Kim Richard Nossal, "Life with Uncle Revisited:
The United States and the Issue of Leadership," in David G. Haglund, The France-US Leadership Race: Closely Watched Allies (Kingston, ON: Queen's Quarterly Press, 2000), 157-79



     John W. Holmes, the veteran Canadian diplomat-turned-scholar, spent much of the academic part of his life reflecting on the central (and some would say only) foreign policy problematique for all Canadian governments -- how to deal with the United States on the huge range of issues that inexorably link the peoples of the two countries.  His advice for Canadians was deeply pragmatic. Since there was no avoiding the US, its awesome power, its peculiar global mission civilisatrice, or its unique system of government with which it was so difficult to negotiate, Holmes held it to be the beginning of wisdom for Canadians to learn to live with their powerful neighbour, to accept the paradoxes that inexorably came with residing next-door to the world's most powerful state, and to understand how to protect and advance their own interests.

This concern with how a small country like Canada could get along with a country like the US pervaded much of Holmes' work -- a body of writing that spanned almost three decades, from his retirement from the diplomatic service in 1960 to his death in 1988.[1]  But it was distilled most cogently in a short book based on a series of public lectures, which he entitled Life with Uncle, after Clarence Day's Life with Father.[2]  This book examined the essential problems of dealing with the US on a wide range of issues, both bilateral and global.  Holmes paid particular attention to the challenges of leadership and followership in the Atlantic alliance, arguing that what was needed was what he called, with his tongue most firmly in his cheek, the art of "alliancemanship."

     Life with Uncle was written during the Reagan administration's first year in office, and so we might well ask whether its lessons remain as valid in the contemporary post-Cold War era as they were during the age of bipolarity?   The purpose of this chapter is to explore and assess Holmes' essentially Canadian prescription for the most appropriate method of dealing, in today's world, with American power, and to do in a way that sheds light upon the ongoing contest between Washington and Paris.  In the context of that bilateral rivalry, it very much matters how we interpret the challenges of contemporary American leadership.

     The interpretation of those challenges, in turn, largely depends on how we choose to characterize the US.  Is it a superpower that is on its way to becoming an "ordinary" state, as Samuel Huntington claims?[3]  Or has America slipped the bonds of "superpowerdom" and become transformed into what the French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, has termed  "une hyperpuissance," a hyperpower?[4]  This chapter argues that Huntington is wrong, Védrine is right, and Holmes continues to be relevant.  For I will show why the US will not soon become "ordinary," and why "hyperpower" is a much more apt characterization of contemporary America's standing.  In addition, I will argue that for all the marked shift in the US standing, Holmes' views on how to get along with America remain apposite, and not only for Canada.

Life with Uncle: Getting Along with the Americans

     For Holmes, Clarence Day's Life with Father provided the perfect leitmotif for understanding how Canadians perceived the US (particularly given the dominant view in the US that the post-1945 international order was a predominantly American creation):

     Creation, to me, meant a Creator.  And since there was someone so great and powerful that He had created us all, I felt I had better learn his wishes.  They were supposed to be good.  I wanted to live in harmony with Him -- no battle of wills.  Yet I also wished greatly to get away and live as I liked....  I thought of God as a strangely emotional being.  He was powerful; he was forgiving yet obdurate, full of wrath and affection.  Both His wrath and affection were fitful, they came and they went, and I couldn't count on either to continue; although they both always did.

     But in Holmes' view, life with "uncle" was not unremittingly bleak.  Writing at a time when Solidarity was trying to challenge the existing order in Poland, and by implication in all of Central and Eastern Europe, Holmes reminded his audience that "[a]s a neighbour it is certainly better to be a Canadian than a Pole."  Life alongside "an extraordinary power by divine right" might have constituted "an uneasy existence," but Holmes' point was that it was possible to work to ensure that the interests of Canadians were protected and advanced.[5]  He recognized that those interests were best protected by the maintenance of good relations with Uncle Sam, which in turn depended on understanding the idiosyncrasies of American politics.

This was particularly true, Holmes suggested, in the area of global policy, where Canada was linked to the US through a transatlantic alliance.  Holmes recognized that there were inherent problems for small countries in alliance with the US.  As he noted, smaller powers were understandably uncomfortable with international organizations where there is provision for "majority decision and minority obedience."  Holmes acknowledged that "lesser powers are faced with the need to act along with allies and associates with much less hope of determining the common policy but no intention of surrendering to others their right to determine their own actions."  This often led to the smaller power's being tempted to pursue policies that diverged from those of the alliance leadership, which created its own problems: "Our American friends sincerely profess their respect in principle for some nonconformity of allies but find

a human difficulty in accepting it when it is actually practised" (p. 84).

For Holmes, the key to managing these inherent problems was what he called the art of alliancemanship, or the art of being a better ally.  This, in his view, depended on how the alliance leader and the alliance followers resolved the inevitable conflicts that emerged from their respective positions.  Both had obligations to contribute to a more effective management of the alliance.  For the smaller members, it was a matter of appreciating the difficulties of leadership: "We must make clear that we understand sympathetically what a very difficult thing it is to be an American if we expect them to listen to us.  We cannot afford flippant disagreement" (p. 90).  He was quick to note, however, that

     [o]n our part a willingness to listen need not appear as the silence that implies assent.  The sober restatement of our own views can forestall sharp rebuke later.  It is of very great importance to Canada to maintain amicable relations with whatever administrations the Americans elect.  That does not mean supine agreement, but it suggests caution in picking a quarrel.  The danger is that we forfeit not only our vested interests but also the disposition in Washington to listen to our arguments on world affairs (p. 91).

     Holmes argued that a smaller country such as Canada could and should play an important restraining role in the alliance.  First, it should restrain intra-alliance conflict by trying to patch up, or smooth over, conflicts of interests within NATO.  In his view, seeking compromise and playing a "smoothie role" should always be Canada's first priority, for "alienation and contention within the alliance are not in our national interest" (p. 94).  Second, Holmes argued that Canada could and should seek to restrain American hubris.  While acknowledging candidly that "we [in Canada] have our own sour reputation for nauseous holiness and hypocrisy to cope with, our rhetoric outpacing our contribution," he nonetheless argued that the Canadian government should not hesitate to try and restrain American excesses in world affairs: after all, "[t]hey need best friends to tell them when their breath is bad" (p. 137).  But such condescension is premised on the assumption that Americans are always willing to be persuaded.  Indeed, in Holmes' view, Canada was "Number One exhibit to prove that American influence is limited by moral inhibitions.  To make that point convincingly ... we have to continue being not a submissive but a stubborn, opinionated, tiresome, and, of course, always wise friend" (pp. 137-38).

     It is important to note that Holmes did anticipate that, on some issues, disagreement would be necessary.  "I would certainly not rule out positions of loud non-conformity when there seems no honourable alternative and if we are sure of our ground, but let us not pretend that life with an angry uncle would be easy" (p. 93).  On the other hand, Holmes' understanding of alliancemanship presupposed that the alliance leader also had an obligation to try to be a better ally.  As he argued:

     The apparent anxiety [in the United States] to restore US power and influence as it once was does not accord very well with the assessment of the friendly allies: that the US must accept a role that is still unique but somewhat more like that of an ordinary state.  It is not that we are eager to cut the Americans down to size but we don't want them to make any more disastrous miscalculations of their capacity, as in Vietnam.  This means in particular that the United States must be more willing to act through international institutions and alliances, with more respect for the principle of concurrent majorities.  Above all it must not, as in the case of Afghanistan, announce unilaterally the sanctions to be taken and make the conformity of its allies a test of loyalty (p. 95).

     The ongoing manifestation of American unilateralism was especially irksome to a diplomat who had experienced directly his fair share of the phenomenon back in the 1950s.  He understood its origins, but nonetheless argued that it was unhealthy for the alliance.  "The Americans defend their actions on the grounds that someone has to act when the allies can't agree.  It is in some cases a legitimate argument, but it can, of course, means that the allies won't agree with the will of Washington.  In any case the allies have to be given a chance to agree before some White House spokesman announces what they are expected to agree on" (p. 95).

     In short, Holmes argued that in dealing with the US, the "beginning of wisdom" (as he liked to put it) was to recognize the essential paradox of the American position in the world: on the one hand, the US wields superordinate power, and often exhibits the arrogance that comes with such power.  But, in Holmes' view, there is a distinct difference between Americans and others with comparable relative power: "They have an imperial flare, but they are not, thank God, very good imperialists in the long run" (p. 137).  Most importantly, they are open to being persuaded by friends who can see the beneficent consequences of American power.

Alliancemanship and Leadership in the Contemporary Era

     Much has changed since 1981, when Holmes penned Life with Uncle.  He was writing during the era of bipolar superpower rivalry.  Indeed, much of his writing reflected the view, widespread at the time, that US power was on the wane.[6]  During the decades of the 1980s this perspective would evolve into a "declinist" school of thought about American foreign policy.[7]  We know now, of course, that the declinist outlook was premature (if not simply wrong).  The "renewalists" -- as they were dubbed, after the title of a Foreign Affairs article by Huntington[8] -- had it right: Huntington, and such other scholars as Henry Nau and Joseph S. Nye, Jr, all argued that not only was the US not at all in decline, but no other state in the international system had the capacity to challenge it for global leadership.[9]  Indeed, the title of Nye's 1990 book on American power -- Bound to Lead -- was intended to underscore his contention that the US had all the power resources it needed to sustain a leading position in world politics.[10]

     It can be argued that twenty years on, the US occupies a very different location in world politics than it did when Holmes was writing.  Since the end of the Cold War in particular, America has not only not declined, it has battened as an even more dominant force in world politics.  Few would disagree with Zbigniew Brzezinski's characterization of it as the "first, last, and only global superpower,"[11] or with Ignacio Ramonet, the director of Le Monde diplomatique, who in 1998 described the US global position with only the slightest touch of hyperbole: "America holds sway over the world as no empire has ever done before in the entire history of humankind.  It dominates in every sphere: political, economic, military, technological, and cultural."[12]  For the US is indeed alone in its class.  Its dominance,  which seemed so fragile to John W. Holmes in the late 1970s, seems undisputed today; both the capacity and the willingness of the government in Washington to shape world politics in ways that are fundamentally consonant with American definitions of interest seem untrammeled.

     In fact, the pronounced shift in the global correlation of forces after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 has triggered a debate about what kind of power the US has become. Samuel Huntington, one of the charter renewalists, has argued that if the US is a superpower, it is an exceedingly "lonely" one, for it is caught in a system that he argues is neither multipolar nor unipolar.[13]   Moreover, in Huntington's view, it is a system to which no one is very committed:

     The United States would clearly prefer a unipolar system in which it would be the hegemon....  The major powers, on the other hand, would prefer a multipolar system in which they could pursue their interests ... without being subject to constraints, coercion, and pressure by the stronger superpower.  They feel threatened by what they see as the American pursuit of global hegemony.  American officials feel frustrated by their failure to achieve that hegemony.[14]

     In Huntington's view, such mutual frustrations have far-reaching consequences for the future of American global leadership, and therefore of alliance followership.  Because the present "uni-multipolar" system, as he terms it, leaves all participants discontented and seeking change, that system must be merely a transitional one, lasting at most a decade or two.  It will usher in a more normal multipolar system, in which the US will become a more "ordinary" state -- indeed not unlike the "ordinary state" longed for by Holmes twenty years ago.

     Huntington does not make clear how he foresees America's actually becoming ordinary, although his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, does provide several clues.  Using a variety of empirical measurements, he anticipates the possibility that the "West" will decline over the course of the 21st century (that is, unless it fails to take the appropriate steps suggested by Huntington to halt its decline).[15]  One could infer from this reading of world politics as "civilizational politics" that the US, as the West's "core" country, must decline along with its civilizational cohort; thus the "rise" of the "Rest" -- i.e., the other civilizations[16] -- would have to imply America's becoming an ordinary major power.

     However, it can be argued that three factors militate against this eventuality.  First, it is not altogether clear that the structural power enjoyed by the US today could be matched, much less eclipsed, in a decade or two, or even longer.  Second, in order to be ordinary, one must think that one is ordinary, and such a self-image is unlikely to hold sway over Americans -- particularly American élites -- any time soon, especially given the ethnocentric lenses through which Americans view the world and their country's place in it.  The third factor is the unique form of government that Americans have devised for themselves, one that gives them even more capacity to secure their interests over others in the international system.

The Longevity of America's Structural Power

     The first and most important impediment to America's becoming an "ordinary" power is that it would require a deeply radical transformation of relative power: either the US would have to "fall" to the level of the other majors, or, conversely, the other majors would have to "rise" to current American levels of economic, military, and cultural power.  As we have seen, Huntington thinks it likely that the US, along with other Western countries, will decline (or "fade," as he puts it) as other civilizations continue to assert themselves during the course of the 21st century.[17]  This assertion is supported by trends in a number of empirical measures -- territorial ownership, population, share of manufacturing output, gross economic product, and military personnel -- that compare the West with other civilizations.  And when the data are organized like this, the trendline is (ominously) clear: the West is in decline.

     But such a conclusion is only obtainable if all data on power are organized on a civilizational basis, which involves aggregating the data of numerous countries on existing national lines.  Although Huntington refers to territory or population "under the political control of civilizations," or the share of world gross economic product according to "civilization," his doing so constitutes a bit of analytical legerdemain.  Using a word like "control" suggests that each civilization has both a political unity and a singularity of purpose and action.  Of course, as Huntington recognizes full well, and indeed acknowledges elsewhere in his book, none of his civilizations is a unitary political actor.  Instead, whatever territory or population might be "controlled" by a civilization is more properly under the political control of numerous governments nested in that putative civilization.

     If, by contrast, we were to disaggregate Huntington's data into the approximately 195 separate units that constitute the contemporary international system, we would get a very different picture.  As Zbigniew Brzezinski has argued, assessing the elements that have given the US its primacy would suggest that the US would tower above all others on the vast majority of empirically measurable attributes of power -- to say nothing of numerous, less tangible, attributes that cannot be so readily measured, but which are nonetheless important (such as the prevalence of personal freedom).[18]

     Moreover, it is hard to conceive of how America's towering lead might be eliminated in the next twenty to thirty years, whether through its being "cut down to size," or as a result of others shooting up to current American standards.  To be sure, one can engage in the scenario-building that is the stock-in-trade of futurists, military planners, and (of course) the legions of structural realists who have been waiting so patiently for Kenneth Waltz's predictions about great-power rivalry finally to come true.[19] Scenario-builders envisage the possibility of different (unitary, as opposed to civilizational) challengers to American global dominance.[20]  Because the combined population and economic capacity of the various European states comes closest to rivalling the key attributes of the US, the most popular candidate is a fully united Europe, willing and able to act as a singular actor in world politics.  An increasingly common candidate is a China grown powerful on purloined American military secrets and several decades of engagement in the international political economy; indeed, Huntington even sketches out a scenario in which China goes to war against the West by 2010.[21]  Others might point to a resurgently nationalist Russia finally sprung from the mire of economic dysfunction and political disintegration; or an assertive India, eager to project its power beyond the subcontinent; or a sub-Saharan Africa unified along Bismarckian lines (with South Africa playing Prussia and its leader playing the part of a continental Otto von Bismarck).

     But these are all surely fanciful scenarios, built on assumptions that blithely ignore a number of important "reality checks."  First, while the power capacity of a political community may diminish with extreme rapidity, it generally takes a long period of time for the power capacity of communities to grow dramatically.  Thus, unless the US were to suffer a major catastrophe (one, moreover, that did not also affect other major powers), there is only one way in which the relative balance of power capabilities separating it from the other major powers extant at the turn of the millennium can change: very slowly, and over many decades.[22]  Second, scenarios that either feature the appearance of new unitary actors (e.g., a unified Europe, or a united sub-Saharan Africa) or posit the rise of such new actors as "civilizations" ignore the depths to which nationalism is entrenched in current dominant forms of identity.  While it is popular in some quarters to proclaim the end of the nation-state and the rise of postnationalist forms of identity,[23] "postnationalist" does not seem to characterize accurately the vast majority of those humans who appear to continue to be deeply attached to their different nation-states.

     In short, while some might argue that anything is possible, a more reasonable conclusion would be that the prospect is slim of the US facing serious challenges to its structural dominance relative to others, at least for the next generation.  For the US to "fall" relative to the other majors, it would have to experience a disaster of the most catastrophic kind that affected only Americans and their economy -- and no others.  And, concomitantly, for the other majors to "rise" relative to the US, one (or more) of them would have to undergo a massive transformation of capacity while America remained at current levels.  Absent such a catastrophe, even the most optimistic assessment of the capacities of the other majors relative to the US would lead to the view articulated by Nye a decade ago: America is "bound to lead."  For none of the contenders can match its overwhelming capacity in the combined and linked areas of military technology, scientific research, size and strength of economy, lack of dependence on external intercourse, attraction of culture, and political unity.

An Extraordinary Country: The World According to Americans

     A second impediment to the evolution of the United States as an "ordinary" power is the degree to which Americans, particularly the foreign policy élite, see the world in such deeply Americo-centric terms that they cannot conceive of the US as anything other than an "extraordinary" power.  This is a corollary of an idea that is deeply rooted in the country's political culture: American exceptionalism, the widely held belief among Americans, both now and in the past, that theirs is different from all other countries in the world.[24]  The difference is seen to lie in the origins of the political community and the revolutionary political experiment put in place by the colonists and then the Founding Fathers.  As this volume's chapter by Beatrice Heuser indicated, the political community established in the "New World" was to be different from that of the "Old," that it was to be a "city upon a hill" (as John Winthrop put it originally in the early 17th century).

     These differences persist down to the present: even after two and a quarter centuries, the US is seen as a beacon of difference for peoples the world over (one excellent measure of which is the number of people in the rest of the world who want to move there).  The exceptionalism that is so evident in contemporary American politics has an international politics manifestation: world politics is something that cannot be understood unless the US is placed at the core.  This is how international politics is widely taught in the United States, and central to the understanding that most graduates of American universities appear to take with them into the real world beyond their university studies.  It is most clearly evident in the history of the world since 1945 that Americans tell each other, a history that is undergirded by the "theory" that has been invented by American scholars to explain American global leadership -- hegemonic stability theory.[25]

     Moreover, this leadership tends to be described using the discourse of "public goods."  In this rendition, the US, through foreign policy decisions that result in the creation of alliances, or rules-based trading regimes, or stable exchange markets, "produces" public goods, either for the international system as a whole, or for particular countries.  And these public goods, by their very nature, are deemed to be "good" for whomever is out there consuming them. Consider, for example, Joshua S. Goldstein's globalized update of the aphorism that "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA": a hegemon, Goldstein claims, "basically has the same interests as the common good of all states."[26]  In other words, "What's good for the USA is good for the whole world."  Americans spend money and energy creating something positive for the world that can be enjoyed by all, even those who do not contribute to these "goods," and indeed even those who might not want to enjoy them.

     A view of the world grounded in a "public goods" approach encourages a particular view of others in the international system as little more than "free riders" -- in short, those abroad who enjoy the security created by the US, enjoy the economic benefits of an open and liberal global economy sustained by American leadership, but who do not have to pay the attendant costs.  Little wonder that Americans raised on the idea that they are providing "international public goods" to a world that seems ungrateful should be concerned about the issue of "burdensharing," and how the allies of the US tend to be able to devote more of their social wage to social welfare because the American treasury is burdened with the costs of paying for the various alliances it leads.

     This story of world politics portrays Americans as selfless and altruistic, with the rest of the world either as followers responding to farsighted American leadership and extraordinary American generosity, or cast in the role of cheap or ungrateful "free riders."  As a nationalist tale, hegemonic stability theory no doubt achieves a number of national purposes, such as making Americans feel good about their country's generosity and proud of its power.  And since no other state in the international system behaves like this, hegemonic stability theory confirms the essential rightness of the larger idea of American exceptionalism.  Perhaps this is why it is so popular among Americans.[27]  It is widely reflected in American public discourse; and it is widely taught in the textbooks that are used to introduce American undergraduates to world politics.[28]  Moreover, as Isabelle Grunberg has demonstrated so cogently, hegemonic stability theory has a high mythic content that favours its perpetuation.[29]

     But few others in the international system tell the story this way, not even those who would willingly grant that many elements of post-1945 American statesmanship, such as the Marshall Plan, represented statecraft of considerable vision and generosity on the part of those in the administration and Congress, and indeed on the part of Americans who sustained the postwar internationalists in power.  On the contrary: non-Americans tend to find it hard to take the essential hubris of the theory and the fanciful conflation of the "common good of all states" with the "international public goods" being "produced" by Americans.  It is thus no coincidence that

hegemonic stability theory is a tale that tends to be told predominantly in the US.

     However, the predominance of this view of the US at the centre of world politics has substantial implications for the future emergence of the country as an "ordinary power."  Being "ordinary" implies being able to conceive of the world without your country at its centre, being able to conceptualize world politics as a sphere of human activity that does not, need not, or should not involve one particularly extraordinary state.  As noted above, this is a view of the world quite alien to Americans, and, more importantly, the prospects of changing this dominant American view are slim.  Indeed, it could be argued that American exceptionalism is so deeply rooted in the Weltanschauung of so many Americans today, and so deeply rooted in the social reproductive processes that shape the world views of each succeeding generational cohort of young Americans, that even if structural power conditions were to change over the next half-century, Americans would still regard their country as an extraordinary, and never an "ordinary," country.

A Unique Governmental System

     A final factor that suggests the continuation of American dominance is the unique governmental system that Americans have constructed for themselves.  In particular, they alone in the world have a legislature that is given huge power to define the "national interest" in ways that are both deeply parochial and unabashedly imperial.[30]  The Helms-Burton act demonstrates both qualities, as it is a piece of imperial legislation that reflects nicely the parochial domestic electoral dynamics triggered by the Cuban shootdown of two Cessnas operated by the Brothers to the Rescue in 1996.  This is by no means a unique case: the policies of the US towards much of the world are driven by Congress.[31]

     As well, America's relations with other countries can also be deeply affected by the tendency of some members of Congress to be remarkably self-indulgent in their behaviour and their attitudes towards the outside world.  Consider just three incidents, cited by William Wallace and Jan Zielonka in their recent survey of American-European relations.  In May 1997, Jesse Helms simply stalked out of a meeting with Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, when Cook had the temerity to disagree with Helms on the issue of allied burdensharing.  The following year, during the debate on NATO enlargement, Helms openly denigrated the Europeans on the floor of the Senate, claiming that the European Union "could not fight its way out of a wet paper bag."  Finally, Alfonse D'Amato responded to a European ambassador's complaint that the D'Amato act's extraterritoriality was contrary to international law by saying, "To hell with international law," and followed that up with a veiled threat: "You've got a choice to make: you're either with us or against us, and I only hope for your sake that you make the right decision."[32]

     Again, the arrogance, rudeness, and self-indulgence of members of Congress towards others in the international system is hardly new: history is littered with examples of such behaviour.[33]  Such self-indulgence stems in part from the parochial nature of the Congress, but mostly from the inchoate appreciation of its members that loose talk, rudeness, and arrogance actually carry few costs for the US.  And they are right in their assessment: others in the international system will surely grumble at the boorishness of American legislators, but in the end they will not do anything about it.  Such is the superordinate power of the US that Americans, whether in Congress or in the executive branch or anywhere else, never have to behave as though others are listening, much less that they matter.

From Superpower to Hyperpower?

     The same factors that suggest that the US is not going to become "ordinary" any time soon also suggest that it is time to reconsider how we characterize American power.  Rather than seeing America as a "superpower," a term that came into widespread use in the mid 1940s to describe the superordinate position of the US and the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the other "great powers" -- and everyone else, for that matter -- we would do better to embrace Védrine's term, hyperpuissance.

     Now it is true that "hyperpower" is often used epithetically and forensically by those opposed to particular exercises of power on Washington's part.  Certainly Védrine tends to invoke it with a bit of a sneer, no doubt a consequence of what Dominique Moïsi terms France's "distinct distaste for America's oft-proclaimed sole-superpower status."[34]  However, hyperpower need not be so value-laden; a case can be made for using it as an analytical category to describe a certain kind of power in world politics.

     Many students of world politics arrange the world as a hierarchy, with the apex being occupied by those of superpower status; great powers are ranked immediately underneath, followed by significant regional powers -- and then come the vast majority of middle-sized countries, smaller powers, and microstates that form the base of the pyramid.  However, it can be argued that the superpower category is no longer capable of capturing the essential "distance" in power terms between the one state that at present sits at the apex of the hierarchy -- the US -- and all other political communities in the international system.  On the contrary: it can be argued that during the decade since the Cold War's ending, the US went from being a superpower, as it surely was during the bipolar era, to a hyperpower.

     But what is a hyperpower, and how does it differ from a superpower?  While the term superpower was first employed in the early 1920s, it was not until the mid 1940s that it entered common parlance, as a means of describing the superordinate position in which both the US and the USSR found themselves vis-à-vis all other countries.  While there is no clear and uncontested definition of superpower, generally this term was used to signify a political community that occupied a continental-sized landmass; had a sizable population (relative at least to other major powers); boasted of a superordinate economic capacity (again, relative to others), including ample indigenous supplies of food and natural resources; enjoyed a high degree of nondependence on international intercourse; and, most importantly, had a well-developed nuclear capacity (eventually coming to be defined as "second-strike capability").  In sum, the term superpower was intimately connected with the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US after 1945, and was designed to signify the essential chasm in power capability between those two countries and all the other major powers.

     While this quintessentially Cold War term continues to be widely used in the post-Cold War period to apply to the US, one can argue that the distance between that country and all others has expanded rapidly since 1989.  The first huge gap appeared as the Soviet Union's superpower status vanished along with the disintegrating country: the USSR transmogrified into Russia and shed not only large amounts of territory and population, but also was forced to grapple with a collapsing economy, a ravaged ecology, an often dysfunctional polity, and a hugely diminished military capability.  But the distance that had existed between the US and all other majors during the Cold War also expanded in the decade after the end of the Cold War.

     Let us imagine that European Union might be regarded as one of those "majors."  Together, the EU's members have a population and industrial/economic capacity equal to, and in a few dimensions surpassing, that of the US.  Notwithstanding that European integration has continued apace throughout the 1990s, the EU today as a political entity remains unable to conduct the statecraft of a great power, much less of a superpower.  Or take Japan: despite its highly developed industrial and economic base, this country's overall power capabilities relative to those of the US are less in 1999 than they were in 1989.  For its part, China has an economy that has expanded dramatically; its population, the world's largest, continues to grow; and it has more military capability now than in 1989.  But the growth of its power resources over the post-Cold War period has been more than matched by the growth in American power.  Likewise, India has also experienced considerable growth: it has a middle class that is more sizable than the entire population of the US, and it has successfully demonstrated its nuclear capability.  But like the other major powers, Indian capacities cannot come close to those of the US.

     The growing gap between the US and the others is a consequence of four factors.  First, the pace of globalization and the integration of the capitalist political economy in the ten years since 1990 have dramatically increased the dependence of the majority of governments in the international system on economic intercourse with America, and in particular on securing access to that country's markets.  Today, only a very few national governments  are content to remain outside the vast realm of economic intercourse dominated by the US government itself, or by those elsewhere (in national governments or international financial institutions) who have come to embrace American-inspired neoliberal ideas about the proper relationship between states and markets.  But such countries as Cuba, Libya, Myanmar, Iraq, and the Serbian rump of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are unusual precisely because so many other governments are so keen to develop trade and investment relations with the US.  And it is not at all coincidental that even in those marginalized countries, the US dollar -- the de facto global currency -- happens to be the currency of choice.

     Second, the gap in military capacity between the US and any (or all) other countries now far exceeds any gap that existed during the Cold War.  Because the administrations of both George Bush and Bill Clinton continued to spend on defence during the 1990s, particularly on research and development in new weapons systems, Washington now has a means of projecting military force on a global basis that no other country (or group of countries) can even begin to rival.  Not only does the US deploy a massive (though shrunken) nuclear arsenal developed during the Cold War, but it also remains the only country in the world with a truly global airlift capability.  Because of quantum improvements in targetting accuracy, mainly involving GPS (global positioning system) technology, American forces have the ability to engage in highly precise bombing, as the 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 clearly showed.[35]  In addition, the US dominates in the area of so-called nonlethal weapons, such as graphite bombs that can destroy an enemy's electricity grid.  Moreover, its defence industrial base is unmatched by any other country's in size, sophistication, and complexity.  In a similar fashion, the United States dominates access to space, crucial for both civilian and military missions.

     Third, Americans still maintain a dramatic lead in what Joseph S. Nye calls "soft power."  Unlike the "hard power" resources associated with military coercion, soft power resources are the means by which one can coopt others -- the ability, as Nye puts it, to "get others to want what you want."[36]  Most assessments of soft power in the 1990s would lead one to agree with Josef Joffe's assessment that the US is "definitely in a class of its own in the soft-power game."[37]  Information technology continues to be an American trump card; one simple measure of this is that virtually all computers in the world run with American-designed operating systems and with American-written software.  Entertainment and culture of all sorts are increasingly dominated by Americans or American firms.  The language of America becomes more and more the language of the world. And the US itself remains the most popular destination for immigration.  In short, the cultural attractiveness of America at the beginning of the 21st century seems far more robust than it was at the start of the decade in which Nye was arguing the importance of the "ability to get others to want what you want."

     The fourth and final factor that has increased the distance between the US and all other states in the international system is the willingness of Washington to use the prevalence of both its "soft" and "hard" power resources to get its way in the world to a degree not seen in the past.  To be sure, the willingness of Americans to remind others that the US is not only the most powerful country in the world, but also is the only one with the willingness to try to achieve ambitious global objectives, is hardly new.  As early as 1945, President Harry S Truman was declaring that the US

should "take the lead in running the world in the way that the world ought to be run."[38]

     This was a theme that would frequently reappear during the course of the Cold War.  Writing in the mid 1960s, for example, Senator William Fulbright noted the common view of his fellow Americans that the US, "as the most powerful nation in the world, is the only nation equipped to lead the world in an effort to change the nature of its politics,"[39] while the secretary of state at the time, Dean Rusk, asserted that "[t]his has become a very small planet.  We [Americans] have to be concerned with all of it -- with all of its land, waters, atmosphere, and surrounding space."[40]  A decade later, President Gerald Ford would declare that America "has a unique role in the world ... we have borne successfully a heavy responsibility for insuring a stable world order."[41]  James A. Baker III, secretary of state under George Bush, testified before Congress about the Gulf crisis that "[w]e remain the one nation that has the necessary political, military and economic instruments at our disposal to catalyze a successful response by the international community."[42]  But such statements have to be interpreted as having been made in a political environment where there were other countervailing forces willing, even if not always very able, to cross the US openly and to oppose American interests.

     Over the years since the end of the Cold War, we have heard the same sentiments expressed by Americans.  For example, in his second inaugural address, Clinton asserted that in his view the US was the world's "indispensable nation."  Likewise, Madeleine K. Albright, Clinton's secretary of state, claims that "we [Americans] stand tall and hence see further than other nations."[43]  But while the rhetoric may be the same, the countervailing forces that existed in the Cold War era are now almost entirely absent.  Only a few governments are willing to try to oppose the US on issues that Washington deems important.  On the contrary: they might make an effort to change the minds of American officials, but other governments will virtually always choose to fold in the face of sustained American pressure rather than run the risk of souring (much less breaking) relations with the US.  This works not only in the case of those issues where the US government seeks to change the behaviour of other governments (for example, to abandon legislation deemed harmful to American interests or to adopt voluntary restraints on exports of a product to the US), but also in the case of those issues where other governments are seeking to change Washington's behaviour (for example, to get it to pay UN arrears or sign a convention on banning antipersonnel landmines).

     The knowledge that so many others will readily bend to American wishes or demands, or will eventually abandon their efforts to change American minds, seems to have given rise to an increased willingness on the part of Washington to pursue American interests both aggressively and unilaterally -- defining the rules for itself and deciding which rules it wants to follow.  As Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian foreign minister, put it in 1996, the US was increasingly acting "without regard to the interests of others."[44]

     And this, I propose, constitutes the essence of hyperpower.  A hyperpower is "hyper" in two separate, albeit related, senses.  First, it is hyper in the original Greek sense of the prefix: over or above, or superordinate (as in hypersonic).  Thus a hyperpower is one where there is a considerable and indeed, as I will argue below, an unbridgeable distance in capacity between it and all others in the international system.  But a hyperpower is also "hyper" in its secondary and more normative sense of something that is well above the norm, or excessive (as in hyperactivity): in other words, a hyperpower uses its superordinate power capacities in a manner well beyond what others do, seeking almost obsessively to define the behaviour of others as conflicts of interest, often over relatively minor matters, and to ensure that in those conflicts of interest with others in the international system, its interests prevail, particularly when friends and allies are involved.

     During the Cold War, Washington was much more indulgent towards its friends and allies, much more forgiving, and much more careful about its behaviour.  A hyperpower, on the other hand, is a country with both superordinate power and a deep interest in having its interests prevail over others, large and small, on both important and unimportant matters -- and a concomitant lack of indulgence.  In the post-Cold War era, Washington has been taking such an approach to the protection and advancement of its interests.  The range of American interests to be protected has been catholic, and the scope of American power projection has been global.  And, as a consequence, one is hardpressed to find examples of others in the international system prevailing over the US in conflicts of interest in the post-Cold War era.[45]

Conclusion: Life with a Hyper Uncle

     Does the radical shift in American power relative to others in the international system alter the relevance of Holmes' "Canadian" prescriptions for an earlier era?  I would suggest that his views remain apposite if only because the fundamental nature of American politics and political culture -- very much the focus of Holmes' prescriptions -- has not changed (and indeed is unlikely to change in the short- to medium-term future).

     Thus for smaller countries, the US as a hyperpower is just as aggravating as was the US as a superpower.  The administration in Washington continues to make policy decisions unilaterally, arriving at its preferred policy option after furious and open policy debates in Washington -- but then presenting that position to its allies as unalterable, and counting on its superordinate power to bend them to America's will.  For example, the Clinton administration did this on the issue of which countries in Eastern Europe should be admitted to NATO in the first round of expansion: it decided that three was the number, and that the three would be the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, and it announced this well before it actually showed up at the NATO summit called to "decide" the matter.  It also did this on the issue of whether Boutros Boutros-Ghali should be reappointed as secretary general of the United Nations, simply announcing that Boutros-Ghali was not going to be reappointed, and waiting for all 185 other members of the UN to acquiesce (which they did).  In the same way, Washington's decision to ally itself with most of the countries it likes to dislike against its many friends on the issue of the global ban on antipersonnel land-mines or an international criminal court is not at all dissimilar to the willingness of the Reagan administration to stand almost alone against the Law of the Sea treaty produced by the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in the 1980s.

     Likewise, members of Congress are as prone to engage in self-indulgent loose talk in the 1990s as in the past, and are just as inclined to define American "national" interests in markedly parochial terms.  Thus, for example, the Helms-Burton and D'Amato legislation, or the failure of the comprehensive test ban treaty in 1999 -- given a "Capitol Hill funeral," as Jesse Helms gleefully put it -- were little different from previous assertions of Congressional parochialism.  And members of Congress remain no more tolerant now of allies who want to go their own way on global matters than they did in the past.

     In essence, were Holmes still alive, he would readily recognize -- and not be surprised by -- the behaviour of the US as a hyperpower.  At the same time, however, he would surely respond that the essence of his understanding of American political culture had not changed.  Americans are still as open to persuasion as they were during the Cold War era, but also as averse to denunciation.  They are still fundamentally multilateral in spirit and intent, even if they continue to have a hard time working out how to do it well in practice.  And, most importantly, Americans continue to be moved by the ideals of their country's origin, often inspiring them to what Holmes characterized as "heroic generosity."[46]

     If that is so, then Holmes' advice on how best to live in harmony with uncle, even a hyper uncle, still rings true: to engage Americans, particularly those at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in debate, but by persuasion rather than denunciation; to work always to enmesh Americans in international fora and multilateral organizations, and accept the paradox of dealing with folks who are deeply multilateral on the one hand and deeply unilateral on the other; to pick one's fights carefully and with heavy dollops of prudence while at the same time not succumbing to more supine temptations; and, ultimately, to recognize the persistence of American idealism, undergirded by the widespread self-perception of Americans that theirs is a country willing to use its vast power for some conception of the "common good."


[1]. For an overview of Holmes' writings -- and the beliefs that underlay them -- see Denis Stairs, "The Pedagogics of John W. Holmes," in An Acceptance of Paradox: Essays on Canadian Diplomacy in Honour of John W. Holmes, ed. Kim Richard Nossal (Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1982), pp. 3-16.

[2]. John W. Holmes, Life with Uncle: The Canadian-American Relationship (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981).  See also the essays in two other books by Holmes, The Better Part of Valour: Essays on Canadian Diplomacy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970); and Canada: A Middle-Aged Power (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976).

[3]. Samuel P. Huntington, "The Lonely Superpower," Foreign Affairs 78 (March/April 1999): 35-49.

[4]. See, for example, Védrine in Jeune Afrique, 24 February 1998. [KIM: DO YOU HAVE TITLE AND PP NOS OF THIS ARTICLE?]

[5]. Holmes, Life with Uncle, p. 2.

[6]. See, for example, his assertion that the "situation is rendered more dangerous by the declining power, in all things other than arms, of both superpowers and the consequent weakening of their nerves and their capacity to manage the scene."  Life with Uncle, p. 88.

[7]. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988).

[8]. Samuel P. Huntington, "The U.S. -- Decline or Renewal?" Foreign Affairs 67 (Winter 1988-89): 76-96.

[9]. Henry Nau, The Myth of America's Decline: Leading the World Economy into the 1990s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Joseph S. Nye, Jr, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

[10]. For a critical assessment of Nye's self-congratulatory argument, see Andrew Fenton Cooper, Richard A. Higgott, and Kim Richard Nossal, "Bound to follow?  Leadership and Followership in the Gulf Conflict," Political Science Quarterly 106 (Fall 1991): 391-410.

[11]. Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, 1997). [KIM: DO YOU HAVE A PAGE NO FOR THIS QUOTE?]

[12]. Ignacio Ramonet, "Lessons of a Non-war," Le Monde diplomatique, 1 March 1998. [KIM: ARE THERE NO PAGE NOS? AND WHY ON EARTH IS LMD PUBLISHING ARTICLES IN ENGLISH?]

[13]. Not all would accept his depiction; cf. William Wohlforth, "The Stability of a Unipolar World," International Security 24 (Summer 1999): 5-41.

[14]. Huntington, "Lonely Superpower," p. 37.

[15]. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), esp. pp. 81-101, and 301-21.

[16]. In the article out of which his book grew, Huntington created a simple civilizational dichotomy, drawing upon Kishore Mahbubani's notion of the "West against the rest."  See Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer 1993): 39-41.  For critical views, cf. Fouad Ajami, "The Summoning," and Kishore Mahbubani, "The Dangers of Decadence: What the Rest Can Teach the West," both in ibid. 72 (September/October 1993): 3-14.

[17]. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, p. 82.

[18]. Brzezinski, Grand Chessboard, [KIM: PAGE NO?]

[19]. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979), argued that great-power rivalry was an inexorable and necessary feature of global politics; any disappearance of great-power rivalry was thus merely a transitional phase between one set of enmities and another destined to replace it.

[20]. See, for example, Walter J. Clemens, Jr, "From AD 2000 to AD 2025: Six Alternative Futures," International Journal 54 (Spring 1999): 267-78.

[21]. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, pp. 313-16.

[22]. As Waltz has noted, "[s]urveying the rise and fall of nations over the centuries, one can only conclude that national rankings change slowly.  War aside, the economic and other bases of power change little more rapidly in one major nation than they do in another.  Differences in economic growth rates are neither large enough nor steady enough to alter standings except in the long run."  Theory of International Politics, p. 177.

[23]. For example, Mary Kaldor, "Cosmopolitanism versus Nationalism: The New Divide?" in Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict, ed. Richard Caplan and John Feffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[24]. For excellent surveys of this phenomenon in American politics, see Byron E. Shafer, ed., Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

[25]. Exemplars would include Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); and Charles P. Kindleberger, "Dominance and Leadership in the International Economy: Exploitation, Public Goods and Free Riders," International Studies Quarterly 25 (June 1981): 242-54.

[26]. Joshua S. Goldstein, International Relations, 2d ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 103.

[27]. As David P. Calleo has noted, hegemonic stability theory has "seized the American imagination"; Beyond American Hegemony: The Future of the Western Alliance (New York: Basic Books, 1987), p. 218.

[28]. For a discussion of the Americo-centric biases in international relations texts, see Kim Richard Nossal, "Tales that Textbooks Tell: Ethnocentricity and Diversity in American Introductions to International Relations,” in International Relations: Still an American Social Science?, ed. Robert M. Crawford and Darryl S. L. Jarvis (State University of New York Press, forthcoming); draft available at


[29]. Isabelle Grunberg, "Exploring the 'Myth' of Hegemonic Stability," International Organization 44 (Autumn 1990): 431-77.

[30]. For the former , see Peter Trubowitz, Defining the National Interest: Conflict and Change in American Foreign Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); for the latter, see Kim Richard Nossal, "The Imperial Congress: The Separation of Powers and Canadian-American Relations," International Journal 44 (Autumn 1989): 863-83.

[31]. See Heather N. Nicol, ed., Canada, the US and Cuba: Helms-Burton and Its Aftermath, Martello Papers 21 (Kingston: Queen's University Centre for International Relations, 1999).

[32]. Cited in William Wallace and Jan Zielonka, "Misunderstanding Europe," Foreign Affairs 77 (November/December 1998): 66, 75.

[33]. See, for example, the survey in Kim Richard Nossal, "Congress and Canada," in The Controversial Pivot: The US Congress and North America, ed. Robert A. Pastor and Rafael Fernández de Castro (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1998), pp. 50-69.

[34]. Dominique Moïsi, "The Trouble with France," Foreign Affairs 77 (May/June 1998): 94.

[35]. This is of course not to suggest that every one of the approximately 22,000 munitions directed at Yugoslav targets during the eleven weeks of bombing fell precisely where the NATO targetters intended.  Numerous civilians were killed and a number of non-military targets were destroyed as a consequence of munitions that were mistargetted, fired in error, or simply malfunctioned.  See "Air Power over Kosovo: A Historic Victory?" IISS Strategic Comments 5 (September 1999).

[36]. Nye, Bound to Lead, p. 31.

[37]. Josef Joffe, "The Secret of US World Domination," Globe and Mail (Toronto), 27 September 1997. [KIM: DO YOU HAVE A PAGE NO FOR THIS?]

[38]. Quoted in Cecil V. Crabb, Jr, American Foreign Policy in the Nuclear Age, 4th ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), p. 53.

[39]. J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 256.

[40]. Cited in Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p. 390. This nicely echoed an observation of the Canadian ambassador in Washington at the time.  Charles Ritchie noted in his diary in July 1963 that American officials "are everywhere, into everything -- a wedding in Nepal, a strike in British Guinea, the remotest Greek island, the furthest outport of Donegal, the banks of the Limpopo.  All countries' private and domestic affairs are of interest to the Americans..." Ritchie, Storm Signals: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1962-1971 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1983), p. 53.

[41]. Cited in Crabb, American Foreign Policy, p. 53.

[42]. Quoted in Martin Walker, "The US and the Persian Gulf Crisis,"  World Policy Journal 7 (Fall 1990): 791. [KIM: IS THIS PAGE NO CORRECT?]

[43]. Quoted in Huntington, "Lonely superpower," p. 37.

[44]. See Kim Richard Nossal, "'Without Regard to the Interests of Others': Canada and American Unilateralism in the Post-Cold War Era," American Review of Canadian Studies 27 (Summer 1997): 179-97.

[45]. Some argue that the persistence in power of Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi, and Kim Jong-il should remind us that the US does not get its way on all occasions.  However, I would argue that a better explanation is capacity not fully applied: for when the US wants something badly enough, and is willing to devote the resources to ensure that its interests prevail, it will prevail.

[46]. Holmes, Life with Uncle, p. 1.