration. The fundamental problem is that the United States today has too much power for anyone's good, including its own. It has that matchless, global soft power in all of our heads. In economic power its only rival is the European Union. In military power it has no rival. Its military expenditure is greater than that of the next eight largest military powers combined. Not since the Roman Empire has a single power enjoyed such superiority -- but the Roman colossus only bestrode one part of the world. Stripped of its anti-American overtones, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine's term "hyperpower" is apt.

Contrary to what many Europeans think, the problem with American power is not that it is American. The problem is simply the power. It would be dangerous even for an archangel to wield so much power. The writers of the U.S. Constitution wisely determined that no single locus of power, however benign, should predominate; for even the best could be led into temptation. Every power should therefore be checked by at least one other. That also applies in world politics.

Of course it helps that such power is exercised by leaders under the scrutiny of a developed and self-critical democracy. But even democracy brings its own temptations when it exists in a hyperpower. That temptation is illustrated by the Bush administration's recent imposition of unjustified tariffs on steel imports, threatening the international framework of free trade in order to win votes in steel-producing states.

And when a nation has so much power, what it doesn't do is as fateful as what it does. Thus, the Bush administration came into office determined not to get dragged into close mediation between Israelis and Palestinians, as former President Bill Clinton had been. The horrors of the suicide bombings of Israeli civilians and the siege of the West Bank are at least in part a result of this policy, which might be called partisan disengagement. Critical Europeans generally see the United States as misusing its power by intervening, as in the cases of U.S. actions in Cambodia and Nicaragua. But as often, the problem is that the hyperpower does not intervene -- as we saw in the agony of Bosnia until the United States finally stepped in to stop the bloodshed.

Who, then, should check and complement American power? International agencies, starting with the United Nations, and transnational nongovernmental organizations are a place to start. But they alone are not enough. My answer is Europe -- Europe as an economic equal to the United States and Europe as a close-knit group of states with long diplomatic and military experience. The European Union is already a major force in trade and foreign aid, and it is slowly acquiring more diplomatic coherence. But the gulf between its military capacity and that of the United States grows ever wider.

The complicated double task for us pro-American Europeans is to strengthen Europe's capacity to act outside its own borders while disentangling the idea of a stronger Europe from its sticky anti-American integument. We need to build a Europe that sees itself not as a rival superpower to the United States, but as America's most important partner in a world community of liberal democracies. Americans, in their own enlightened self-interest, should want Europe to succeed. Otherwise they will be left to cope alone with the loneliness of the long-distance hyperpower.

Timothy Garton Ash is director of the European Studies Center at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He contributed this comment to The New York Times.