From Zero-Power To Super-Power in 500 Years

R. A. Hettinga
Sat, 22 Mar 2003 23:13:13 -0500


The Wall Street Journal

March 21, 2003 


>From Zero-Power 
To Super-Power in 500 Years 

One of the most oft-heard criticisms of what the whole world is watching in Iraq is that the American superpower is "going it alone." 

Going it alone? I guess so. America has been "going it alone" since about 1776. Or maybe it was 1492. 

Once this thing is over, there will be a great, extended discussion of America's future relationship with the rest of the world and its institutions -- from NATO to the United Nations to the new notion of "coalitions of the willing." But maybe now's the moment, with the superpower gone to war, to finally get a few things straight in our minds about some institutions that are entirely America's own. 

Yes, the United States is indeed the world's lone superpower. We're No. 1. 

But why? How did that happen? 

The most immediate measure of our number one-dom is on display just now in the suburbs of Baghdad. It's a long list, unique to the U.S.: JStars, JDAMs, satellite-guided missiles, B-2s with reduced electromagnetic signatures, digital terrain-scanning systems, laser-guided bombs (LGBs), and -- from the Oregon Medical Laser Center -- fast-clotting bandages that deploy positively charged chitosan molecules, whatever that is (it works). But let's describe the famous, pilotless Predator, now the leading icon of number one-dom. 

As the U.S. Air Force puts it: "The RQ-1A/B Predator is a system, not just aircraft. A fully operational system consists of four aircraft (with sensors), a ground control station (GCS), a Predator Primary Satellite Link (PPSL), and 55 personnel for continuous 24-hour operations. The basic crew . . . flies the aircraft from inside the GCS via a C-Band line-of-sight data link or a Ku-Band satellite data link for beyond line-of-sight flight." 

Where did this superpower-only stuff come from? From holes in the ground, like oil? No. From a secret basement in the Pentagon that al Qaeda tried to destroy September 11? No, not there. Some suggest it's the result merely of "defense spending," a Home Shopping Network for unimaginably high-tech munitions. Not quite. This stuff came from all over America, from heavy mental lifting done by tens of thousands of people the past 10 years. Truer still, it goes back about 500 years, when some ex-Europeans got off the boat and, starting with their first steps forward into thick forest, decided that henceforth they'd be willing to try anything that hadn't been tried before and risk their lives and capital to make daily life in America ever better for anyone who cared to join them. At that moment, America was a zero-power. 

Yes, the military inventory and tactical skills on display for all the world to see right now are one reason the U.S. has sole claim to the title of superpower, but that stuff's just one piece of it. Similarly, the Caltechs, MITs, Georgia Techs, Boeings, Northrop Grummans, and innumerable, small high-tech start-ups who made this extraordinary military technology possible are also just pieces of the more interesting American whole. 

The whole is in fact a system -- a philosophy of foundational values going back to Ben Franklin and before. It's a social and political system rooted in mavericks, innovation, risk-taking, open intellectual argument, impatience, creative change, failure, the frontier spirit, competition and a compulsion to get ahead. Every American kid who doesn't sleep through school eventually knows how the system works. Some go into lifelong opposition to it. Most just go to work -- at jobs somewhere inside the tens of thousands of businesses or educational institutions painstakingly built up, piece by piece, year after year, in 50 separate states. That's the "power" that created the JDAMs and B-2 Stealth bombers. 

We read that one source of the supposed tension now between the U.S. and the Continent is Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's remarks about "old Europe." Well, there was a time, centuries back, when Europe was the world's primary font of invention and innovation. Europe's intellectual and commercial values once mirrored those now ascendant in the U.S. Then, in the 19th century, France and Germany discovered corporatism and socialism and pulled the plug on homegrown entrepreneurs of the mind and commerce. Visiting Europe today, it's not hard to meet young, very smart Europeans in places like Belgium, Germany and Switzerland who say they enjoy traveling to the U.S. but find it too busy, too competitive for their tastes. Fine. Free world. Their choice. But having made that choice, it's a little difficult to accept their whining about an America that refuses to coast alongside. 

One other myth of the moment -- arrogance. That the U.S. went forward with the Iraq war when the United Nations wanted to take the negotiation game into double overtime is supposed to reflect the "arrogance" of a "unilateralist" superpower, answerable to no one. 

"World opinion" should rest assured that most Americans would just as soon get out of bed every day, do an honest day's work, come home to barbecue some hamburger out back, go to the kids' soccer games, drink beer with their pals and let Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder do whatever they wish with their own people. 

If in the meantime one of the things America does with the system that made it a superpower is build a 21,000-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB, rest assured that has nothing to do with a desire to routinely throw its weight around in a resentful world. It's mainly done so that when the 25-year-old down the street ends up in a Kuwait, Kosovo or Iraq -- to personally dismantle weapons of mass destruction -- he has the best chance the system back home can provide that he'll return to his backyard barbecue and kids' soccer games. As history's superpowers go, the world could do a lot worse. 

R. A. Hettinga <mailto:>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'