World’s lone superpower

In order to answer this question successfully we must answer it in four distinct sections. In the first section we will examine the debate over whether the United States is a hegemonic power or an imperial power. In the second section we will look at the main sources of America’s strength, examining the extent of its military power as well the power of its economy and the extent of its soft power. In the third section we will examine the nature of American weakness in the international arena, pointing to the Iraq War of 2003 and the War on Terror as two areas that expose American weakness clearly in today’s world. In the fourth and final section we will analyse the rise of China, considering the arguments that this can be seen either as a threat or an opportunity. We will conclude that the United States is the world’s lone superpower and that the rise of China need not be viewed as a threat.

According to Nexon and Wright modern international relations scholars operate with the assumption that “whether the United States is an empire, the preeminent power in a unipolar system, or the leader of a hegemonic order, (this) shapes the basic dynamics of international politics”[1]. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the United States is simply a modern day imperial power. Hardt and Negri argue that imperial tendencies go right to the heart of the American constitution. They offer us the concept of imperial sovereignty and suggest that “perhaps the fundamental characteristic of imperial sovereignty is that its space is always open”[2]. They examine the constitutional history of the United States and find that each phase of its constitutional history “marks a step toward the realisation of imperial sovereignty”[3]. Hill has observed that this is a fundamental difference between the United States and China. “It is commonplace to observe that the United States, for example, has consistently believed that its own values should be exported, whereas China has never felt the need to proselytise, despite its own conviction of superiority”[4]. Hardt and Negri argue that the constitution of the United States has strong imperial tendencies and that this means that the United States is well placed in terms of acquiring a large Empire. However, these imperial tendencies are fundamentally different from previous imperialist nations. “It is imperial because the U.S. constitutional project is constructed on the model of rearticulating an open space and reinventing incessantly diverse and singular relations in networks across an unbounded terrain”[5]. The new imperialism is based upon open spaces and integrated networks, by which they refer primarily to the globalised world economy and it is the lead that the United States offers in this sphere that provides her with the power to stand at the head of the international community. “‘Empire’ today does not mean anything like what we have always meant by empire. It occupies no lands; it has no center (not even in Washington); it doesn’t depend on tightly controlled satellite governments; it is a postmodern entity”[6].

Chalmers Johnson offers us another theory of the relationship between the US and Empire. Chalmers argues that the United States has not sought to actively conquer territories. “In more modern times, unlike many empires, we did not annex territories at all. Instead we took (or sometimes merely leased) exclusive military zones within territories, creating not an empire of colonies but an empire of bases”[7]. Chalmers goes on to show that the Department of Defence has admitted to the existence of some 725 overseas bases, but that many of these bases are ill equipped indeed to actively participate in any war. Instead these bases “are the headquarters for our proconsuls, visible manifestations of our imperial reach”[8]. We can see therefore that for Chalmers the imperialism of the United States is most tellingly portrayed by the extensive reach of the American military base, not as an active fighting force but instead as a way for the United States to spread its imperial tentacles. However, not all scholars agree that the term Empire or imperialism is valid in depicting the role of the United States in the world. Andrew Hurrell agrees that “notions of informal empire provide some analytical purchase”[9] when looking at the type of power that the United States exhibits in the modern world. However, Hurrell is reluctant to use the term Empire when referring to the United States. “It is analytically more useful to understand the United States as a hegemonic rather than an imperial power, because doing so forces the analyst to focus directly on the crucial questions of negotiation, legitimacy and ‘followership’”[10].

Even if the United States is not an Empire, its sources of strength are clear. Brookes and Wohlforth have argued that “the sources of American strength are so varied and so durable that U.S. foreign policy today operates in the realm of choice rather than necessity to a greater degree than any other power in modern history”[11]. Unquestionably the military might of the United States is one critical factor. After the end of the Cold War America invested heavily in building up its military strength. The Americans were determined to increase their military strength to such a level that the United States would be able to overcome any enemy or combination of enemies. In 1999 the United States declared that its “military expenditures now are larger than all other countries combined”[12] and this attitude encapsulated the mood of the public and of Capitol Hill with regard to the military. “After the Cold War, the measure of adequacy was no longer simply military strength; it had become military supremacy, a position endorsed by liberals as well as conservatives, Democrats as well as Republicans”[13]. However, some have argued that the importance of military strength in defining the extent of a nations’ relative power in the international system is declining. “The factors of technology, education, and economic growth are becoming more significant in international power, while geography, population and raw materials are becoming somewhat less important”[14]. Fortunately for the United States it is well placed in all these new areas as well as continuing to exert more traditional forms of hard military power. The economy of the United States for example is still one that is immensely powerful and it accounts for over one-fifth of the world gross product. Joseph Nye has argued that as the nature of power undergoes transformations in the modern world traditional notions of hard power are becoming intertwined with the idea of soft power. “A state may achieve the outcomes it prefers in world politics because other states want to follow it or have agreed to a situation that produces such effects. In this sense, it is just as important to set the agenda and structure the situations in world politics as to get others to change in particular cases”[15]. One important area of this soft power is the extent to which the United States is considered to be the legitimate world leader, not only the moral leader of the world but also its undoubted trend-setter. The pervasive influence of the United States cannot only be felt in the power of its military or in the strength of its economy but in its ability to inspire the peoples of other nations to strive for the same ideals for which it strives. On this viewing the cultural influence of the United States is just as important as its other sources of power. Unquestionably globalisation has allowed many non-Western people the chance to get their hands on many Western products and ideas. The important part of this is that many of these people voluntarily choose to embrace Western ideas and products and this is undoubtedly an important source of strength for the United States.

Despite such overwhelming strength some scholars do point to sources of weakness. Michael Ignatieff has argued that the Iraq War of 2003 is a turning point in American history. He claims that the war is imperial in its character but that an imperial war goes against the very heart of American values. “A role once played by the Ottoman Empire, then by the French and the British, will now be played by a nation that has to ask whether in becoming an empire it risks losing its soul as a republic”[16]. The American nation was born in the struggle against Empire and if it itself turns imperial then this could prove to be a source of weakness for the United States as it would heavily dilute its national character. The United States would then be vulnerable of falling into the same traps as many Empires throughout history and it is only by maintaining its anti-imperial character that the nation can guard against this slide into Empire. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, which constituted an active threat to the United States, the greatest threat for the United States has clearly come from terrorism. Since the attacks on September 11 the level of this perceived threat has only escalated and it led George W. Bush to declare a war on terror. This war on terror has exposed some fundamental sources of American weakness. It has shown that despite the awesome military strength of the United States establishing order in the aftermath of the Iraq war was very difficult. In fact, September 11 showed that at times the United States was not even able to guarantee the safety of its citizens within its own borders, despite its enormous power, strength and resources. The war on terror has also raised questions about the ability of the US military to deal with the Al-Qaeda threat, which certainly cannot overwhelm the US military but at the same time the military cannot defeat the terrorists and their guerilla tactics when they encounter them. Indeed many have argued that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have been highly counterproductive in combating terrorism. Michael Scheuer, a 20-year CIA veteran has argued that “US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have left both countries ‘seething with anti-U.S. sentiment, fertile grounds for the expansion of Al-Qaeda and kindred groups’. He adds that the invasions were exactly what bin Laden and his associates had hoped for, since they gave new evidence to Muslims that Americans were the ‘new crusaders’, foreign infidels bent on conquest”[17]. This is a major problem for the United States, because even though it does not affect America’s military power it has led to a loss of soft power for the United States. The invasion of Iraq in particular led to splits in the Security Council and has impeded the efforts of the United States to act as the world’s moral authority and thereby set the world’s agenda. Other actions such as the creation of Guantánamo Bay and the abuses at Abu Ghraib have further damaged the credibility of the United States to proclaim itself as the world’s greatest champion of human rights. This has created a backlash against American values, especially in the Islamic world and has led to the perception that American influence is corrupting and negative. Another potential source of weakness for the United States is the precarious nature of its current economic condition and the doubts about the long-term sustainability of public and private debt levels. If the United States loses its position at the top of the global economy this could have serious implications for the extent global power that the United States can wield.

Let us now turn to examine the rise of China. “Few countries are poised to have more impact on the world over the next 15-20 years than China. If current trends persist, by 2025 China will have the world’s second largest economy and will be a leading military power”[18]. The question is whether the United States will view the expansion of Chinese power as a threat or whether the Americans and Chinese can build a positive and mutually beneficial partnership. If they are able to do the latter then one could argue that China does not stand in the way of continued US global hegemony. The two nations could engage to a significant extent and create sustained worldwide economic growth, solve regional disputes and also work together to combat the threats posed by rogue states and terrorism. However, “if tensions between the two Pacific powers worsen, the whole of Eastern Eurasia could become divided in a new cold war, and the prospects for confrontation and conflict would seem certain to rise”[19]. Webber and Smith have shown that the Bush administration certainly recognised the potential threat that an increasingly powerful China could pose. “In March 2001, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence in the Bush administration, presented a strategic assessment which suggested that China was to be regarded as America’s principal potential adversary and that greater priority, consequently, needed to be given to long-range power projection forces capable of deployment in the Asia-Pacific region”[20]. Indeed a report from the United States Congress has shown that the threat from China is not solely confined to the field of the military, but that the vast growth of the Chinese economy and the manner in which it conducts trade with America could also have potentially harmful effects upon the American economy. “Another concern are the large and growing U.S. trade deficits with China, which have risen from $10.4 billion in 1990 to an estimated $232 billion in 2006, and are viewed by many Members as an indicator that China uses unfair trade practices (such as an undervalued currency and subsidies to domestic producers) to flood U.S. markets with low-cost goods and to restrict U.S. exports, and that such practices threaten American jobs, wages, and living standards”[21].

Peerenboom has argued that this view of China as a threat and the resulting containment strategy is highly likely to backfire. “US policy will have to abandon neoconservative policies that seek to contain China, which is the surest way to bring about the kind of military conflict and economic trade war that all hope to avoid. Portraying China as a threat that must be contained fuels animosity and undermines those constituencies in China working to ensure that China’s rise to power is peaceful”[22]. Indeed, Peerenboom argues that “for all the possible sources of conflict, there are many areas where the interests of both parties are aligned”[23]. Despite the assessments by the Bush administration Friedberg convincingly argues that the relationship between the United States and China is more likely to be characterised by both co-operation and conflict in the future as it has been since 1989. “The fundamentally mixed character of the U.S.-China relationship will not change very much, perhaps oscillating within a fairly narrow range, with periodic shifts toward greater cooperation or increased competition, but without a clear trend in either direction”[24]. If this is indeed the case then the prospects for continued US global hegemony look promising. The signs are that the two countries should be able to work together effectively to tackle the world’s problems and this will mean that the United States will be likely to be the senior partner in the relationship. The ability of the United States to continue to set the global agenda will be vital in its quest for continued hegemony.

In Conclusion, we have seen that the United States continues to be the world’s lone superpower. The extent of its military power is staggering and unseen in the world’s history to this point. However, the United States continues to be the world’s lone superpower because allied to this awesome military strength is a powerful economy and soft power that can shape the dictates of policy across the world. Clearly the United States has areas of weakness and not only that but they are exposed often and frankly in today’s media and in academic circles. The invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror have shown that even overwhelming military, economic and political power are not sufficient to win the battles of the 21st Century, that are often as much about winning hearts and minds on Arab streets as they are about beating Islamic fundamentalists based in caves in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, despite these obvious deficeiencies there is no question that the sources of American strength are so overwhelming that it continues to be the world’s lone superpower. It is for this reason that the United States does not need to fear the rise of China, even if some in the Bush administration did view China as a threat. Friedberg is right to argue that the relationship between the two countries will be characterised by conflict and co-operation, but the attitude of the United States towards China will be a critical factor in determining whether the 21st Century is marked by cooperation or another Cold War. If the United States manages to deal with China effectively to tackle the world’s problems, then it will continue to be the senior and most influential partner in the relationship between the two countries.


  1. Hill, Christopher, The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy (2003)
  2. Webber, Mark, Smith, Michael, Foreign Policy in a Transformed World (2002)
  3. Hurrell, Andrew, On Global Order (2007)
  4. Nexon, Daniel, & Wright, Thomas, What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate?, The American Political Science Review, 101 (2) (2007), pp.253-271
  5. Hardt, Michael, & Negri, Antonio, Empire (2000)
  6. Wohlforth, William & Brookes, Stephen, American Primacy in Perspective, Foreign Affairs, 81 (4) (2002), pp.20-33
  7. Bacevich, A.J., American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002)
  8. Nye, Joseph, Soft Power, Foreign Policy, 80 (1990), pp.153-171
  9. Friedberg, Aaron, The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?, International Security, 30 (2) (2005), pp.7-45
  10. Johnson, Chalmers, The Sorrows of Empire (2004)
  11. Mann, Michael, Incoherent Empire (2005)
  12. Peerenboom, Randall, China modernises (2007)


  1. Nexon, Daniel, & Wright, Thomas, What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate?, The American Political Science Review, 101 (2) (2007), pp.253
  2. Hardt, Michael, & Negri, Antonio, Empire (2000), pp.167
  3. Hardt, Michael, & Negri, Antonio, Empire (2000), pp.168
  4. Hill, Christopher, The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy (2003), pp.18
  5. Hardt, Michael, & Negri, Antonio, Empire (2000), pp.182
  7. Johnson, Chalmers, The Sorrows of Empire (2004), pp.23
  8. Johnson, Chalmers, The Sorrows of Empire (2004), pp.24
  9. Hurrell, Andrew, On Global Order (2007), pp.262
  10. Hurrell, Andrew, On Global Order (2007), pp.262
  11. Wohlforth, William & Brookes, Stephen, American Primacy in Perspective, Foreign Affairs, 81 (4) (2002), pp. 30-31
  12. Bacevich, A.J., American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002), pp.126
  13. Bacevich, A.J., American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002), pp.126
  14. Nye, Joseph, Soft Power, Foreign Policy, 80 (1990), pp.154
  15. Nye, Joseph, Soft Power, Foreign Policy, 80 (1990), pp.166
  17. Mann, Michael, Incoherent Empire (2005), pp.xvii
  18., pp.29
  19. Friedberg, Aaron, The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?, International Security, 30 (2) (2005), pp.8
  20. Webber, Mark, Smith, Michael, Foreign Policy in a Transformed World (2002), pp.124
  22. Peerenboom, Randall, China modernises (2007), pp.276
  23. Peerenboom, Randall, China modernises (2007), pp.276
  24. Friedberg, Aaron, The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?, International Security, 30 (2) (2005), pp.37
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