Has America lost its world leadership?

At the end of the film “Miss Congeniality,” the FBI agent who has masqueraded as a Miss America contestant, admits she agrees with the rote refrain of the others, saying, “I really do want world peace.”

Everybody says they “really do want world peace,” while knowing it won’t happen.

For a long time, the best available substitute for world peace was the Cold War. The atomic bomb had imposed the possibility of “mutually assured destruction,” and that was reality, not a pious hope.

So long as the United States and the Soviet Union could destroy one another, they would back off from confrontations that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Perhaps that did not create a golden era with the sun shining all over the world, but it worked.

Not only did the two super powers stop short of directly going to war, they also restrained other countries from actions that might drag the two major players and the world into a war too horrible to imagine. The threat of nuclear war served as the guarantor of world peace.

While some countries were relegated to the sidelines, many others found themselves in the orbit of one super power or the other. Armed and financed by their patron, they had little ability to act independently.

Then, the Cold War ended. It looked like the United States was the only remaining super power as it witnessed the breakup of countries, including the Soviet Union. Smaller countries would pose no threat to the United States and presumably, they would be unable to unleash nuclear warfare.

The American peace would be an extension of the ability of the United States, during World War II and even during the Cold War, to use its undeniable military and economic power to impose its will on much of the world.

Why do Americans now feel a sense of weakness and inability to control events? American power in the world seems to have dissolved.

In a highly partisan political climate, it is easy to blame President Obama. His personal style, soft-spoken and sometimes hesitant, seems to favor limits on American action and invite others to disturb the peace.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost to Obama in 2008, almost never misses the chance to propose militant reactions to world events and to criticize the president for not taking his advice.

Even if you might want more assertiveness from Obama and less from McCain, that may miss the point.

It’s possible there are no more super powers, a fact that may be difficult for Americans to accept. Since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Americans had grown use to calling the shots, but now frustration has replaced self-confidence.

Look at the Ukraine, Syria, and Israel-Hamas. War rages in all three areas, and the United States seems unable to do anything about these conflicts except to propose cease-fires, which turns out to be a bit like saying, “I really do want world peace.”

The Ukraine is torn between Russia, its historic boss, and Western Europe, which offers an opportunity for prosperity. Because the economies of Russia and Western Europe are intertwined, Western Europe took quite a while to agree with the U.S. that Russia should suffer from real sanctions. Finally, the downing of the Malaysian plane got it to act.

In Syria, torn by war, the Russians like the current regime and the Americans don’t. Without a real alternative, the U.S. cannot force a resolution.

And the conflict in Syria has deprived Hamas, which controls Gaza, of the backing essential to maintain its conflict with Israel. It is now engaged in a last-ditch, almost suicidal, effort, and Israel responded by going to war in hopes of finishing off Hamas. The U.S. cannot even achieve a ceasefire.

None of this is particularly healthy, and it is a poor substitute for peace.

So long as nobody is shooting at Americans, which could become a possibility in the next couple of years after the troops leave Afghanistan, why should all this matter to us?

The political partisan divide reflects an underlying sense of unhappiness in the country. And that results partly from a recognition that the U.S. role in the world, as the dominant power, has eroded and perhaps been lost.

Recognizing the world has changed, leaders on both sides of the aisle could seek a new definition of America’s role. The goal would be to develop a consistent policy, attuned to the 21st Century and aimed at restoring American self-confidence in world affairs.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.