It is a matter of routine for the media in the United States to carry articles written by top US scholars at the end of a year and the beginning of the next, expressing concern over the country's prospects.
In one such article, "The end of the American era", Stephen M. Walt, professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote that as the dominant world power since 1945, the US has long sought to preserve that "privileged position", and understands that "primacy" brings important benefits and "it may be lonely at the top, but Americans have found the view compelling". But when the US stands alone at the pinnacle of power, "there is nowhere to go but down. And so Americans have repeatedly worried about the possibility of decline".
Their worry perhaps has never been more intense since the end of the Cold War. Scholars like Stephen Walt are not making ado about nothing. They are, in fact, reflecting on and drawing lessons from the past to safeguard the country's hegemony and rejuvenate US-style capitalism.
Their words are reminiscent of the days 20 years ago when US politicians were overjoyed to see the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union. They hailed it as a triumph of American capitalism and assumed it to be a signal for the worldwide spread of Americanized liberal democracy and, as part of the domino effect, the collapse of China.
At the time, Japanese American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, that liberal democracy might constitute the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and the "final form of human government" and as such signaled the "end of history". His opinion was later disputed by others, though.
For instance, it is said that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, after learning about Fukuyama's "theory", remarked: "End of history? Beginning of nonsense". Paul Kennedy, best known for The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, countered the "theory", saying that the US should come to grips with its "imperial overstretch", which he argued is a characteristic of a declining power.
Had American leaders carefully reflected on the past two decades, they would have realized that they had lost two strategic opportunities to adapt to changes and the global power balance in time.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union was the first opportunity for the US to meet the worldwide demand for peace and development and set a global trend of mutually beneficial cooperation and non-confrontation. But Washington was too self-absorbed in smug institutional superiority and its naked ambition to dominate the world to choose the right path. Instead, it sought the chance to increase its presence in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.
Likewise, the Sept 11, 2001 attacks were another opportunity for it to win international sympathy and lead the fight against global terrorism. But as it turned out, the US was over-confident of its military capability and started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the past decade, it has blatantly practiced unilateralism, seeking to strengthen its hegemony on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
The US fails or refuses to see that multipolarism is spreading rapidly across the world. Way back in the 1990s, veteran diplomat George F. Kennan said: "This planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power," and "neither dollars nor bayonets could secure success." Such messages were obviously passed on to the Bill Clinton administration.
The George W. Bush administration, too, got similar messages from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who proposed the notion of "an era of relative powers" and said no global issue can be resolved without the participation of China, India, Brazil and other developing countries.
Also, at the East Asia Summit last November, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the region should no longer be dominated by a sole superpower. Yudhoyono's remarks and the recent articles published by the US media have conveyed a clear message to US President Barack Obama. The question is whether Obama will heed those messages. So far, he seems not to have.
Obama has been making relentless efforts to realize his ambition. Shortly after entering the White House, he pledged to renew the US' global leadership. In early 2010, he said that he would not accept a second place for the US. Earlier this year, the Pentagon unveiled its new national defense strategy, aimed at maintaining the US' global leadership in the 21st century. As a result, the US strategy has more or less ignored global appeals for peace, development and equal partnership.
Caught between its long-held ambition and its declining influence, the US should realize that though it is still a superpower, it no longer has the same status. What the US needs to do is to adapt itself to the new circumstances, abandon its hegemonic strategy, enter into equal partnerships and respect the diverse economic development models of other countries. Only then can it be a respectable superpower and contribute to the betterment of the international community.
The author is executive director of the Strategy Research Center of China International Studies Research Fund, and a former senior APEC official.