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America’s True Power
At a time when many are concerned by the nation’s loss of the unassailable economic position it occupied just after World War II, one historian argues that our real strength—and our real peril—lie elsewhere
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
This brings us to an interesting question. Was the zenith of American power the year 1945? Or was it 1918, the end of the First, not of the Second, World War? There are few stirring scenes in the entire history of the United States that compare to that shining September morning in 1945, with the American fleet at anchor in Tokyo Bay. At that time the United States had not only a near-monopoly of economic and financial power in the world but the monopoly of the atom bomb. Yet it was in 1918 that young girls in Europe threw roses at Woodrow Wilson’s feet; that the financial center of the world had passed from London to New York; that the American dollar replaced the English pound as the prime money of the globe. In 1918 the United States and Britain and France were able to defeat Germany without Russia. In the Second World War they were not. In 1945 the United States had to share the victory, at least in Europe, with the Soviet Union, and the division of Europe was the result.
So what was the peak of American power in this American century: 1918 or 1945? It is a moot question, debatable by historians. What is not debatable is that by 1989 these exceptional pinnacles of American power are behind us. A certain decline of American power has begun—probably long before its present intellectual recognition. What people are now discussing is the meaning of this decline. The question I wish to raise is somewhat different. It is not what is the meaning of decline; it is what is the meaning of power.
Let me begin with the obvious. In terms of the gross national product, of the energy output, and, of course, of the mass of nuclear and other weaoons that the United States possesses, our power is immeasurably greater than it was in 1945. Yet we know that the United States is not as powerful as it was forty or more years ago. This obvious and simple recognition suggests in itself that “power” is a relative term, not an absolute category; that numbers are, most often, an insufficient illustration of it; that it is a matter of quality, not only of quantity.
Less obvious—but, in a subtle way, very much related to this awesome topic—are the inflation and the occasional perversion of the very word power itself in modern American parlance. We have, for example (unlike in English English), gradually adopted the word power as if it were synonymous with electricity (“The power is off” or “The power is on”), despite the fact that in the physical world there are many kinds of power that have nothing to do with electricity and despite the grave vulnerability of any man-made system whose functioning depends on the generating of electricity from great distances. During the last few decades we have, too, acquired the habit of rather thoughtlessly using the word power in all kinds of senseless ways: “power breakfasts,” for instance, and, in an even more puerile manifestation, “power necktie.”
I am a historian, not a grammarian. What concerns me is the subtle but decisive conjunction of power with something for which I can find no better word than prestige.
No simple definition of prestige will do. Yet we all know what prestige represents—or, rather, how it functions. Prestige is the nonquantifiable substance of reputation. Like everything material in this world (a fact habitually ignored by economists), the very worth of a thing, whether an ounce of gold or the price of a stock at any moment, is not only conditioned but determined by what people think it is worth. The substance is mental, not physical. Whether in the case of a man or of a corporation or of an entire nation, power is unavoidably combined with prestige. The effects of that prestige are longer-lasting than are the effects of power. A nation with a considerable accumulation of prestige—and that prestige involves such intangible and even indefinable elements as decency and honesty and courage and morality and manners—will be able to withstand an erosion of its actual power better, and longer, than a nation whose prestige—very much including its civilizational and cultural prestige—is low.
A nation with a considerable accumulation of prestige will be able to stand an erosion of its actual power better, and longer, than one whose prestige is low.
It is all very true that (as, among others, Professor Kennedy has shown) the economic power of Great Britain was in decline by the 188Os. Yet the prestige of Britain as the greatest world power was such that even in 1914 the kaiser would not have gone to war had he known with certainty that the British would come in against Germany, and as late as 1940 Hitler shied away from invading Britain because of his respect for a nation that was less powerful than it may have seemed. In that crucial year of 1940, Britain appeared as the greatest power confronting Hitler. That appearance was presented to the world by Churchill’s words, and whatever the material realities were, that appearance, consisting of intangible elements, was no less real.