America’s True Power

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One of the great errors of our times is the mistaking of the speed of communications for the movement of ideas. The first has become incredibly fast, while the second is—sometimes incredibly—slow. Contrary to the accepted assumptions, evident in the rhetoric of public figures, we do not live in a world of breathtaking great changes. More than forty years ago, in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers of the world. So they are now. (Compare this with how the world had changed less than thirty years after the end of World War I; another world war had come and gone, transforming it. Or consider how the world had changed forty years after Napoleon.) There has not been much change in the American perception of the world and of the dangers threatening the United States either. But this is exactly why a devolution of American power began: because of ideas that became stagnant, while “communications” became ever more rapid.

The idea that the United States must prepare for the eventuality of a Third World War, and that such a war could only occur with the Soviet Union, since the leaders of the latter aim at the destruction of the United States—this idea governed the course of the United States forty years ago as it still largely does today. When forty years ago the Iron Curtain was coming down in Eastern Europe and the presence of Soviet armed forces there cast a shadow over much of an impoverished and unsure continent, there was every reason for the United States to recognize that its national interest called for a commitment to the preservation and the defense of Western and Southern Europe and of Japan. Since that time anticommunism has become equated with American patriotism, and a gigantic American military-industrial complex has grown up, with enormous and burdensome effects on the national economy as well as on the national mentality. When, in 1956, Section Nine of the Republican party platform called for nothing less than “the establishment of American air and naval bases all around the world,” and when that party was still called “isolationist” by some of the liberal commentators, this already then, more than thirty years ago, suggested that the categories of the national political discourse had degenerated into senselessness. This has gone so far that nowadays we accept the application of the adjective conservative to people whose ideas about the desirability of American political and military involvement in the affairs of some of the farthest parts of the world (and, indeed, in the spaces of the universe) could hardly be more extreme and radical.

It is not the gradual and deadening accumulation of vested corporate interests but the accumulation of seemingly popular and profitable but, in reality, outdated ideas that makes all necessary corrections in the course of the giant American ship of state increasingly difficult. Among other matters, they are the obstacles to the necessary recognition that the Soviet Union does not now threaten the United States proper and that, indeed, the interests of these two great powers have begun to coincide, threatened as both of them are by fanatical and surging pressures from the so-called Third World.

Meanwhile, the functioning of many of the institutions of the United States—from its executive and legislative institutions through its corporations to its universities and schools—shows severe symptoms of arteriosclerosis because of their bloated administrative bureaucracies. Forty years ago one of the great advantages of the United States over the rest of the world still resided in the condition that the life of this young and energetic nation was impeded by bureaucratic practices to a much lesser extent than that of the ancient nations of the Old World. Now it seems as if in the United States the age of democracy may have devolved into an age of bureaucracy, and not only in “big government,” as President Reagan so mistakenly believed (or pretended to believe, at a time when his own staff in the White House was ten times larger than that of Franklin Roosevelt’s at the peak of World War II).

The much-vaunted Knowledge Explosion and the Information Revolution are superficial phenomena that have nothing to do with the movement of ideas and minds. Information, especially mechanized and selected and “programmed” information, is one thing; understanding and wisdom are quite another. What is clear is that the meaning of the symptoms of the American decline of power as well as the very idea of material “progress” must be rethought.