Richard Reeves

The End of Balance of Power

WASHINGTON -- There seem to be two theories around these days about who is running the world. One idea, of course, is the sole superpower theory: The United States is running the world. The other is that no one is running the world -- at least no one we know.

They're both right. I think.

So it is not surprising that two political intellectual journals -- if that description is not oxymoronic -- one from the near right, the other from the near left, take up that debate in their current issues. Correct or not, both arguments are enlightening in a "Duh!" sort of way.

The National Interest is generally described as a neoconservative journal, with an advisory board that embraces a Kmart of right-thinkers from Irving Kristol to Henry Kissinger. In the fall issue, an Australian scholar, Carol Bell, writes tellingly of "American ascendancy," saying that if the 20th century is "the American Century," which it certainly was, the 21st will be the same only more so.

I agree, though I am writing from the whine capital, where our elected leadership can't break the habit of saying foreigners don't appreciate us the way they should -- or else! This last couple of weeks (and decades), a know-nothing Congress has been complaining about the United Nations ignoring American concerns. At the same time, you may have noticed, 24 U.N. workers died in a plane crash in Kosovo, where they had been dispatched to help clean up the mess we left in those parts. And in Afghanistan, U.N. buildings were being stoned and torched in reaction to economic sanctions imposed on that wretched country by the U.N. Security Council -- because its Taliban leaders will not turn over one man, Osama bin Laden, to the United States. Vengenance is mine, saith the American -- and the United Nations bows.

Bell puts American power over the U.N. and most everything else in this perspective: "The present degree of unipolarity has no equivalent more recent than the palmy days of the Roman world ... a comparison that actually understates the current level of American advantage. For the Roman world coexisted with the great civilizations of China and India. ... The U.S. sphere of cultural influence has no predecessor in its global reach."

In the 10th anniversary issue of The American Prospect, now going to twice-monthly publication, the former secretary of labor, idea-merchant Robert Reich, whose newest customer is Bill Bradley, tries to figure out who's running America in a fascinating column called "The New Power." He begins by saying:

"Here's who's losing it: giant corporations and their CEOs ... labor unions ... the federal government ... the military-industrial complex.

"Here's who's gaining it: big institutional investors ... venture capitalists ... the Federal Reserve Board's Open Market Committee ... the telecommunications-entertainment complex."

Sounds good to me. Taking the gainers in reverse order, my litle business, news and all that, has become a subsidiary of entertainment-technology Goliaths, and even Bob Reich's former boss, the Democratic president, keeps Republican Alan Greenspan on as economic oracle. By Reich's estimate, fewer than 100 essentially anonymous venture capitalists "are single-handedly creating the companies of the future ... not only bankrolling the 'dot.coms' but also supplying most of their key talent."

Finally, he says: "Giant pension funds and mutual funds are the major players on Wall Street. ... Fidelity, TIAA-CREF, CalPers and a dozen others are telling global CEOs what to do and toppling those who won't listen."

Do you or I know what or who these things are? For the record, CalPers is the pension fund of employees of the state of California; and I belong to, if that's the phrase, TIAA-CREF, which handles the pension funds of my employer, the University of Southern California. Not knowing, however, is Reich's principal point.

"The new power centers are far less visible than the old," he writes. "They operate without anyone being particularly aware of what they're up to or how it affects everyone else. ... On the new frontiers of finance and technology, there are few laws or regulations, no oversight, and a total absence of countervailing power."

That, finally, is the message from left and right. As the 21st century begins, there is no balance of power in the world. The United States is unchallenged and unaccountable, and there is no balance of new power yet at home. As for Reich, he ends on a pessimistic note: "It is when everything appears to be beyond anyone's control that bad things happen."

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