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The most important political development of the closing millennium is the extended application of the rule of law. This century has witnessed two world wars, but it has also seen the rule of law applied more widely than ever through the League of Nations and later through the United Nations. A host of treaties have been signed setting forth international legal obligations.

During the next millennium, the rule of law is likely to be established globally. The hope, of course, is that, with it, peace and democracy will prevail around the globe. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has come to revolve around the United States, the sole remaining superpower. That begs the question: Will the rule of law be extended under the aegis of the U.S.? The answer must be qualified, considering that U.S. values do not always agree with international opinion.

Examples are not hard to enumerate. The U.S., a key U.N. member, often makes light of the world body, as epitomized by its failure to pay $1.6 billion in accrued membership dues. The U.S. has boycotted the creation of a permanent international criminal court. The irony is that the countries it labels “rogue states,” such as Libya and Iraq, are also opposed. The U.S. has yet to sign an international treaty banning antipersonnel land mines.

The latest example of the U.S. departing from the international norm is the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia — a U.S.-initiated move that raised questions of legitimacy because it bypassed the U.N. Security Council. The air campaign set new precedents: First, NATO conducted operations outside its region; second, the bombing was carried out to defend democracy and human rights.

NATO says it has no intention of applying these “new strategic concepts” to regions outside Europe, such as Asia and Africa. But China, Russia and Third World countries are concerned that the U.S. and its European allies might use their new strategy as an excuse for interfering in other nations’ internal conflicts. There is even fear that NATO involvement in Kosovo might prompt some wary nations to go nuclear as a precaution against military intervention by outside powers.

Indeed, the post-Cold War world appears to be getting more dangerous, not less. China is building up its arms. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has signed a decree to beef up Moscow’s strategic arms. India and Pakistan are playing a game of nuclear brinkmanship with their competitive nuclear tests. North Korea has developed longer-range missiles, throwing cold water on international efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

It has been just 10 years since U.S. and Soviet leaders pledged in Malta to end the Cold War. During the 1991 war against Iraq, the U.S. under President George Bush mustered international support at the U.N. and stopped Baghdad from developing weapons of mass destruction. But his successor, President Bill Clinton, apparently has been less than successful in the handling of foreign affairs during his six and a half years in office.

The Clinton administration has been unable to develop a sure-footed strategy for post-Cold War Asia. Mr. Clinton has left economic diplomacy with Japan almost entirely to his top aides, notably the U.S. trade representative and treasury secretary. The work of formulating new Japan-U.S. defense guidelines has been left solely to the U.S. Defense Department.

In dealings with North Korea, the U.S. has yet to obtain solid assurances that the Stalinist state has completely abandoned its nuclear ambitions. Absent is a comprehensive security strategy for East Asia. Pakistan, which received a large amount of U.S. aid during the Cold War, once put a lid on its nuclear program; now, along with India, it is creating tensions in South Asia.

America’s quest for globalization, economic and otherwise, has its pitfalls. The free flow of money sloshing around world financial markets has wreaked havoc with emerging markets, with part of the blame put on speculative hedge funds. Money is also driving U.S. politics — and it is already setting the course of the presidential election coming up next year.

The question facing the world at the end of the 20th century is whether the superpower U.S. will be able to maintain its global leadership position. The answer is anything but reassuring. To be sure, the U.S. is the most powerful nation on earth, militarily as well as economically. But that is not a sufficient condition for its continued hegemony. To remain the global leader both in name and spirit, the U.S. needs to share common values, instead of imposing its own.

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