The United States is "Still No. 1" declares the cover of The Economist's June 30 issue. If the accompanying illustration shows Uncle Sam in something less than triumphant pose, that's kind of the point.
The U.S. may be "wounded, tetchy and less effective than it should be," the editors say but "America us still the power that counts."
("Tetchy" is apparently the Queen's English for "irritable" or "peevish" and probably comes from Middle English tecche, "a bad habit," from Old French tache, teche, "a spot or stain," or from close observation of our president's news conferences.) In fact, The Economist admits that the U.S. has been weakened globally since President Bush arrived in office thanks to a range of missteps from bumbling diplomacy, to strategic blunders in Iraq, the embarrassment of Abu Ghraib, and slowness to tackle climate change.
But the magazine is also quick to point out that Bush's impact on America's reputation has been exaggerated. "America did not enjoy untrammelled influence abroad before he arrived," it points out. "The country that won the cold war also endured several grievous reverses, notably Vietnam (where 58,000 Americans were killed—16 times the figure for Iraq). Iran has been defying America since Jimmy Carter's presidency, and North Korea for a generation before that. As for soft power, France has been complaining about Coca-Cola and Hollywood for nearly a century."
But a superpower's strength "lies as much in what it can prevent from happening as in what it can achieve," says The Economist. "In all sorts of areas—be it the fight against global warming or the quest for an Arab-Israeli peace—America is quite simply indispensable."
That's where The Economist may have gone off the the track a bit -- maybe these problems can't be solved without America, but America can't solve them alone either. The biggest problems we face -- terrorism, nuclear proliferation, avian flu, counterfeiting, you name it -- all require the cooperation of other nations. Our hard, military power demonstrably can't win their help. Only our soft power can. And that is what we have lost in recent years.
That said, The Economist's bottom line is appropriately optimistic: "If America were a stock, it would be a 'buy': an undervalued market leader, in need of new management. But that points to its last great strength. More than any rival, America corrects itself. Under pressure from voters, Mr Bush has already rediscovered some of the charms of multilateralism; he is talking about climate change; a Middle East peace initiative is possible. Next year's presidential election offers a chance for renewal. Such corrections are not automatic: something (a misadventure in Iran?) may yet compound the misery of Iraq in the same way Watergate followed Vietnam. But America recovered from the 1970s. It will bounce back stronger again."