Josef Joffe’s Bonython lecture, reprinted in full in the SMH represents the United States as Gulliver in Lilliput, a military, economic and cultural hyperpower of unprecedented dominance, but argues
Power exacts responsibility, and responsibility requires the transcendence of narrow self-interest. As long as the United States continues to provide such public goods [global order, a stable world trade system etc], envy and resentment will not escalate into fear and loathing that spawn hostile coalitions.
I don’t think the hyperpower premise stands up to scrutiny. In military terms, it’s certainly true that the US can defeat any likely non-nuclear adversary with ease, but the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is that defeating the opposing army is the easy bit. The US military is now stretched to, and arguably beyond, the limit, occupying a country that is, as we have been reminded so often, the size of California. It can’t or won’t muster the additional resources to stabilise Liberia (effectively a former US colony).
In economic terms, war and domestic profligacy have put the US in the classic imperial position – running an empire on borrowed money. It’s hard to put a precise time limit on current US fiscal policies, but it’s most unlikely they can be sustained for another decade.
Finally, there’s the issue of cultural ‘soft power’. I plan a big post on this Real Soon Now, but for the moment I’ll just observe that the most striking cultural trend of the past few years has been ‘reality’ TV. This phenomenon would be the epitome of the dominance of American low culture, if it weren’t for the fact that it was invented by the Japanese and modified for a broader market by the Europeans before reaching the English-speaking world.