At the close of the twentieth century the United States continued to commit its military power for humanitarian purposes, such as famine relief in Somalia, or as part of multilateral peacekeeping efforts, such as in the Balkans. Nonetheless, it seemed that the subtleties of power—influence, suasion, nonmilitary coercion—often played more important roles in the post–Cold War environment.
Ironically, as the utility of force seemed to decline, the significance of economic diplomacy seemed to be growing more important, although its role differed from what it had been in early American foreign affairs. In many cases this meant that the game of power politics would be played by relatively small countries that hitherto had not participated in what the great powers had always considered their private pastime. The members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—not all of which were Arab countries—had by the 1970s begun to play a substantial role in world affairs. Despite remarks by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in response to OPEC's 1973 oil embargo that force might be necessary to break the cartel's stranglehold over so much of the world's oil, the politics of force was not an effective course in the novel international circumstances.
This was particularly true in the case of economic competition by America's allies, such as Japan and the European Economic Community, or in relation to multinational corporations' growing power over national economies, particularly those of developing countries. In a post–Cold War atmosphere characterized by the diffusion of power, growing concerns about global environmental and health issues did not fit the established norms of international power politics. In this increasingly complex and challenging world order, there was the concurrently developing possibility that many small nations, and perhaps criminals and terrorist groups, might develop or acquire nuclear weapons.
In the face of such challenges, neither the hopes of a young nation nor the confidence of a strong one were sufficient to provide answers to the perennial problems of power. The only certainty was that the problems would endure, change form from time to time, and require new solutions. As it entered the new millennium, the United States would have to deal with the aspirations of newer and smaller nations from the position of an established power adjusting to the diffusion of power and the profusion of conflicting rights characteristic of the new world order. In such an environment American leadership and statesmanship would be tested. It was not inconceivable that one principle of early American diplomacy—mutual benefit, as proposed by Benjamin Franklin—might revive in importance along with the traditional virtues of caution, prudence, and modesty.