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The Liberal Power

If the world is not quite a village, it is nonetheless in the midst of a town meeting, and the heat is overtaking the light. What the world is arguing about so ferociously is the United States and its proper role in human history. The debate about Iraq is really a debate about the impact of America on the world. Our interlocutors, and even our enemies, are correct in this regard: There is no more significant fact about the present-day international order, no more sensational fact about it, than the prominence of the United States. We are staggeringly huge. The century that just passed was not the American century. This is the American century, and everybody knows it, and everybody loves it or hates it.

There are two characteristics of the United States that have impressed themselves most forcefully upon our contemporaries: American power and American liberalism. In terms of military might, the relative advantage of the United States is now so great that it must be measured in orders of magnitude. Our country has never before loomed so large; and this looming is what some observers mean what they speak sloppily about "the American imperium." (The influence of a great power need not be an imperialist influence: This is the proposition that American foreign policy in its finest internationalist version sets out to prove.) Certainly there never was a more powerful state; and, since there was never a state so consecrated to technology, the quality of American power also relentlessly grows.

The enormous relative advantage of the United States as a state is matched by the enormous relative advantage of the United States as a society. In terms of the life prospects that it offers to its inhabitants, the American dispensation represents another difference of many dimensions. There is no more vivid proof of this American priority than the extraordinary phenomenon of the immigration to our shores. There are countries that people risk their lives to escape, but this is a country that people risk their lives to enter. They do not come here in the certainty that they will find paradise. They come here in the certainty that they will find possibility. Indeed, the American revolution in human affairs was owed to the intuition, the illumination even, that in this nasty terrestrial life possibility is a greater gift than paradise.

What is the relationship between these American supremacies? What has American power to do with American liberalism? The primary task of every American government and every American citizen is to find a way to bring these American strengths into some sort of harmony with each other. The harmony is not a natural one, of course: The annals are littered with the cautionary tales of states that allowed their muscles to spoil them and their contentments to enfeeble them. And America is a democratic hegemon, which is an unprecedentedly daunting vocation. It leaves no room for sentimentality, or for the kind of patriotism that is nothing more than a noisy vanity. We must love our country, but we must not love ourselves. For our power does not make us right, and our virtue does not make us innocent. Our virtue is in any case not perfect: The United States is a more decent place, but not always; a fairer place, but not always; a more just place, but not always. Is God on our side? In our offices we have no way to know; but we believe that the moral and political agency that falls upon men and women in an open and pluralist society makes them more than vessels of ancient traditions and obscure divinities. Whatever the limits of reason, democracy is one of reason's beautiful consequences; and the calling to improve democracy at home and to inculcate democracy abroad is humbling enough.

If the strong are not right because of their strength, the weak are not right because of their weakness. The United States does not owe the world an apology for the magnitude of its power. Enough Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except when it does not. As individuals and as a society, we have the inner resources and the constitutional arrangements to resist the poisons of power. And power may also ennoble, when it is employed for good and high ends. The notion that American power has never been so employed and can never be so employed is a sinister lie, and a counsel of despair to the hurting regions of the world. In many of its uses, American power has been the indispensable instrument of the ideal of freedom--which is a universal ideal, not an American ideal; a universal ideal that it has been an American privilege to serve. The liberal power: It is not a contradiction, it is a consummation. If we get it right, that is. There are terrors of which only American power can rid the world, and blessings that only American power can secure for the world. Not everything that the United States does in the world is an admirable deed, obviously; but the new anti-Americanism must be recognized for what it is, which is the new medievalism, a vast explosion of resentment that amounts to a crisis of faith in what used to be called progress. But we still believe in progress, and so we still believe in America.