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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/15/2005 2:28:30 PM ET 2005-08-15T18:28:30

The large white yacht with no markings is roughly the size of Cleveland, and it is moored at a dock in the middle of this gorgeous city of islands and water, right across a harbor from my hotel. It’s trimmed in green neon, which at night gives the vessel an intriguing, vaguely ominous look. Everybody in town knows who the owner is: Larry Ellison, the American who gave the world Oracle, the data-base-management software. He obviously travels in grand style.

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But, as an American abroad, I wish I could say that the Good Ship Ellison is symbolic of our nation’s current role in the world. Instead, the yacht reminded me of another ship here – the famous Vasa, an oak-hulled warship launched with great fanfare in these same waters in 1628, at the height of Sweden’s century of military domination in the Baltic. Top-heavy with cannons and rigging, the Vasa sank within a mile of her christening. Hauled from the muddy deep in the 1960s, she now stands miraculously intact in Stockholm’s most popular museum, a reminder of glory – and the folly of lashing the ambitions of a society to military conquest.

I am not a foreign correspondent, but, as a student, writer and traveler I have spent a good bit of time abroad. If I have a bottom line this time it is this: We remain in every sense the world’s only hyper-power, the only nation seriously reaching for the stars, the only nation with the stated goal of bringing peace and freedom to the entire planet, the only nation that, soon enough, will possess no single ethnic or racial majority. We are – and we will remain -- the lead story in the news from Earth.

And yet, paradoxically, the world is moving on without, perhaps in spite of, us. On a two-week trip to Northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia I saw more evidence than I had in the past that all the talk of America as “hyper power” is misleading, even dangerous. Except in the sphere of military power we don’t really run the planet. And if economic and cultural trends continue unabated, all the gun ships and mega yachts won’t matter, either. “Globalization” is real, but it isn’t quite “Americanization” anymore.

The denomination factor
The signs range from the trivial to the continental. Maybe it’s just that I am in the Baltic, where the clear waters still team with fish, but I can report to you that the new global fast food isn’t McDonald’s hamburgers, it is Japanese sushi. You can find it on all the beaten paths from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg, an international tourist food language.

I have news for all tourists: the Chinese have arrived. The new Chinese middle class is heading out, cameras in hand, to see the world and take pictures of it. And being Chinese, they don’t understand waiting in line any more than Americans do.

Currency is another clue. Even outside the “Euro Zone,” the dollar is the poor second cousin – poorer than when I was last in Europe two years ago. At one point the dollar’s relative decline was a new story, and seen as temporary. It doesn’t feel that way now. In Sweden, where they voted to reject the Euro and cling to their kröner, prices are translated into Euro where they are translated at all.

The world -- with the important exception of Russia -- seems to have absorbed about as many dollars as it can stand, which is a problem, since we have to keep printing more of them to cover our massive trade and budget deficits. I know all the arguments about Europe’s high coefficient of drag: the welfare-state burdens, the sluggishness of their bureaucracies, the lack of entrepreneurial zeal, the presence of Muslim Turkey on its doorstep. But if you are selling oil on long-term contract, are you sure you want the deal in dollars?

America ... East
America remains locked in a weird embrace with Russia – another continental country of wild dreams and vast resources and world ambition. We need Russia to succeed – to be stable and prosperous – if for no other reason than the urgent need to control and eventually dismantle its colossal, decaying stocks of nuclear weapons.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Russia over the years and I can report, after visiting St. Petersburg and its environs again that the news is… mixed. A decade ago the tourist sites were in sad shape; now they are literally gleaming, with new gold-leaf on almost every carving of every church and palace. Russians who used to resent the very idea of “customer service” – it was a profoundly anti-Soviet idea – now often seem to understand that service doesn’t mean serfdom.

Private real estate is becoming a big deal, literally. In a truly prodigious transition, most state-held apartments have become privately-owned, at least on paper. Private developers in St. Petersburg are erecting state-of-the-art high rises that are a far cry from the forlorn, pre-fab “Kruschev apartments” on the outskirts of the city. On the highway south, vast tracts of land are being plowed under for shopping malls. Given the Russian penchant for the gargantuan, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they outdo the Mall of America. And that is a good thing.

Glimmer and rust of the new Russia
Freedom is more than shopping, but here, too, the story is largely an optimistic one. You still have to have an internal passport, but you don’t have to list an ethnic identity anymore. Jews are free to worship, and the synagogue in St. Petersburg is thriving. The Putin Government isn’t exactly a friend of a free press, but privately-run television stations and newspapers remain ubiquitous. All of which is nothing short of miraculous given the Russia I first saw 35 years ago, when many comrades got their news from billboards plastered with one copy of Pravda.

And yet I worry. It didn’t reassure me, on that suburban highway, to see many of the advertisements for goods with prices expressed in dollars or euros, not rubles. The Russians’ contempt for their own currency is a holdover from the Soviet days, but it’s corrosive.

There was no “welfare state” like the Soviet one, and its rapid decay is more dangerous and potentially destabilizing than anything Europe faces. Last winter, senior citizens in St. Petersburg staged what the locals called “the Gray Revolution” in front of the city hall, protesting the end to free public transportation and other benefits. They were bought off temporarily, but no one expects them to stay mum for long.

The Baltic States seem to be making a much better adjustment. The Estonian capital, Tallin, for example, brims with goods and confidence. Unlike the rest of Russia, Western-oriented St. Petersburg -- the Baltic city -- has an 800-year history of trade and self-government to draw on.

But old national habits linger. One of them is the glaring disparities of income. A society that produced the extravagance of the Romanov family – on display in every corner of St. Petersburg – is risking repeating the old mistake. Is the Putin Government taming the “oligarchs” or merely part of the gang? When George Bush visited Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader hosted him at the Catherine Palace. The American president wryly called the opulent place “Putin’s ranch.” The locals still remember the remark – which may have been even more on target than Bush knew.

Actually, Putin (a St. Petersburg native) now has his own personal residence to the west of the city, along the same road as the one that leads to Peter the Great's country palace. He doesn’t visit it very often, and it is not quite as grand as what the czars knew. But it’s not a dacha, either.

Elections are coming. I don’t cover Russian politics but I can’t imagine anything other than that Putin and his allies will further consolidate their grip on power in Russia. Is there a Cult of Putin? Not quite yet. I know what that looks like from years ago: huge heroic signs of Lenin and other Greats on roadsides from one end of the country to another. There is nothing that looks like that. Putin is a guarded figure.

But let’s just say that the best highway in the city is the one that runs to his summer place.

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