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How can the United States defend itself in the future? Some learned minds are wrestling with this question as new forms of conflict take shape. In the past wars were fought on battlefields the way football is played in stadiums. International law worked out rules of engagement to which most governments subscribed most of the time.

“Alas,” writes former undersecretary of defense Fred Ikle in the 华尔街日报 “America’s future enemies may not fight according to these Marquess of Queensbury rules.” Mr. Ikle foresees the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare “in that unanticipated region of warfare — the United States itself.” No force on earth can stand up to American military power on the battlefield, so we can expect future enemies to ignore the old codes. Some of these prospective enemies may not even be governments.

“Past experience with terrorism is a poor guide for such a contingency,” Mr. Ikle observes. Indeed. Such tactics as killing or kidnapping a few civilians may someday seem as quaint as the 78-rpm phonograph.

What would happen if a nuclear device devastated the heart of Washington, D.C. — and our surviving government officials didn’t even know who had detonated it? That wouldn’t be “terrorism,” which is essentially a psychological tactic whose perpetrators usually claim responsibility; it would be a substantial act of war, by an enemy who might be impossible either to identify or locate.

The only sure result would be panic. There would be no point in surrendering; the damage would have been done, and a formal, Appomattox-style ceremony, with U.S. officials yielding to a tiny cell of expert bombers, would be absurd. But we can be certain that the official response would be a crackdown — on the remaining liberties of U.S. citizens, the only people our government could control.

One reason it might be hard to pinpoint the enemy is that our government is making so many enemies. The United States dominates the globe, and many foreigners just can’t comprehend that we are the good guys. In terms of their own cultures and interests, we may appear to them as the bad guys.

The narrow-minded Russians don’t see why NATO should push up against their borders by including their neighbors, while excluding Russia itself. The pig-headed Arabs, Iranians, and others think the United States is making war on Islam. The self-centered Chinese consider us aggressive prigs who are muscling in on “their” part of the world. Small-minded Latin Americans think the United States is a bully.

Maybe all these people are wrong. And there are still many others around the world who like Americans. But the question is whether we can afford to antagonize so many people indefinitely. It’s possible to be absolutely in the right and stupid at the same time.

If the people who hate us can’t drive us out of their regions, some of them may want to bring the fight here. It would take only a sophisticated handful of weapons experts, out of several billion people. They wouldn’t think of themselves as evildoers; they might see themselves as Luke Skywalker destroying the imperial Death Star.

The old European empires never had to worry about this, for the simple reason that most of their colonial peoples had only the most primitive weapons and no way to reach European capitals; retaliation was unimaginable. When the white man had a monopoly of gunpowder, the odds were so lopsided that the Europeans hardly thought of their Asian, African and American conquests as wars; “wars” were affairs between European states.

So far, Americans have paid for their empire only in the high taxes needed to sustain military forces that go far beyond any real defensive needs. Mr. Ikle doesn’t use the word 帝国; he uses the customary formula, defense of American interests, which can cover anything, anywhere. But an empire it is, even if we prefer to call it world leadership, and the price could rise with stunning suddenness.

The best defense is not to make enemies in the first place. But this elementary prudence is now called “isolationism” (though it might better be called “multiculturalism”). If a big American city goes up in a mushroom cloud, isolationists will look like prophets.

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