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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
The American defeat in Vietnam did not slow the Americanization of the rest of the world. Nor has the deficit affected the respect for American power.
It is no longer the physical and economic condition of American “power” but the condition of its more substantial ingredient—American prestige and moral force—that is at stake. It is bound to become increasingly questioned in a world that faces the spectacle of a series of American Presidents, leaders of the so-called free world, whose ignorance of that world is more and more apparent. During the forty years of confrontation of the United States with the Soviet Union there was no American President whose prestige among the majority of the peoples of the globe was not greater than that of his Soviet counterpart—until now, when the reputation of Mikhail Gorbachev has risen above that of Ronald Reagan (with no promise of a turnabout under his successor). That this happens at the very time when, on another level, the reputation of the American economic system has won the contest of the so-called Cold War, should remind us of the unpredictability of history and of the fact that the prestige of a nation, unlike its quantifiable power, is a very complex thing.
It should remind us, too, that it takes greater character to carry off good fortune than bad. American generosity to the world has been forthcoming. But now the time has come to prove if that habitual generosity with the nation’s material wealth can rise to the higher level of a magnanimity that is essentially an issue of mind. This involves two matters. The first is the necessity of recognizing that the United States no longer represents a unique political system. When Tocqueville wrote his classic two volumes one hundred and fifty years ago, entitling them Democracy in America, the United States was the only democracy in the world. Now we have British, Irish, German, Japanese, Scandinavian, and other democracies whose political constitutions and liberties are comparable to those of the United States and whose masses have—unlike even forty years ago—living standards very similar to those of Americans.
The second mental reform that Americans must undertake is that of a radical extension of their knowledge of the world (perhaps beginning with the now almost nonexistent teaching of geography in their schools). The right to learning and the knowledge of the world of the American people have lately been grievously shortchanged by their educational and informational bureaucracies. Nothing is inevitable in history. But the more ignorant people are, the more unavoidable a malign fate is. The American century will someday be gone. But the universality of American prestige will decline too —unless the habitual willingness of American hearts leads to a willingness of American minds to rethink and reform some of the habits and institutions that have made the power of the United States muscle-bound and its prestige vulnerable in the eyes of serious people around the world. For even though perception is a component of reality, prestige is something deeper and more enduring than image. It is more precious than material power. When wealth, when material power go, they can be recovered. When prestige goes, it is irretrievable.
This nation was created at the peak of the Modern Age, two hundred years ago. During its first century many of its people thought that its destiny was to escape from the history of the past. During its second century many Americans recognized that toward the end of the Modern Age they have become the representatives and the guardians of the heritage of much of Western civilization. For more than one hundred years after the creation of the United States most Americans saw themselves as representing something that was the opposite of the Old World and its sins. Then this vision changed. The United States was the advanced model of the Old World, and perhaps of the entire world. Neither of these visions is meaningful any longer. Will the American people have the inner strength to consolidate and to sustain the belief that their civilization is different not only from the so-called Old but from the so-called Third World, and not merely its advanced model? Two hundred years after the launching of the United States, this ought to be the question.