Almost 25 years ago, a group of concerned Americans formed the Committee on the Present Danger. The danger they feared--and wanted other Americans to confront--was the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union has long since crumbled, and no global challenger has emerged to take its place. Many strategists tell us we will not face another major threat for 20 years or more. The United States, both at the level of elite opinion and popular sentiment, appears to have become the Alfred E. Neuman of superpowers--its national motto, "What, me worry?"

But there is today a present danger. It has no name. It does not fit neatly under the heading of "international terrorism" or "rogue states" or "ethnic hatred." In fact, the ubiquitous post-Cold War question--where is the threat?--is misconceived. The present danger is that the United States will shrink from its responsibilities as the world's dominant power and--in a fit of absentmindedness, or parsimony or indifference--will allow the international order that it sustains to collapse.

The present danger is one of declining strength, flagging will and confusion about our role in the world. It is a danger, to be sure, that we have helped create--and which could yield real external threats, nearly as menacing in their own way as the Soviet Union was.

Beneath the surface calm, there has already been an erosion of the mostly stable, peaceful and democratic international order that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Americans and their political leaders have spent the years since 1991 lavishing the gifts of an illusory "peace dividend" upon themselves, and frittering away the opportunity to strengthen an international order uniquely favorable to the United States. Throughout the past decade, the United States has tended toward a course of gradual moral and strategic disarmament. Challenged by anti-American dictatorships in Baghdad and Belgrade, the Clinton administration responded by combining empty threats and indecisive military operations with diplomatic accommodation. Rather than pressing for changes of regime in Pyongyang and Beijing, the White House has sought to purchase better behavior through bribes and "engagement." Rather than face squarely our world responsibilities, American leaders have chosen drift and evasion.

In the meantime, the United States has allowed its military strength to deteriorate to the point where its ability to defend its interests and deter future challenges is in doubt. From 1989 to 1999, the defense budget and the size of the armed forces were cut by a third, and the amount of money spent on weapons procurement and research and development declined by about 50 percent. By the end of the decade, the U.S. military was inadequately equipped and stretched to the point of exhaustion. Defense experts debated whether it was more important to maintain current readiness or to sacrifice present capabilities in order to prepare for future challenges, but under the strain of excessive budget cuts, the United States did neither.

Yet 10 years from now, and perhaps earlier, we likely will be living in a world in which Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China all will possess the ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. We may have to decide even sooner whether to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. We could face another attempt by Saddam Hussein to seize Kuwait's oil fields. An authoritarian regime in Russia could move to reclaim some of what it lost when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

While none of this is to argue that the world will necessarily become a vastly more dangerous place, the point is that the world can grow perilous with astonishing speed. Should it do so once more, it would be terrible to have to look back on the current era as a great though fleeting opportunity that was carelessly wasted. Everything depends on what we do now.

What is needed today is not better management of the status quo, but a fundamental change in the way our leaders and the public think about America's role in the world.

Serious thinking about that role should begin by recalling the tenets that guided American policy through the more successful phases of the Cold War. Many writers treat America's Cold War strategy as an aberration in the history of U.S. foreign policy. At the start of the 1990s, Jeane Kirkpatrick expressed the view of both liberal and conservative thinkers when she wrote that while the United States had "performed heroically in a time when heroism was required," the day had passed when Americans ought to bear such "unusual burdens." With a return to "normal" times, she said, the United States could "again become a normal nation."

What is striking about this point of view is how at odds it is with the assumptions embraced by the leaders who established the guiding principles of American foreign policy at the end of World War II. We often forget that the plans for world order devised by American policymakers in the early 1940s were not aimed at containing the Soviet Union, which many of them still viewed as a potential partner. Rather, they were looking backward to the circumstances that had led to the catastrophe of two global wars. Their purpose was to construct a more stable international order than the one that had imploded in 1939--or, for that matter, 1914. Their framework for international security--although it placed some faith in the ability of the great powers to work together--rested ultimately on the United States.

Today, the absence of a Soviet empire does not alter the fundamental purposes of American foreign policy. Just as sensible Americans after World War II did not imagine that the United States should await the rise of the next equivalent of Nazi Germany, so American statesmen today ought to recognize that their charge is not to await the arrival of the next great threat. Rather, it is to shape the international environment to prevent such a threat from arising in the first place. To put it another way: The overarching goal of American foreign policy--to preserve and extend an international order that is in accord with both our material interests and our principles--endures. Americans must shape this order, for if we refrain from doing so, we can be sure that others will shape it in ways that reflect neither our interests nor our values.

True, the United States cannot simply wish hostile regimes out of existence. An American strategy built around regime change would be a departure from recent and current U.S. policy. Instead of ending the Gulf War in 1991 after the liberation of Kuwait, such a strategy would have sent U.S. forces on to Baghdad to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and it would have kept U.S. troops in Iraq long enough to ensure that a friendlier regime took root. Such a strategy would not only have employed ground forces in Kosovo last year but would have sent sufficient NATO forces to Serbia to topple the Slobodan Milosevic regime. If the United States is prepared to summon the forces necessary to carry out operations such as Desert Storm or the Kosovo bombing campaign, it is absurd--even self-defeating--not to complete the job.

This does not mean that the United States must root out evil wherever and whenever it rears its head. Nor does it suggest that the United States must embark on a crusade against every dictatorship. No doctrine of foreign policy can do away with the need for judgment and prudence, for weighing competing moral considerations. No foreign policy doctrine can provide precise and unvarying answers to the question of where, when and how the United States ought to intervene abroad. If one admits that closely linked matters of prestige, principle and morality play a role in shaping foreign policy, then rigid criteria for intervention quickly prove illusory. That is why we occasionally will have to intervene even when we cannot prove that a narrowly construed "vital interest" of the United States is at stake.

It is worth pointing out, though, that a foreign policy premised on American hegemony, and on the blending of principle with material interest, may mean fewer overseas interventions than under the "vital interest" standard, not more. Had the Bush administration, for example, realized early on that there was no clear distinction between American moral concerns in Bosnia and America's national interest in preventing instability in Europe, the United States might have been able to avert or limit the devastating consequences of the Balkan crisis. With the enormous credibility earned from the decision to go to war in the Persian Gulf, Bush might have been able to put a stop to Milosevic's ambitions with a well-timed threat of punishing military action. Because the Bush team placed Bosnia outside the sphere of vital American interests, the resulting crisis eventually required the deployment of thousands of troops.

The same could be said of U.S. interventions in Panama and the Persian Gulf. Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein were given reason to believe that the United States did not consider its interests threatened by their behavior, only to discover that they had misread American willingness to fight when provoked. In each case, a more forward-leaning conception of our national interest might have made those interventions unnecessary.

It is fair to ask how the rest of the world would respond to a prolonged period of active American hegemony. Those regimes that find an American-led world order inhospitable to their existence will seek to cut away at American power. They will form tactical alliances with other dictatorships or "rogue states" for the common purpose of unsettling such an order, and they will look for ways to divide the United States from its allies. China's recent proliferation of weapons and selling of weapons technologies to Iran, its provision of financial support to Milosevic, and its attempt to find common ground with Russia against American "hegemonism" all represent opportunistic attempts to undercut American dominance. Russia can similarly be expected to look for ways to weaken U.S. political, diplomatic and military preponderance in the world.

All this is part of the price for American global preeminence. It does not, however, add up to a convincing argument against preserving that preeminence. The main issue of contention between the United States and most of those who express opposition to its hegemony is not American "arrogance." It is the inescapable reality of American power in its many forms. Those who suggest that these international resentments could somehow be eliminated by a more restrained American foreign policy are engaging in pleasant delusions. Even a United States that never again intervened in places such as Kosovo or expressed disapproval of China's human rights record would find itself the target of jealousy, resentment and, in some cases, even fear.

The question, then, is not whether the United States should intervene everywhere or nowhere. The decision Americans need to make is whether the United States should generally lean forward, or whether it should adopt a posture of relative passivity. A strong America capable of projecting force quickly and with devastating effect to important regions of the world would make it less likely that challengers to regional stability will attempt to alter the status quo in their favor. It might even deter them from undertaking expensive efforts to arm themselves for such a challenge.

An America whose willingness to project force is in doubt, on the other hand, can only encourage such challenges. In Europe, in Asia and in the Middle East, the message we should be sending to potential foes is: "Don't even think about it." That kind of deterrence offers the best recipe for lasting peace, and it is much cheaper than fighting the wars that would follow should we fail to create such a deterrent.

We need not go searching for an enemy, however, to justify a strong military and a strong moral component in our foreign policy. Even if the threat from China were to disappear tomorrow, that would not relieve us of the responsibility to take a strong and active role in the world. Given the dangers we know, and given the certainty that unknown perils await us over the horizon, there can be no respite from our burden of benevolent, global hegemony.