All of this post-American boosterism now seems quaint. Yet here’s something else that’s strange: American pre-eminence isn’t being challenged by emerging powers. The challenge comes from an axis of weakness. Russia is a declining power. China is an insecure one. Groups like ISIS and other al Qaeda offshoots are technologically primitive and comparatively weak. Iran is a Third World country trying to master 70-year old technology.
Where does their confidence come from? It isn’t the objective correlation of forces. The GDP of New York City alone is nearly three times the size of Iran’s. Some demographers predict that Russia’s population will fall to as low as 52 million before the century is out. The anticorruption campaign being carried out by Xi Jinping in China smacks of similar efforts by Mikhail Gorbachev and suggests an equal amount of internal rot. A contingent of French Foreign Legionnaires easily turned back an ISIS-like challenge in Mali last year.
But upstart countries and movements don’t operate according to objective criteria—if they did, they wouldn’t operate at all. Rather, they act on an intuition about their adversaries, a sense of their psychology, a nose for their weaknesses. “When tens of your soldiers were killed in the streets of Mogadishu,” wrote Osama bin Laden in his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the U.S., “you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation and your dead with you.” This was not an indictment of the excess of American power. It was mockery of its timidity.