The United States thumbed its nose at terrorism and, perhaps, the rest of the world when it unilaterally bombed Afghanistan and Sudan. Is this proof that the world's most powerful country need answer to no one? The response to that query is unequivocally no.
One might think the American bombings of alleged terrorist camps showed that the big kid on the block need not ask permission to engage in military action. But this time America did not consult its allies only because at worst a few eyebrows would be raised. No U.S. ally can openly support terrorism and, therefore, no Western state could vehemently object to the recent strikes. This unusual set of circumstances is hardly proof that America has carte blanche to use its military might whenever and wherever it pleases.
By contrast, the standoff between Iraq and the United States is a stark example of America's inability to act unilaterally. When America tried to reconstitute the 1991 alliance in the crisis over U.N. weapons inspections, it was evident that the U.S. did not have much support for another strike against Saddam. Obviously, America could act alone. But it needed to maintain good relationships with its allies. America is the most powerful country in the world but that power is most effective when used in tandem with other countries.
The United States would lose its ability to affect policy throughout the world if it disregarded the sentiments of other major powers on critical issues. America would appear the bully rather than the savior. Sanctions on India and Pakistan were enforced over their nuclear tests only because the United States feared a backlash if it did not uphold the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Such sanctions were not necessarily in the US's best economic interests but were imperative if America wished to maintain the respect and allegiance of other major world powers.
The United States obviously has the raw power to do whatever it pleases. But the crux of the problem lies in establishing how to best use that power. If America appears to act in concert with other states, those nations will not feel coerced and will be comfortable using the US as a power source.
In the end, America will retain its preeminence only if it is supported by a strong and effective alliance system. The 21st century will be a time of change. Europe is uniting, China is rising, and nuclear capability is spreading. To remain a leader America must use the changing power structure to its advantage. This means solidifying and maintaining alliances with powers it will need in the future. To accomplish this goal, the United States must appear concerned and affected by the sentiments of other nation-states.
Justine A. Rosenthal is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations