The collapse of the Soviet Union and the war in Iraq, which the conservative establishment projected as harbingers of the new American century, may ironically serve as bookends to that accidental interlude of unrivalled American hegemony.
The National Intelligence Council's report, titled Mapping the Global Future, predicts: "The likely emergence of China and India as new major global players - similar to the rise of Germany in the 19th century and the United States in the early 20th century - will transform the geopolitical landscape, with impacts potentially as dramatic as those of the previous two centuries. In the same way that commentators hrefer to the 1900s as the 'American Century,' the early 21st century may be seen as the time when some in the developing world, led by China and India, come into their own."
The report outlines the seismic geopolitical consequences of this shift: "The 'arriviste' powers - China, India, and perhaps others such as Brazil and Indonesia - could usher in a new set of international alignments, potentially marking a definitive break with some of the post-World War II institutions and practices."
Even though the United States "will remain the single most powerful actor economically, technologically, militarily," the report asserts, the post-Soviet era of America's unchallenged global hegemony is coming to a rapid close.
NIC's conclusion has to be sobering, even startling, to neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, who saw the invasion of Iraq as the first salvo in the brave new American 21st Century.
The military quagmire in Iraq, with American casualties mounting to 1,400, with some 15,000 other American soldiers wounded, far from showcasing American might has exposed the limits to which it is constrained. The passions of 9/11 may well have clouded American public opinion into reelecting President Bush, but that same public is also making crystal clear that it does not have the stomach for future military misadventures. The problem is further compounded by the Bush administration's dishonesty in justifying the war, which will make it harder for future administration's to legitimize any war.
The constraints are already being felt in the tussle over Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, which undisputedly pose far graver threats to global security than Saddam Hussein. The bellicose rhetoric of Vice President Dick Cheney notwithstanding, no one, even in this militarily assertive administration, is contemplating a full scale invasion of Iran. As the New York Times editorilized recently, "An invasion of a country almost three times as populous as Iraq is well beyond the means of America's depleted ground forces."
The harshest policy options reportedly being weighed are pre-emptive airstrikes on suspected Iranian nuclear sites, that too by proxy by Israel. But even here policy planners have been chastened by the experience of Iraq, where a swift, tactical victory devolved into a military and political quagmire.
As the NIC concludes: "While no single country looks within striking distance of rivaling U.S. military power by 2020, more countries will be in a position to make the United States pay a heavy price for any military action they oppose."
Who could have imagined that the unipolar world that rose from the ashes of the unexpectedly speedy collapse of the Soviet Union would so quickly hreformulate itself into a diffused and multi polar order or that the instrument for the new global regime would be the Iraq War.
Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war in Iraq, which the conservative establishment have projected as harbingers of the new American century, may ironically serve as the swan song of that accidental interlude of unrivalled American hegemony.