OVER dinner in Australia, about 20 years ago, a young
acquaintance gave me quite an earful about the negative impact the
United States was having on the rest of the world. His parents (my
hosts for the evening) were embarrassed by his frankness, but he
opened up a perspective for me that I have not forgotten.
The US was the sole world superpower then, and, as he said, we
did pretty much what we pleased. Yet we still thought of ourselves
as we had in the preceding decades - as pure-hearted defenders of
freedom. We did not recognise how much the world had changed, and
we with it. Our new power shaped us unawares.
Now, the world configuration is shifting again. However powerful
the US is, it can no longer enforce its will unilaterally, whether
in combat or in world councils or in the market. It can do more,
for good or ill, than any other one nation; but we are repeatedly
coming up against our limits.
It makes you pause - not because the new situation is
intrinsically better or worse than the world of the '90s, but
because all calculations must now change, and human beings are not
good at that process. Some will see a new opportunity, and will try
to seize it for themselves at the expense of others. Some will see
a world order under siege, and try to defend it whatever the
I find myself thinking of July 1914, having just read Sean
McMeekin's intriguing book of that title. A few zealots in
Sarajevo, without fully intending it, managed to take hold of
another changing world that was refusing to recognise its
instability, and shake it dangerously. The European powers, in
their unthinking response, failed to recognise what they were
bringing down on their own heads.
The US is in danger of trying to deal with its new world in
terms of the old - the world of clear-cut enemies and friends.
Having spent the years of the Cold War opposing Communism, and the
years since enjoying unparalleled power, we have thought of every
issue in terms of the exertion of force.
Frustrated in that respect abroad, we are turning the same
mindset inwards, which may explain why Congress has become such
easy prey to partisan intransigence. It seems, at first glance, an
easier course than the complex business of learning to negotiate a
different order of things.
I cannot say whether my then-young Australian interlocutor will
find this changed world order more to his liking, or less. But I am
sure that it will require careful reflection to see us all through
the transition. I would like to think that the Church has something
to offer in the process, but we seem still to be as committed to
conflict as some American politicians.
Perhaps the Church, too, is still mired in a passing world
composed only of friends, enemies, and the application of
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New
Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley,