American Power and the 2004 Campaign

America's presidential election campaign is heating up, and with it the debate about American power. A year ago, after the blitz victory in the four-week Iraq War, many people thought the issue was settled. But the subsequent difficulties in Iraq - and in America's foreign relations more generally - have placed that topic at the heart of the election campaign.

It is hard to recall, but a little over a decade ago, conventional wisdom - both inside and outside the US - held that America was in decline. In 1992, the winner of the New Hampshire primary election argued that "the Cold War is over - and Japan won." When I published Bound to Lead in 1990, I predicted the continuing rise of American power. But today I regard it as equally important to challenge the new conventional wisdom that America is invincible, and that the "new unilateralism" should guide US foreign policy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some analysts described the resulting world as unipolar and saw few constraints on American power. This is misleading. Power in a global information age is distributed among countries in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game.

On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar. The US is the only country with large state of the art air, naval, and ground forces capable of global deployment - thus, the quick victory in Iraq last year. But on the middle chessboard, economic power is multi-polar, with the US, Europe, Japan, and China representing two-thirds of world production. On this economic board, other countries often balance American power.