September 11 and the Concept of Superpower

After Sept. 11, 2001, we'll need to define the concept of "superpower." There can be no doubt that the United States is the only country that can justly be called "a superpower." There is little doubt that will change. It remains the only country that can militarily defeat any other country in the world. Nevertheless, it is clear that the United States is not the superpower it was on Sept. 10, 2001.

The world is in shock. First came the shock of the number of victims of an insane attack on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington. Then came the shock of a new awareness of a crack in the world's pyramid of power.

Clearly, Washington views a military response as a necessary outcome of Sept. 11's events. A counterstrike would reaffirm the might of U.S. weaponry for anyone who harbored doubts. In his preparations for war, President Bush has really been lucky. Like Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic two years earlier, the Taliban has irresponsibly been irritating more and more governments across the world, giving strength to Bush's professed reason for beginning a war in Afghanistan. That's how the exchange of targets—Afghanistan in place of Bin Laden—becomes convincingly legitimate. Furthermore, the number of countries affected has helped bolster international support for a military response. And so blind revenge gains legitimacy as a struggle against terrorism. It's clear that we're going to have a war, if we don't already.

I suppose that for the United States, this is a struggle to buy time, to forestall the reconsideration of its role as a superpower.

The current situation stands in stark contrast to the two previous U.S. military interventions, in Yugoslavia and Iraq, when after being in a leading role each time, the United States emerged a more visible leader and seemed superior in relation to its allies. U.S. allies—more numerous than ever since World War II—will not permit the United States to stand alone at the top of the pyramid of power.

Until now, U.S. allies were only allowed to tag along in U.S.-led wars. Now the United States is calling on them to participate fully. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks showed that the United States is vulnerable. This fact, though temporarily forgotten amidst the ever-stronger beating of war drums, is of immeasurable importance. The United States is still a superpower. But just what that means will need to be redefined.

Though the United States is still the strongest military power in the world, the horrific attacks showed that it is as vulnerable as any other country. And the vast majority of the world recognized this grim fact and responded with a show of solidarity. To conclude that the horrific attacks of Sept. 11 left America a devalued superpower is to obscure the full spectrum of civilized values—superpower status is defined not only by military might. The United States will likely use its superpower strength for the good of the world, not just for its own interests. In this effort, the country will be called upon to develop its tremendous democratic, cultural, technological, and human potentials. But force needs to be applied appropriately and judiciously.

The author is editor of Belgrade's Reporter (independent), and is World Press Review's 2001 International Editor of the Year.