SubscribeSign in
A Superpower, Like It or Not
Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role
Robert Kagan

March/April 2021
David Plunkert
All great powers have a deeply ingrained self-perception shaped by historical experience, geography, culture, beliefs, and myths. Many Chinese today yearn to recover the greatness of a time when they ruled unchallenged at the pinnacle of their civilization, before “the century of humiliation.” Russians are nostalgic for Soviet days, when they were the other superpower and ruled from Poland to Vladivostok. Henry Kissinger once observed that Iranian leaders had to choose whether they wanted to be “a nation or a cause,” but great powers and aspiring great powers often see themselves as both. Their self-perception shapes their definition of the national interest, of what constitutes genuine security and the actions and resources necessary to achieve it. Often, it is these self-perceptions that drive nations, empires, and city-states forward. And sometimes to their ruin. Much of the drama of the past century resulted from great powers whose aspirations exceeded their capacity. 
Americans have the opposite problem. Their capacity for global power exceeds their perception of their proper place and role in the world. Even as they have met the challenges of Nazism and Japanese imperialism, Soviet communism, and radical Islamist terrorism, they have never regarded this global activism as normal. Even
Finish reading this article for free.
Enter your email and we'll send a paywall-free link directly to your inbox.
In addition to your unlocked article, you will receive our flagship weekly newsletter Foreign Affairs This Week, as well as occasional updates and offers from Foreign Affairs. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more information, visit our user agreement and privacy policy.
Get unlimited access to all Foreign Affairs. Subscribe now.
Are you already a subscriber? Sign in.
ROBERT KAGAN is Stephen and Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.
More:United States Politics & Society Foreign Policy U.S. Foreign Policy Biden AdministrationTrump Administration
Recommended Articles
The Last Chance for American Internationalism
Confronting Trump’s Illiberal Legacy
Hal Brands
The Fulbright Paradox
Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism
Charles King
Save up to 55%
on Foreign Affairs magazine!
Weekly Newsletter
Get in-depth analysis delivered right to your inbox
From the
publishers of
Foreign Affairs
The Most:
Malaysia Faces Crises on All Levels
by Joshua Kurlantzick
Five Movies Worth Watching About Conflict at Sea
by James M. Lindsay
A Conversation with Catharine A. MacKinnon: Prostitution as Sex Work or Sexual Exploitation?
by Catherine Powell
Published by the Council on Foreign Relations
Privacy Policy Terms of Use
©2021 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.
Subscribe for unrestricted access.
Explore Current Issue Archive Books & Reviews Anthologies Newsletters Search Subscribe
Decline and Fall March/April 2021 01 Present at the Re-creation? 02 Gone But Not Forgotten 03 A Superpower, Like It or Not 04 The Fractured Power 05 Foreign Policy for Pragmatists