DESPITE REGULAR reports of terminal decline, the United States continues to hold on to its preeminent international position. It has been able to do this because of two features which distinguish it from the dominant great powers of the past: American power is based on alliances rather than colonies and is associated with an ideology that is flexible, potentially universal and inherently subversive of alternative ideological forms. Together they provide a core of relationships and values to which America can return even after it has overextended itself in a particular area or decided that intervention in a particular conflict was imprudent and that withdrawal is necessary.
What sort of power, then, is the United States? It entered the Second World War as a great power and finished it as a superpower. In the 1990s it was spoken of as a "hyperpower," in a class of its own. More recently there have been concerns that it was too much of a hard power, overreliant on military strength, and not enough of a soft power, one that would win friends and gain influence through the appeal of its culture and the sensitivity of its diplomacy. Now there seems to be a compromise view that the United States can combine hard and soft elements of power as appropriate, and strive above all to be a smart power. And who can object to that?