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A Superpower Made Ordinary

5 minute read
Michael Elliott

Some ghastly things happened in 2006?the horrors of all-against-all war in Iraq, the rubble of Lebanon, the foiled plot to blow airliners out of the sky over the Atlantic, the slow throttling of civil liberties and freedom of expression in Russia, genocide in Darfur, continuing repression from Burma to Zimbabwe. All seemed grim, and grimly familiar. Was there nothing to lighten the gloom?

Well, of course there was, as there is every four years. There was a World Cup, stupid. There was a monthlong celebration of the global game, played to the highest levels, with the usual mixture of sublime skill (the early performances by Argentina and Spain), promise unfulfilled (England’s hapless, overpaid team), bad luck (Australia’s exit), bad behavior (Portugal) and a controversy for the ages (Zindine Zidane’s head butt?which, by the way, was the moment when YouTube made it into the consciousness of a whole collection of fogies who had hitherto been blithely unaware of its existence, this writer included.) I loved every minute of it; I watched the World Cup on three continents, in bars in Hong Kong, pubs in London, and?it’s a tough job, this?sitting on the grass in Aspen, Colorado, on a gorgeous June day with the Maroon Bells etched against blue sky. And I saw enough to be convinced, again, that everything you have read?not least in these pages?about the World Cup as an expression of global community and a unique focus for a nonthreatening, “soft” nationalism is true.

But there is one aspect of the World Cup that has been on my mind as the year draws to an end. Notwithstanding that meadow in Aspen?or the record TV audiences in the U.S. for the tournament, or the fact that nobody takes the U.S. team lightly these days?the World Cup is a distinctly non-American global event. That makes it unusual. In most aspects of modern life, we have become accustomed to think that the U.S. will dominate, call the shots, shape the way everyone else conducts themselves. But in football (for some, surely, this is part of its charm) the U.S. is just one of the crowd. Its team is on the level of Sweden, say, or Mexico, not that of the perennial superpowers of the sport such as Germany, Italy and Brazil.

In 2006, you can argue, the U.S. seemed a bit more ordinary in more places than the football field. Ever since the Soviet Union imploded, we have gotten used to the idea of a unipolar world, with one superpower, whose capital is Washington. It remains the case that no other nation has such a combined preponderance of economic, political, military and cultural assets as the U.S. Even so, we now know that American might is not always able to bend the world and the times to its will. The clearest example of that, obviously, is the nearly four-year-long failure of the Bush Administration to pacify Iraq and establish it as a beacon of peace and democracy for the rest of the Middle East.

But it isn’t just in Iraq that you can see the limits of American power, though that fiasco has surely emboldened others in the neighborhood?the President of Iran, for one?to test just how much clout the U.S. really has. There’s Russia’s comeback, fueled by high energy prices, reminding its neighbors that it has capabilities that they do not have. There’s North Korea, exploding a nuclear device after being told the U.S. would tolerate no such thing, in what has to rank as one of the most extraordinary pieces of nose thumbing the modern world has seen. In global capital markets, London?on some measures, even Hong Kong?now rivals New York as a business mecca. And perhaps above all, there is the steady shift of economic power from the Atlantic world, dominated by the U.S., to Asia, where it must share the stage with China, India, and Japan.

Lilliputians always enjoy snaring a Gulliver, so many in the world will have a sense of glee that American power is not boundless. They should contain their pleasure. In one of the best books of 2005, Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University made “the case for Goliath,” arguing that a nation that usually behaves tolerably well could provide a network of security beneficial to all. In the past 50 years, the U.S. has taken the lead on everything from rebuilding Europe after World War II to saving the Asian economies from their own excesses in the 1990s. And in the future, whether it is containing Iran and North Korea, or fighting aids in Africa, or helping China assume a new role in the world, U.S. help, might and tutelage will be vital. It’s nice that Italy won the World Cup. But football (sadly) isn’t everything.

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