Skip to main content

by Dr. Ofer Israeli


The major startling effect of the new global position of the U.S. during the post-Cold War era is the unipolar trap. The unipolar trap is a vicious cycle that every hyper-power1 – the leading state under a unipolar system2 – will ultimately face.

In order to suppress resistance against them and therefore, as they hope, retain their supremacy, hyper-powers can either sidestep their opponents or directly confront them. At any rate, however, hyper-powers will face growing resistance to their position and repeated attempts to uproot their status within the system. Each choice may be volatile for the hyper-power and entails imminent and potentially destructive threats. Either path could lead to the loss of their status as the sole polar power dominating the unipolar system.3

The turn of events could ultimately lead to the eventual downfall of the hyper-power and the appearance of a new system on top of the ruins of the existing unipolar system: the rise of a new unipolar system,4 or the replacement of the unipolarity by a bi/multi-polar system.5 All of the alternatives are an undesirable result for a hyper-power.6

Consequently, every hyper-power faces an ironic situation in which, regardless of their chosen course of action – be it a moderate or aggressive response to the repeated challenges and hostility towards them – they would likely face growing resistance to their supremacy. Ultimately, it could even lead to their decline.7 This result is in complete contrast to what a hyper-power is, or should be, seeking. This is the trap.

The U.S. position during the two decades following the Cold War, from 1989 to 2009, was one of economic and military dominance.8 During this era, U.S. status on the world stage was roughly divided. Throughout the first period, following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 up until the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the U.S. served as a benign power on the world stage. With the aim of suppressing resistance to its status, the U.S. usually sidestepped its opponents. During the second period, from September 11 until the presidency of Barack Obama in January 2009, U.S. behavior played the role of an aggressive power in the global scene.9 For the duration of this period, with the aim of restraining outside resistance, the U.S. directly and assertively confronted its opponents. In some cases the U.S. even followed players that did not directly threat its national security, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Before the Second Iraq War, or the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 19 – May 1, 2003), few students of international relations argued that Saddam Hussein was able to be deterred, thus the notion of preventive war was unnecessary and was actually planned as a result of other reasons.10

This study’s main argument is that regardless of its chosen course of action, be it a status quo or a revisionist attitude towards the repeated challenges and hostility it faces, the U.S., as the sole hyper-power that dominates the post-Cold War unipolar system, will ultimately confront repeated and strong attempts to uproot its status.

I build up this proposition in two main parts in order to establish my central argument. First, I argue that risks are associated with moderate responses by hyper-powers when they face repeated challenges and hostility towards them and their interests. I illustrate this assumption by analyzing the U.S. attitude in the world scene during the earlier period, 1989-2001.

Second, I outline the risks that accompany an aggressive response by hyper-powers when faced with recurring challenges and antagonism towards them and their interests. I demonstrate this hypothesis by examining the U.S. attitude in the world scene in the era that follows, 2001-2009. The sharp change in U.S. behavior before and after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks supports the assumption in which foreign policies of states are affected by external rather than internal factors.11 Systemic constraints and pressures played an important role in the responses towards the U.S. during the era covered in this essay. In this study I attempt to show that system-level factors, more than non-systemic factors, played a role in the response towards the U.S. during the covered era: the period of 1991-2009.



From time to time, hyper-powers, despite their enormous strength, can respond to the continued provocations and the repeated challenges they face in an exceptionally modest manner, avoiding to take severe hostile actions against their rivals. Through this lack of action, hyperpowers actually ignore one of the systemic laws and fail to act according to other players’ expectation of the system leader, or that the dominant power creates international obligations. The logic behind this demeanor is the hope that a moderate response will possibly reduce the growing hostility towards them, thus hopefully strengthening their position as the system leader.

The result, however, may be completely the opposite. The hyper-power’s failure to respond to its challengers might be perceived by other players as a sign of weakness and vulnerability, or as a lack of leadership. This perception may have significant ramifications: the show of aggression towards the hyper-power will continue and actually will increase. The resistance will grow and counter-alliances will spread. To paraphrase the rule of the jungle, any bloody injury of the hyper-power may encourage other members of the wolf pack to intensify their assaults and attempt to replace the hyper-power as leader of the system.

The U.S. saw the Soviet Union’s demise as a triumph and a victory of the free world and capitalism.12 After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the U.S. actually found itself without a peer competitor/s. However, while a durable order was being assembled amongst the major powers,13 the reality that emerged was different and by far more dangerous to American interests and its global position, as compared to the previous bipolar world.

During the first phase considered in this study, 1989-2001, the U.S. acted differently than was expected from a state that had gained a position of dominance. The U.S. practiced non-aggressive behavior in the world scene.14 Consequently, Washington avoided one of the basic truths of international relations – the emergence of a counterbalance coalition.15

At the same time, the U.S. confronted growing opposition to its leadership and worldwide dominance. Thus, while many Americans take for granted the benefits of U.S. global military and political supremacy, this supremacy is itself partially the reason behind terrorist hostility towards the U.S. Powerful states are always hated, even if they benignly act.16

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse and throughout the 1990s, Washington failed to remember, or perhaps had yet to acknowledge, the fundamental rules of unipolar systems and the obligations of the hyper-power heading such a system. During these years there were prominent provocative players who repeatedly tried to undermine the U.S. position as the sole hyper-power dominating the unipolar system.
Despite its military defeat in the first Gulf War at the hands of the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition of 1990-91, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein never ceased challenging the dominant position of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf region. Almost immediately after the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein reverted to his former conduct and continually irritated America.

Hussein’s abusive attitude toward America continued throughout the post-Gulf War era and was supplemented with a number of prominent events. The first post-Gulf War crisis, known as ‘Iraq No-Fly Zone’, between the U.S., accompanied by Britain and France against Iraq, was imposed from August 18 to September 8, 1992.17 Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Iraq were embedded in an additional Gulf crisis, referred to as ‘Iraq Troop Deployment-Kuwait’, from October 7 to November 10, 1994.18 Between August 31 and September 14, 1996, the U.S. and Iraq faced off in an international crisis, referred to as ‘Desert Strike’.19 Iraq and the U.S. underwent the fourth crisis of the protracted conflict between the two states, known as ‘UNSCOM I’, from November 13, 1997, through February 23, 1998.20 ‘UNSCUM II’ was a crisis involving Iraq, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., which erupted on October 31, 1998. The crisis, which was the fifth in the Iraq-U.S. protracted conflict, ended on December 20, 1998.21

At the same time, a new and dangerous threat started to bubble under the surface – the global terror network of al-Qaeda, the militant and global Islamic organization headed by Osama bin Laden.
Al-Qaeda and its ilk launched repeated attempts to uproot U.S. hegemony. Washington’s response was very moderate. It actually played in the global arena as a benign power and chose a strategy of sidestepping its opponents. This was the case after a number of attacks and attempted attacks by al-Qaeda and its associates: against the World Trade Center in New York and U.S. troops in Mogadishu in 1993; against the U.S. military office in Riyadh in 1995; against the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000; and in the attempted attack against the U.S.S. The Sullivans (that failed) in 2000.22 The logic behind this approach was the hope that a moderate response might reduce growing hostility toward America. Washington’s failure to respond to its adversaries was perceived as a sign of weakness, however.23

Although the U.S. blamed al-Qaeda for these terror events, its responses were very modest. After al-Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, for instance, world leaders joined President Bill Clinton in condemning the attacks. The U.S. government demanded that Osama bin Laden be handed over to them by the Afghan Taliban regime. On August 19, Taliban chief Mullah Mohamed Omar said that the Taliban would protect Osama bin Laden at all costs and would not hand him over to the U.S. government. Following that remark, on August 20, the U.S. launched air strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. The two attacks focused on an alleged training base for terrorists about 100 miles south of Kabul, Afghanistan, and a pharmaceutical factory capable of producing chemical weapons in Khartoum, Sudan.24

Notwithstanding the ongoing and repeated aggravations and the attacks of these two actors against the U.S., the response by Washington during the 1990s was very modest. Actually, the U.S. refrained from taking any serious actions aimed at eradicating the fundamental and imminent threats it faced. The flood of resistance to its dominant position forced the U.S. to confront the unipolar trap and its cruel dilemmas: continuing its moderate response, which might slow resistance to its dominant position, but, at the same time, which might actually be counter productive in the long term.

The result of these moderate responses, however, was completely the opposite of these expectations. The U.S. failure to respond to its challengers was actually perceived as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. This lack of leadership had significant ramifications. Ultimately, however, Washington’s attempt to build a benign imperium during these years was crushed by the reality of the September 11th terror attacks.

The planning behind the attacks was detailed and long-term, and, inter alia, motivated by al-Qaeda’s desire to greatly damage America’s economy.25 Osama bin Laden believed that, “if Russia can be destroyed, the United States can also be beheaded.”26 In seeking to achieve his ultimate goal, the modus operandi adopted by al-Qaeda differed entirely from the simple cause-effect understanding prevalent in Western society. Recognizing its relatively trivial international status while correctly understanding the complexity of world politics, Osama Bin Laden hoped the attacks would circuitously achieve al-Qaeda’s goal,27 of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”28

Bin Laden assumed that the magnitude and consequences of the September 11th terror attacks, the climax among all the direct strikes taken by al-Qaeda against the U.S. and unquestionably still the most destructive terror attacks in recorded human history, would circuitously and craftily enable al-Qaeda to attain its final goal.29 In al-Qaeda’s eyes, the collapse of the World Trade Center and the process it would trigger would have a ‘butterfly effect’,30 creating a change in existing patterns. Its impact would hopefully cause a global economic collapse and accomplish al-Qaeda’s ultimate goal of uprooting the worldwide leadership of the U.S. There are serious arguments that Bin Laden sought an American over-reaction to the attack and that radical Islam, if not Bin Laden himself, greatly benefited from the course of action the U.S. chose. This debatable interpretation reminds us that actions that are “provocations” will work only if the other side does not properly understand them and rises to the bait.

Since over the course of time existing underlying conditions can change, it is difficult to predict the ultimate outcomes of catalyst/s. Al-Qaeda’s enormous and historically unique attempt did, at least up to this point, ultimately fail.31 After the ashes of the Twin Towers settled, President George W. Bush related to the threat as a litmus test for U.S. power in which any failure to deal with the threat would only further encourage U.S. enemies. Relying on his instincts, President Bush assessed the enormous danger and recognized the rule of the jungle that had come into play. Widespread destruction and death suffered by the U.S. could potentially attract other members of the wolf pack, encouraging them to intensify their assaults and attempts to damage America. Bush’s response of declaring a “war against terrorism” came as a shock. It completely shifted the behavior of the U.S., which then started to serve as an aggressive power.32



In response to growing resistance to their rule and repeated attempts to undermine their leadership, hyper-powers, for the most part, will ultimately adopt a security policy based on prevention. Its implementation is dependent upon applying as much power as considered necessary to confront any opposition they face, even if negligible, that poses a challenge to their supremacy.

This method is entirely correlated with the manner in which the majority of the other players in the system expect the dominant state to act. While it can probably ensure their dominant position in the system, this can only be done in the short run. Thus, while this policy will actually neutralize some opponents, it will create new threats, perhaps much more dangerous.

Remaining in combat and holding a vast number of armed forces and ammunition in numerous locations around the globe will probably increase the hyper-powers’ costs considerably in terms of lives and treasures lost. Consequently, as predicted by Paul M. Kennedy, it will most likely lead hyper-powers to exhaust themselves economically.33 Kennedy argues that the foundation of national power is economic strength. For that reason, great powers precipitate their own demise by excessive spending on defense: “If…too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes, then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term.”34 However, hyper-powers, like any other state in international politics, have to “choose between the short-term security provided by high levels of military preparedness and the long-term security provided by economic durability.”35

During the 1990s, it seems that the West discovered the ultimate way of intervening in conflicts without the risk of spreading those conflicts to the West itself. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, the U.S. intervention in Somalia and Haiti, and the U.S.-led coalition operation in the Gulf, are such examples.36 By launching the September 11 terror attacks, al-Qaeda tried to break this pattern and circuitously bring the war onto U.S. soil.37 Although some prominent students of IR argue that the September 11 terror attacks may have been senseless,38 and although before and after the September 11 terror attacks al-Qaeda was not the only group targeting the U.S., al-Qaeda’s plan actually had overwhelming implications.39

The U.S. response to the attacks was quick and merciless.40 The Operation Enduring Freedom campaign in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, and started a new era. Besides the direct and the declared goal of punishing the Taliban regime for hosting and supporting al-Qaeda, the campaign also had a hidden goal: deter other states from protecting and harboring terrorists.

Prior to the September 11 terror attacks, President Bush saw U.S. leadership and the use of force mainly as a means to defend America’s vital interests.41 During his campaign for election as President of the United States, for example, George W. Bush stated he was against using the U.S. armed forces in “nation building” attempts abroad and other small-scale military engagements.42 Bush’s post-September 11 perspective embodied a global ambition that, according to many, called for an empire – and not a hegemonic or supreme one in nature.43 As a response to the September 11 attacks, a new grand strategy was adopted in Washington. According to this strategy, “America is to be less bound to its partners and to global rules and institutions while it steps forward to play a more unilateral and anticipatory role in attacking terrorist threats and confronting rogue states seeking WMD.”44 The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a demonstration of the Bush doctrine,45 which was unilateral in nature,46 and reflected what many called “the clash of civilizations.”47

Additionally, the U.S. is currently being challenged by a defiant Iran, which does not accept America’s dominant status in the Persian Gulf region, although it is strongly backed by the extensive presence of American (accompanied with NATO) troops in two of Iran’s neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, which were under complete occupation by the U.S. military. Many of Iran’s actions and the statements of its president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, illustrate that Iran is attempting to challenge the hegemonic status of America not only in the Middle East but in the global arena as well. For that purpose Iran is trying to arm itself not only with the short and mid-range missiles that can be used to carry nuclear warheads that can reach Western Europe, but Tehran is also trying to arm itself with long-range ballistic rockets that could strike the U.S. west coast.48

The U.S. also faced the disobedient president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, who is challenging the historic dominant position of the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere, an area that has been regarded as the U.S. backyard for centuries. Chávez, for instance, supplied cheap oil to the Bronx and other poor communities within the U.S. in December 2005 and also offered to bring aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.49 In the beginning of May 2007, Venezuela withdrew from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These were largely symbolic moves because the nation had already paid off its debts to the lending institutions. However, the motivation behind these steps was to decrease Washington’s influence in Latin America, which, according to Chávez, would be better off without the U.S.-backed World Bank or the IMF.50

Although the U.S. has no military equals, it began to face increasingly greater challenges to its dominant financial position: the weakening dollar and its long-term decline, the rapid growth of China, the fact that the U.S. is in net debt and that must attract some $3 billion every working day in order to finance its current account deficit.

The post-September 11 approach of prevention leads the U.S. to greatly increase its defense budget. The consequences are wide. As Kennedy argues, it is not “possible to avoid a weakening of a country’s power projection if it doesn’t have the fiscal muscle to sustain that power.”51

From when he took office, President Bush consistently built defense strength. The U.S. defense budget has been enormous – approximately 500 billion dollars annually. In fact, defense spending has been higher only twice since the Second World War: during the Korean War and at the peak of the Cold War buildup. While some of this spending may have been attributed to the War on Terror, President Bush was committed to and succeeded in steadily increasing the base budget of the Department of Defense (DOD) from $296.8 billion, when he took office, to $401.7 billion in the 2005 budget, which was a 35-percent increase.52 In September 2006, a congressional analysis showed that the Iraq war cost nearly $2 billion a week – almost twice as much as in the first year of the conflict three years before and 20-percent more than the year before.53



In accounting for the dilemma of which policy approach a sole hyper-power under a unipolar system should follow, this article distinguishes and discusses the two approaches adopted by Washington during the two decades post-Cold War, 1989-2009: either sidestepping their opponents or directly confronting them. It is impossible, however, to point out solid evidence to support the argument in which adopting one of the approaches makes much difference.

Following the two approaches, Washington ultimately confronted growing resistance against its dominant position and repeated attempts to uproot its overriding status as the system leader. However, in spite of the harsh dilemmas within the unipolar trap, the U.S. is not helpless in its hope to preserve its unipolar status.

The U.S. today definitely has more economic and military power over the other powers in the international system than any other great power has had in history.54 It therefore may seem unreasonable to discuss its demise. As history teaches us, however, empires do not last forever.

The miserable destiny of the Roman, Mongol, and the British Empires, to name a few, is a cruel application of this truth. The exact downfall of any superpower, including hyper-powers heading unipolar systems, is difficult to predict.55 However, the unipolar trap concludes that U.S. supremacy and its ability to guarantee its position as a sole hyper-power under the current unipolar system is fragile.

In the past, the flow of global power was a slow process. It took the Ottoman Empire 450 years to decline, and the Hapsburgs 300. Nowadays, however, the economic collapse of a great power, even a global one, is feasible and could happen quickly and without notice. The decline of the British Empire, for instance, occurred quite suddenly as a result of massive postwar debt and a sharp slide in the pound sterling that forced its dissolution.

As was exemplified by the sup-prime mortgage crisis in the United States, an apparently marginal factor in a region’s economy may bring the globe into a severe recession. The U.S. could also face a slow demise. Even if America’s economy would grow at a two-digit rate, the U.S. share of world GDP would decline as other economies, such as China, reach a healthy growth.56 bluestar




1. Although the term hegemony is a more commonly used term in academic international relations (IR) literature, I use the term hyper-power to describe the United States’ status on the world stage following the Cold War. Hyper-powers are the sole and by far the strongest actors in unipolar systems that are military, economically, and technologically dominant on the world stage. The term was first used to describe the U.S. in the 1990s. Peregrine Worsthorne, “The Bush doctrine,” The Sunday Telegraph (March 3, 1991). French foreign minister Hubert Védrine popularized it in 1998. Védrine criticized the U.S. and said that there is one hyper-power and seven powers with world influence: France, Germany, Britain, China, Japan, Russia, and India. “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a ‘Hyperpower’,” New York Times (February 5, 1999). The term hyper-power has also been applied, in retrospect, to the British Empires’ hyper-power moment in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Niall Ferguson, “Hegemony or Empire?” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2003), pp. 1-7, at p. 3.

2. Charles Krauthammer proclaimed that in the immediate wake of the Cold War, there existed what he called a ‘unipolar moment’, a period in which one superpower, the U.S., stood clearly above the rest of the international community. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 1 (1990-1991), pp. 23-33. Following Krauthammer, many other studies also related to the current system as unipolar, although some of them argued that unipolarity would not last for long. See, among many others: Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter 1996/97), pp. 5-53; Posen, “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Summer 2003), pp. 5-46; Charles A. Kupchan, “After Pax Americana: Benign Power, Regional Integration, and the Sources of Stable Multipolarity,” International Security, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Fall 1998), pp. 40-79. According to others, the current configuration of the world system is unipolarity without hegemony in which the preponderant capability of a single state is not matched by a predominant influence. David Wilkinson, “Unipolarity Without Hegemony,” The International Studies Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1999), pp. 141-172.

3. In the field of IR we find various terms for labeling the strongest powers in the system: great power, which was first adopted with the signing of the Treaty of Chaumont, 1817; superpower, a term first used by William T. R. Fox in his book of the same name: William T. R. Fox, The Super-Powers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet UnionTheir Responsibility for the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944). Some other phrases are also in use: major power, world or worldwide power, universal power, and global power. I use the general term polar power. However, in order to illustrate that the polar powers are components of the three possible polarities, I use the following: three or more great powers in multipolar systems, two superpowers in bipolar systems, and sole hyper power in unipolar systems.

4. For the rising of a peer superpower to the U.S., see: Christopher Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great Powers Will Rise,” International Security, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Spring 1993), pp. 5-51; and Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: The Coming End of the United States’ Unipolar Moment,” International Security, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 7-41.

5. In the field of IR it is common to distinguish between multipolar and bipolar systems. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979); Waltz, “The Stability of a Bipolar World,” Daedalus, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Summer 1964), pp. 881-909; and John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001). Some scholars, however, analyze tripolar systems as a distinct structure of multipolarity. Fox views the early post Second World War system as one of latent tripolarity rather than one of bipolarity. Fox, The Super-Powers. Randall L. Schweller argues that instead of simply counting the number of great powers to determine system polarity, units should be divided into poles and middle powers. Following that he argues that in 1938 the system was tripolar, not multipolar. Randall L. Schweller, Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler’s Strategy of World Conquest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). Following the end of the Cold War, Schweller argues that there are clear signs that the emerging post-Cold War world is becoming tripolar, with the U.S., Germany, and Japan as the poles. Schweller, “Tripolarity and the Second World War,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1993), pp. 73-103, at pp. 99-100. Also see Walter R. Mead, “On the Road to Ruin,” in Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds., The Future of American Foreign Policy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. 335. According to Leonard Silk, the post-Cold War has become “‘tripolar’ economically, with the United States, Japan and Germany bound together in a complex relationship…” Leonard Silk, “Some Things Are More Vital Than Money When It Comes to Creating the World Anew,” New York Times (September 22, 1991).

6. For the question of whether the U.S. should or should not preserve its supremacy, see: Robert Jervis, “International Primacy: Is the Game Worth the Candle?” International Security, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Spring 1993), pp. 52-67. According to some analysts, unipolarity is in the self-interest of the strongest nation dominating the system as well as dominating international politics in general. William C. Wohlforth, for example, argues that the current unipolarity avoids the sources of conflict that past systems hold. Consequently, unipolarity means the absence of two big problems, which has delivered the statesmen of past epochs: (1) hegemonic rivalry, and (2) balance-of-power politics among the major powers. William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Summer 1999), pp. 5-41, at p. 26.

7. According to Kupchan, America’s unipolar moment will not last for long. Kupchan notes that “even if the U.S. economy grows at a healthy rate, America’s share of world product and its global influence will decline as other large countries develop and become less enamored of following America’s lead.” Kupchan, “After Pax Americana,” pp. 40, 41; and Kupchan, The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century (New York: A. Knopf, 2002).

8. Stephen G. Brooks and Wohlforth, “American Primacy in Perspective,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 4 (July/August 2002), pp. 20-33.

9. Benign states seek primarily to keep, not increase, their resources. For them the costs of war exceed the gains. Aggressive states seek to increase, not just keep, their resources. For them the gains from war exceed the costs. Schweller, “Tripolarity and the Second World War,” p. 76. I am using the terms benign vs. aggressive, or status quo vs. revisionist power, interchangeably in order to label the same states’ different manners in dissimilar eras. Most students of international relations, however, argue that states should be coded as either status quo or revisionist. The most well-known is the division between defensive realism and offensive realism, which use the following terms: status quo, in which great powers’ search for power has limits; revisionist states [are also called imperialist (Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 5th ed. (New York: Knopf, 1978), and aggressors (Jervis, “Cooperation under the Security Dilemma,” World Politics, Vol. 30, No. 2 (January 1978), pp. 167-214], in which great powers maximize their relative power. For defensive realism, see: Waltz, Theory of International Politics; Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987); and Jack L. Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991). For offensive realism, see: Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics; Eric J. Labs, “Beyond Victory: Offensive Realism and the Expansion of War Aims,” Security Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer 1997), pp. 1-49; and Fareed Zakaria, From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton university Press, 1998). Also see Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, “Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Winter 2000/01), pp. 128-161; and Glenn H. Snyder, “Mearsheimer’s World—Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security,” International Security, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Summer 2002), pp. 149-173. Schweller asks, “If states are assumed to seek nothing more than their own survival, why would they feel threatened? Why would they engage in balancing behavior?” Schweller, “Neorealism’s Status-Quo Bias: What Security Dilemma?” Security Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring 1996), pp. 90-121, at p. 91. However, Schweller’s revisionist states are different from Mearsheimer’s states, because they have non-security as well as security goals.

10. Mearsheimer and Walt, “An Unnecessary War,” Foreign Policy, Vol. 134 (January-February 2003), pp. 50-59; and Mearsheimer and Walt, “Can Saddam Be Contained? History Says Yes,” (Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, International Security Program Occasional Paper, November 12, 2002), pp. 1-12.

11. Waltz, “America as a Model for the World? A Foreign Policy Perspective,” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 24, No. 4 (December 1991), pp. 667-670.

12. Francis Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy and Western values had become the only remaining ideological alternative for nations in the post-Cold War period. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, Vol. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18; and Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1992). According Robert J. Art, the U.S. won the Cold War. Robert J. Art, “A Defensible Defense: America’s Grand Strategy after the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Spring 1991), pp. 5-53. Also see “The National Security of the United States,” of 2002, which starts as follows: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” White House, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (Washington, D.C.: September 2002), p. iii.

13. John G. Ikenberry, “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Terror,” Survival, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 2001), pp. 19–34, at p. 23. By the end of the Cold War the consensus was that major war between Western powers was obsolete and that the time of total war had ended. John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Books, 1989); Carl Kaysen, “Is War Obsolete?” International Security, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Spring 1990), pp. 42-64; Michael Mandelbaum, “Is Major War Obsolete?” Survival, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter 1998-1999), pp. 20-38; Donald Kagan, Eliot A. Cohen, Charles F. Doran, and Mandelbaum, “Is Major War Obsolete? An Exchange,” Survival, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer 1999), pp. 139-152; and Peter Wallensteen and Margareta Sollenberg, “The End of International War? Armed Conflict 1989-95,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 33, No. 3 (August 1996), pp. 353-370. A different view that was published immediately after the Soviet Union’s fall argued that a stable peace amongst the major powers would not be the result of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Mearsheimer, “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Summer 1990), pp. 5-56; Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,” The Atlantic, Vol. 266, No. 2 (August 1990), pp. 35-42; and Waltz, “The Emerging Structure of International Politics,” International Security, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall 1993), pp. 44-79. Also see Lawrence Eagleburger, as quoted in Thomas Friedman, “U.S. Voicing Fears That Gorbachev Will Divide West,” New York Times (September 16, 1989). For a newer declaration of this view, see: Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer 2000), pp. 5-41; and Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

14. In 1991, two years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Waltz predicted exactly the opposite, when he wrote: “…the United States… will continue to behave in ways that annoy and frighten others.” Waltz, “America as a Model for the World? p. 669.

15. Waltz contends that a balance-of-power is the natural outcome of international interstate rivalry. States might not actively seek a balance. Rather, “balances of power tend to form whether some or all states consciously aim to establish and maintain a balance.” Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 119. Also see: Ernst B. Haas, “The Balance of Power: Prescription, Concept, or Propaganda?” World Politics, Vol. 5, No. 4 (July 1953), pp. 442-477; and Morton A. Kaplan, “Balance of Power, Bipolarity and Other Models of International Systems,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 51, No. 3 (September 1957), pp. 684-695. The balance-of-threat theory offers competing predictions for the way the international community will respond to great power behavior. See: Walt, The Origins of Alliances, pp. viii, 5, 21, 263-265. The theory emphasizes balancing against threat, and consequently, Walt argues, balancing means allying with others against the prevailing threat while bandwagoning refers to alignment with the state that poses the major threat. Walt, The Origins of Alliances, pp. 17, 21-2; and Walt, “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” International Security, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Spring 1985), pp. 3-43, at p. 4.

16. Richard K. Betts, “The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy: Tactical Advantages of Terror,” Political Science Quarterly 117 (2002), pp. 19–36.

17. Four years later, in September 1996, a fresh crisis between Iraq and the U.S. erupted over both no-fly zones. IRAQ NO-FLY ZONE (ICB #406), from ICB (International Crisis Behavior Project):


19. This crisis is distinct from other frequent incidents that were not considered crises, in which the U.S. used military force against Iraqi air defense systems to police the exclusion zones. These incidents, which have occurred sporadically since the end of the Gulf War, do not constitute international crises because there have not been threats of escalation or tenable time constraints on action. However, such criteria were present in this Desert Strike crisis. DESERT STRIKE (ICB #419)

20. UNSCOM I (ICB #422)


22. The U.S. Navy web site:

23. Ofer Israeli, “Did Bush Save America?” Jerusalem Post (April 22, 2010).


25. Israeli, “Blocking World Oil Transit by Sea,” in Ophir Falk and Henry Morgenstern, eds., Suicide Terror: Understanding and Confronting the Threat (N.J.: Wiley, 2009), pp. 318-324.

26. Osama bin Laden, as quoted in: Simon Reeve and Giles Foden, “A New Breed of Terror,” Guardian (September 12, 2001).

27. Israeli, “Did Bush Save America?”

28. Osama bin Laden, as quoted in: “Bin Laden: Goal is to bankrupt U.S.,” CNN.COM (November 1, 2004).

29. This generation’s Pearl Harbor, as the September 11, 2001 surprise terrorist attacks are often called, were the most devastating terror attacks in recorded history. No other event in the post-Cold War era has had so much influence over world affairs. The targets of the attacks included major elements of state power. The attacks included coordinated suicide hijackings of four commercial jet airplanes, two of which destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, America’s economic hub, and one that severely damaged the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The White House probably was the target of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The attacks left nearly 3,000 people dead, which was the largest peacetime loss suffered by the U.S. since Pearl Harbor. Although terrorism is not new on the world scene, the September 11th attacks were novel: because of the means used – turning airplanes into weapons; because of the scale – thousands of casualties; and above all, because of the goals – intended to serve as a trigger for a flood of colossal consequences that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the targeted superpower, the U.S.

30. For the butterfly effect and the chaos theory, see: Susan Hawthorne, The Butterfly Effect (North Melbourne, Vic.: Spinifex, 2005); Robert Pool, “Chaos Theory: How Big an Advance?” Science, Vol. 245, No. 4913 (July 7, 1989), pp. 26-28; and Michael Shermer, “Exorcising Laplace’s Demon: Chaos and Antichaos, History and Metahistory,” History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 1 (February 1995), pp. 59-83.

31. Zakaria, “Post-9/11, We’re Safer Than We Think,” Washington Post (September 13, 2010).

32. Israeli, “Did Bush Save America?”

33. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987).

34. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p. xvi.

35. Kupchan, “Empire, Military Power, and Economic Decline,” International Security, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Spring 1989), pp, 36-53, at p. 39.

36. Colin McInnes, “A different kind of war? September 11 and the United States’ Afghan War,” Review of International Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2003), pp. 165-184, at p. 166.

37. Israeli, “Did Bush Save America?”; and Albert-László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Network (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 2002).

38. Jervis, “An Interim Assessment of September 11: What Has Changed and What Has Not? Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 117, No. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 37-54, at p. 50.

39. Betts, “The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy.”

40. James Chace, “Imperial America and the Common Interest,” World Policy, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 1-9, at p. 1.

41. During his campaign for election as President of the United States, George W. Bush stated he was against using the U.S. armed forces in “nation building” attempts abroad and other small-scale military engagements. George W. Bush Biography:

43. Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment”; Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment Revisited,” The National Interest, Vol. 70 (Winter 2002-03), pp. 5-17; Chace, “Imperial America and the Common Interest”; and Stephen P. Rosen, “An Empire, If You Can Keep It,” National Interest, Vol. 71 (Spring 2003), pp. 51–61. During the Bush presidency, American officials talked about the need to maintain a U.S. military presence in the Gulf area, following the “Korean Model,” the large U.S. presence in South Korea for the last 54 years. David E. Sanger, “Bush team looks at Korea as model for Iraq strategy,” New York Times (June 3, 2007).

44. Ikenberry, “America’s Imperial Ambition,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 5 (September-October 2002), pp. 44-60, at p. 49.

45. For the Bush Doctrine, see: White House, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (Washington, D.C.: September 2002); and White House, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (Washington, D.C.: March 2006). According to Jervis, the Bush Doctrine included four elements: (1) spreading democracy and liberalism as a tool for transforming international politics; (2) using preventive war against great threats; (3) acting unilaterally; and (4) the establishment of American hegemony. Jervis, “Understanding the Bush Doctrine,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 118, No. 3 (Fall 2003), pp. 365-388. Ikenberry argues that the Bush grand strategy has seven elements: (1) maintaining a unipolar world in which the U.S. has no peer competitor; (2) terrorist organizations that soon acquire weapon of mass destruction could not be deterred and therefore should be eliminated, and (3) thus the use of force should be preemptive and even preventive; (4) wearing down the terms of sovereignty and calls the U.S. to limitlessly intervene; (5) “a general depreciation of international rules, treaties, and security partnership”; (6) the U.S. will need to play a direct and unconstrained role in responding to threats; and (7) attaching little value to international stability. Ikenberry, “America’s Imperial Ambition.”

46. In the early months of the second Bush administration, Washington said it did not follow a clear grand strategy. Thom Shanker, “White House Says the U.S. is Not a Loner, Just Choosy,” New York Times (July 31, 2001). The Bush administration, however, followed a unilateral approach, as reflected by the White House rejections to ratify international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol. Ikenberry, “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Terror,” p. 26.

47. The Clash of Civilizations, a theory that actually was first used by Bernard Lewis, was proposed by Samuel P. Huntington. Huntington argues that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War period. Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic (September 1990); Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 22-49; and Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

48. Reza Kahlili, “Iranian Missiles could Soon Reach U.S. Shores,” The Washington Times (July 29, 2011).

49. Greg Palast, “Hugo Chavez in His Own Words,” AlterNet (July 26, 2006).

50. The Associated Press, “Venezuela Pulling Out of IMF, World Bank,” New York Times (May 1, 2007).

51. Kennedy, as quoted in: Sreven C. Johnson, (Reuters), “Dollar’s drop challenges U.S. power,” International Herald Tribune (April 27, 2007).

54. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World”; and Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War.” Also see Kennedy, as quoted in: Krauthammer, “Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World,” (A lecture given by Krauthammer in American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, February 2004). For an opposite view in which the U.S. has been fading as a global power since the 1970s, see: Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Eagle Has Crash Landed,” Foreign Policy, Vol. 131 (July/August 2002), pp. 60–68.

55. In two controversial books, Peter Turchin outlines a mathematical formula for history’s grandest narratives: the rise and fall of great civilizations. Turchin, an ecologist, claims to have found the general mechanisms that cause empires to wax and wane – laws as true today as they were during the Roman or Ottoman Empires. According to this view, the world order is in a state of perpetual change and the global powers today will inevitably be replaced in the coming centuries. See Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations (Indianapolis, IN: Pi Press, 2005); and Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).
Also see Turchin, Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). Cf. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; and Kupchan, “Empire, Military Power, and Economic Decline.”

56. Mearsheimer argues that China’s economy will soon reach the U.S. economy. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, chap. 10. In the near future, China is the most prominent candidate to emerge as a great power in the world scene, which would restore a balance in the system. China has some of the essential components such as population, resources, and technology. Its huge population of approximately 1.3 billion, however, could also serve as an obstacle. In addition, it still lacks the military capability, the organizational ability, and especially the self-confidence necessary to play an active role in the global arena. Economically, China’s growth rate, given its present stage of economic development, can be sustained at 8 percent for another decade or more. On November 4, 2009, the World Bank (WB) raised its forecast for China’s GDP growth in 2009 to 8.4%. Frederik Balfour, “New World Bank China GDP Growth Forecast: 8.4%,” BusinessWeek (November 4, 2009). A growth rate of 7 to 9 percent doubles a country’s economy every ten to eight years. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” p. 32.

Bibliography The complete bibliography for this article is available at



Author’s note: I gratefully acknowledge support from the Center of Peace and Security Study (CPASS), within Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Prof. Daniel Byman. I am also grateful to Robert J. Lieber, Andrew Bennett, Michael Green, and Hadas Kroitoru for their most helpful comments.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Dr. Ofer Israeli teaches International Relations Theory and Foreign Policy Decision-Making at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) at Herzliya, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Academy, and the Israel Air Force (IAF) Flight School. Specializing in Complexity of International Relations and Perverse Effects of International Relations, Israeli holds a Ph.D. from the University of Haifa’s President Ph.D. program for honor students, and a post-Doctoral from the Center for Peace & Security Studies (CPASS), in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (SFS). Israeli is also participated in the 2008 Special Program on “U.S. National Security Policymaking in the Twenty-First Century,” sponsored by Fulbright and managed by The U.S. Department of State. Israeli received grants and fellowships from The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Haifa, Israel. He has written numerous articles for professional journals in his fields of interests, including Iran’s nuclear program and other major Middle East topics. Israeli frequently contributed to daily newspapers such as Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post and often appears as a special international affairs commentator on national T.V. channels.


Comments are closed.