Robert Samuelson says the U.S. is still the strongest country in the world, but strength alone does not give a country power. "Power is the ability to get others to do what you want" and in this sense our power is fading:
The End of Pax Americana?, by Robert Samuelson, Washington Post: With hindsight, we may see 2006 as the end of Pax Americana. Ever since World War II, the United States has used its military and economic superiority to promote a stable world order that has, on the whole, kept the peace and spread prosperity. But the United States increasingly lacks both the power and the will to play this role. It isn't just Iraq... Many other factors erode U.S. power: China's rise; probable nuclear proliferation; shrinking support for open trade; higher spending for ... Medicare that squeezes the military; the weakness of traditional U.S. allies, Europe and Japan.
By objective measures, Pax Americana's legacy is enormous. ... In World War II, an estimated 60 million people died. Only three subsequent conflicts have had more than a million deaths (Vietnam, 1.9 million; Korea, 1.3 million; and China's civil war, 1.2 million). Under the U.S. military umbrella, democracy flourished in Western Europe and Japan. It later spread to South Korea, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Prosperity has been unprecedented ... growth rates were well beyond historic experience. ... It is fatuous to think all this would have occurred spontaneously. Since the Marshall Plan, the United States has been a stabilizing influence -- albeit with lapses (the Vietnam War, the 1970s inflation, now Iraq). Aside from security, it provided a global currency... It championed lower tariffs and global investment, which transferred technology and management skills around the world. It kept its markets open.
To Americans, the lesson of World War II was that, to prevent a repetition, the United States had to promote global stability. ... But the triumphalism following the Cold War fed overconfidence. Pax Americana would continue forever. It was "the end of history'' -- democracy and free markets would spread. The United States was a "hyperpower.''
The flaw in all this theorizing was to mistake strength for power. Statistically, the United States remains the world's strongest nation. Its economy is the wealthiest, triple the size of Japan's. Its all-volunteer military is the best trained and most technologically advanced. "No other state is building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, stealth fighters or unmanned aerial vehicles,'' writes Max Boot...
The trouble is that strength -- measurable and impressive -- does not translate directly into power. Power is the ability to get others to do what you want. Here, America is weaker. ...
The end of the Cold War probably reduced, not increased, American power. Without the Soviet threat, Europe and Japan felt less reason to follow U.S. leadership. China's emergence is altering the world balance. In spirit, its economic policies are mercantilist. It subsidizes its exports with an artificially low exchange rate; it is seeking captive oil supplies. China's policies are for China, not a stable world order.
America won't retire from the world stage, but how active it will be is unclear. ... Given the rampant anti-Americanism abroad today, the fading of Pax Americana may inspire much glee. The United States is widely regarded as an arrogant source of instability, blamed for many global woes -- from greenhouse gases to Islamic militancy to unpopular globalization. No one can know what will replace Pax Americana, but with time, the people who now celebrate its decline may conclude that its failures were mainly those of good intentions and that its successes were unwisely taken for granted.
I would describe power a little bit differently. I don't think it's the ability to coerce people or countries so as to get your way, i.e. to "get others to do what you want." By Samuelson's definition, that's strength. We have the strength to make you say "uncle" if we want you to. But power comes with having people or countries believe and trust in your leadership so that they follow willingly, and that's where I think we have lost ground.