SINGAPORE — Although U.S. President George W. Bush appears determined to rid Iraq of President Saddam Hussein, the world is deeply divided. On one hand, Hussein has been ruthless, even with his own people, and may have hidden weapons of mass destruction and sponsored al-Qaeda terrorists. On the other hand, ethical questions have arisen about international norms for intervention, international policing and the importance of international opinion.

As the United States, today’s sole superpower, faces a growing challenge to its attempts to mold a new world order, one is reminded of two best sellers in the 1980s: Paul M. Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” and Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly.”

In that connection, recent observers are asking whether the U.S. is in danger of “global overstretch.” In fact, Washington faces a mounting challenge in several areas of world affairs that could provoke this overstretch.

First, U.S. political leadership in the world is being challenged by a constellation of middle and aspiring powers. In the past, whenever a nation became powerful — as did Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany — an alliance of threatened powers would coalesce as a balance against it. The call to check American “unilateralism” by powers, such as Russia, France and China (which have all signed “partnership agreements” of some kind among themselves) is symptomatic of this phenomenon. Still, Washington should not have to worry about any coalition for some time to come, given its economic prowess, technological strength and military power.

Second, current debacles over Iraq, North Korea and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization highlight an increasing challenge against “unilateralist” American leadership under Bush. The stubborn resistance of Russia, France and Germany, subsequently joined by China, has blocked United Nations-sanctioned military action in Iraq.

Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship has led to concern in Washington that Russia and China are not doing their part to pressure North Korea’s Kim Jong Il to give in. Instead, both Moscow and Beijing are calling for direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, which the North Koreans desperately want but Washington appears just as determined not to grant.

The recent French, German and Belgian decision to block North Atlantic Treaty Organization assistance to Turkey in the event of an American attack on Iraq, although lifted now, damaged the alliance’s credibility and was a direct challenge to American military leadership from within. But Europe appears to have dealt a deadlier blow to its own unity than to Washington or trans-Atlantic ties.

Although U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stated that the U.S. could engage militarily on two war fronts (Iraq and North Korea), if needed, the claim begs the question of whether the U.S. could sustain the economic, financial and PR costs of doing so.

In the debate over globalization, the Third World has become ever more critical of the U.S. Boosted by the triumph of liberalization and the rise of free markets after the collapse of communism, Washington has pushed for greater globalization based on market forces. Amid an increasing digital divide and the current painful transition to free-market economies and societies, the U.S. has drawn the ire of Third World leaders, developers and lobbyists who have accused Washington of having “neocolonial designs.”

The “corporate America” crisis following the Enron and WorldCom scandals was perceived by many in the Third World as a proof of the greed inherent in American capitalism. It has now been acknowledged that terrorism against American (and Western) interests (in the form of the 9/11-type attacks) could be the dark face of globalization.

Can Washington continue to lead and prosper in an increasingly restless but interdependent world, while its own economy weakens? Can it truly afford financial handouts to hesitant allies and supporters as well as the cost of war and reconstruction in Iraq?

The current slide of the U.S. dollar against the euro and the yen constitutes another challenge to American financial dominance, although the causes for the dollar’s rapid decline are not all structural. Fears of an American war in Iraq have contributed to the sinking dollar.

Structurally, the U.S. budget deficit (estimated at $304 billion this year) is particularly worrisome, especially after a record trade deficit in 2002 of $435 billion (21 percent higher than in 2001).

Foreign financing of U.S. national debt is currently estimated at about $1.5 billion a day. Moreover, American interest rates are now substantially lower than those of the European Central Bank, thus adding additional pressure on the greenback. As a result, principal Asian central banks (excluding Japan) are reported to have converted a sizable chunk of their $750 billion in total reserves to euros recently. Will this financial challenge provoke another serious overstretch for Washington?

Finally, anti-Americanism is seriously on the rise, not only in Muslim countries, but also across the globe. The benevolent effects of 9/11 seem to have evaporated, as antipathy against “unilateralism” replaces sympathy for Washington. Although love for “things American” and consumerism still prevail, there are indications that American regional dominance may be contested, even in Asia. U.S. “soft power” appears to be ebbing.

As American leadership in the post-communist world is challenged, Washington should seriously evaluate the dangers of global overstretch if there’s a war on Iraq.

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