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Is the United States a Legend?

Mostafa Al-Fiqy, Al-Ahram (government-owned), Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 25, 2003

U.S. Capital building.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC (Photo: Pictor/AFP).
Those who have studied history know that civilizations have risen and then fallen, empires have ruled and then collapsed. The rise and fall of centers of international power is a matter of tradition. Humanity has become accustomed to it. The only constant is that “current conditions never last.” So, we wonder, will this truth also apply to U.S. power? The Soviet Union has fallen. Might the United States face a similar destiny, even if in the distant future? This question remains a mystery....


I will start by saying that applying lessons from the history of the rise and fall of empires is of limited utility. History does not perfectly apply to the current situation. Scientific and technological development, as well as a vastly superior economy, have created a gap that would take decades for other countries to close before they could surpass the United States. We must remember that scientific advancement and the industrial revolution—which took place centuries ago—were the reason the spark of civilization shifted from the East to the West.

So what do we mean by “legend?” We mean a set of conceptions and fears that come to mind when thinking of a particular entity. A “legend” is not a lie, but a truth developed in the mind through stories and events. I must reaffirm that such legends are temporary and that there has never been a terrestrial power that lasted an eternity. Perhaps we had better discuss the possible alternatives to U.S. ascendancy in today’s political arena.

High Marks for China

First: Many people view China, with its massive population and soaring economic growth rates, to be the heir to America’s hegemonic role. Some go so far as to speculate that this might happen in a matter of mere decades. There is no denying the impressive ability of the Chinese people to reorganize millions of citizens and to liberalize the country economically without liberalizing it politically, while learning from the mistakes of the former Soviet Union. China has achieved economic advances but the clear problem remains that the Chinese government lacks an interest in political reform. The Chinese deny the possibility of assuming America’s role in leading the world. The reason is not only that they lack advanced technology but also that they do not have the will to challenge America’s pre-eminent role in foreign affairs. They consider talk of leading the world to be a reflection of imperialist thought and a philosophy of domination. The Chinese reject this, assuring the world that they will focus on improving conditions for the Chinese population. They seek to lift the standard of living in China and only seek a more effective role in the region. They are completely content with the Asian continent.

Second: The European Union does not pose a real challenge to the United States. The direction of the succession is in reverse: The United States has inherited the European tradition....In addition, the Europeans constantly say that their collective role in foreign affairs complements the United States’. It is not, the Europeans say, an alternative nor a competing role. Whenever we Arabs invite them to take greater part in the Middle Eastern conflict, they are quick to present reasons why they cannot and say that only the United States has the power to pressure the two sides to come to a settlement. Even though the Europeans are members of the Middle East Quartet [the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union, have increasingly sought to speak with one voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—WPR] and are the largest donors to the Palestinian people, they desire no greater role in the struggle.

Third: It is not difficult to agree that other rising powers in Asia, Latin America, or Africa are not even close to being able to replace the United States or assume its role in foreign affairs. This leading role requires international commitments and financial burdens, which include economic aid, technical assistance, and even military intervention when necessary.

The United States on the World Stage

Now that we realize there are no alternatives to American leadership, let us analyze America’s role on the world stage to determine whether people exaggerate or underestimate the American “legend.” Here I will mention three considerations.

1) For almost two centuries of its history, the United States maintained a relatively isolationist foreign policy. It was not a world leader. At the time, Europe was the leader. When the United States came out of its confinement, it did so in answer to the European summons of two world wars. America got fully involved in the second of these wars and concluded the war by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the Japanese drowned their fleet in Pearl Harbor. The United States came out of the war with changed international policies and entered the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So the United States got involved in international power politics under specific circumstances. It only developed an appetite for control when it became sure of its capabilities and when it had developed a surplus of resources. This is the surplus used to assist other countries at times and to fight them at other times.

2) U.S. foreign policy does not enjoy great popularity in today’s world. In fact, it is the subject of criticism from most countries. This is because of America’s dependence on the concept of power—the use or threat of power, that is—in dealing with the world’s small and large nations alike. The Middle East is a classic example. Israel enjoys unconditional American support. The United States deems Israel to be only defending itself and deems Ariel Sharon as a “man of peace.” Such stances are provocative and have diminished America's popularity.

3) The American people are not hated. The American way of life is very attractive, particularly to the young generation. For years, America has represented to millions of people the hope of a better life. It was considered the “land of dreams.” But Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to be a turning point, after which the nation of democracy and freedom changed into a police state. We do not want this for the United States. We had not expected it. The true leader always leads the world around him by example, by following higher principles and values. He does not need to resort to air raids or armies.

I’m trying to say that the United States of America that represented hope and dreams for so many millions must return to its original principles and its true spirit so it does not appear to the nations and peoples of the world as the victim of its own sense of adventure. No power will last an eternity and no legend will is immortal.

The author is the head of the International Relations Committee in the Egyptian Parliament.

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