Supremacy of the US 'super-duper-power' brings enemies to heel

The war against Iraq was always about more than just toppling Saddam Hussein. It was also intended to establish a new form of worldwide deterrence, based on the display of overwhelming American military superiority.

And, at least according to the Pentagon, it was effective. The North Koreans, US officials reported, were taken aback by the sheer speed and efficiency of the war, leading to a recalculation of their own stand-off with Washington. Perhaps, judging by their hasty efforts to appease American demands in the immediate aftermath of the taking of Baghdad, the Syrians and Iranians were too.

Iraqi civilian and military casualties, although still high enough to stir considerable anti-American anger, were a fraction of what they were during the Gulf War of 1991.

The smart weapons were immeasurably smarter, the control of airspace so effortless that Iraq never sent a single warplane into the skies. (Slobodan Milosevic didn't either, during the US-led Nato war in Kosovo in 1999.)

We can be reasonably sure that the US military will remain unchallenged – at least in the arena of conventional weapons. The noises coming from the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld further suggest that military force will be an increasing influence in foreign policy making in general. "For years to come, no other nation is likely even to try to rival American might," Gregg Easterbrook wrote in The New York Times.

"Other nations are not even trying to match American armed force, because they are so far behind they have no chance of catching up. The great-powers arms race, in progress for centuries, has ended with the rest of the world conceding triumph to the United States."

The mathematics, as well as the technology, tells the story. The US defence budget has been increased to about $400bn (£250bn) a year. That's more than the defence budgets of the rest of the world put together. No other nation, for example, possesses a "supercarrier" – a seaborne battle group ringed by cruisers and guarded by nuclear submarines. America has nine, with a tenth under construction, of which five were dispatched to the Gulf for the Iraqi invasion.

Given the tenfold advance in smart weapons technology over the past decade, we can only guess where the US military is going from here. Already there have been experiments with microwave bombs that knock out infrastructure and computer systems without necessarily killing many, or any, people; with whole new classes of "non-lethal" chemicals (although the recent theatre siege in Moscow suggests there is much more work to be done in this field, not to mention some hefty rewriting of the international laws of war); and with unmanned warplanes. A book by the security specialist John Leech speculates on a future of "war without death" – death to the attacking forces, anyway.

This is the new world of undisputed US military supremacy that the Rumsfelds and Cheneys have been theorising on since the end of the Cold War, and now it is coming to pass. One Republican leader in Congress, Tom DeLay, referred to America as an emerging "super-duper-power".

Such superiority, and the willingness to wield it, does not come without some troubling questions. The first is whether weaker countries won't now feel their only sure defence lies in nuclear weapons – the question at the heart of the North Korea crisis, and one that risks triggering a potentially cataclysmic nuclear arms race.

The second is whether America will become over- reliant on military solutions to problems for which traditional diplomacy might be a more appropriate response. The Bush administration's willingness to shred international treaties and disregard the United Nations suggests a heavily militaristic approach; whether future administrations, endowed with the same military assets, will want to take a more emollient, more multilateral line on world security remains to be seen.