- Historic Sites
Is America Falling Behind?
It’s never a bad thing question how well you’re doing; the problem is to find a judicious observer who is determined neither to flatter nor to condemn
September/october 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Perhaps because the present mood of soul-searching in the United States reminds me so strongly of a very similar kind of self-questioning in Edwardian times, when many thoughtful people in England felt that greatness was slipping through their fingers and didn’t know what to do about it.
How do your investigations and historical perspective help us see our situation more clearly?
The thing that strikes me the most strongly is that the general world situation has become much more complicated over the last few years. That is probably what sets the stage for the American frame of mind. And I’m not just thinking of the advent of nuclear weapons. I am thinking about the end of a world in which any single power can exercise global hegemony of the kind we had at the height of the British Empire and again in the heyday of American power in the decades following World War II.
The main reason, I think, lies in the growing fluidity of economic power. There are no more impregnable geographic bastions of manufacturing strength, as once there were. There are no dominant centers of financial power comparable to the London-based finance of the late nineteenth century or the New York-based finance of the 1950s. West Germany and Japan are major players in the manufacturing and financial worlds, and will continue to be. Other economies, like the Korean, are on the rise. Still other countries, such as perhaps Brazil, are waiting in the wings. India may soon be heard from. What of China? Of course, America is today and will be tomorrow a great military and economic power. But not the only power.
What are the consequences of this more complex map of world power?
One consequence, I feel, should be the rise in the importance of diplomacy. A bipolar world leads inevitably to military trials of strength—an arms race. A multipolar world leads much more naturally to diplomacy. We are entering a world that is much more open and indeterminate than the one we’ve left. Such a world could be more promising—or more unstable.
Because one-power hegemony has an obvious stability—think of the Roman Empire!—and even a two-power world has a certain stability, so long as it does not lead to runaway rivalries. Multipolar worlds, such as Europe in the early nineteenth century, do not possess these natural equilibriums. They require a sensitive adjustment and adaptation to a map of power that is constantly being redrawn, not a dogged pursuit of policies designed for a map that never changes. However, we must not think that today’s new instability poses problems only for the United States. Aren’t the Soviets also challenged by this new state of affairs, with the rise of new military and economic centers in the East? One cannot any longer meaningfully describe the overall historical situation simply in terms of a free world against an unfree world, or of the capitalist system against planned systems, or even of East against West. At the end of David Calleo’s Beyond American Hegemony , he tantalizingly suggests that, as two “older” powers, Washington and Moscow may find they have many common interests in the emerging unstable world. One can only speculate about that. What I think is quite clear is that diplomacy must play a far more important role in the coming decades.
How well equipped do you think this country is to carry on such a world diplomacy? Don’t I pick up from your book a deep ambivalence about the way you assess the United States—at once admiring its vitality but deploring its tendency to see everything in oversimplified terms?
Of course I have my uncertainties about America’s diplomatic capabilities. I suppose I would about anyone’s. I often think that a country’s particular weaknesses are the obverse side of its strengths. The American strength has been its wonderful optimism, its “can do” attitude. That has given the United States great energy. But it also brought the belief that sheer optimism and resolve would by themselves always carry the day. This is a view that can prevent its holders from taking a critical stance with respect to their own situation. Historical self-confidence carries a price at those times when reexamination and fresh stock taking may be the order of the day.
To me this lesson seems to apply especially in the economic sphere. The United States rose to power in a period when all-out entrepreneurship, combined with a generally negative view of government, carried everything before it. I’m thinking of the time when you built your vast railways and your unparalleled steel industry, then your electric utility industry, your consumer appliance industry, your automotive industry, and later your computer industry. Under that general outlook the United States had a triumphant economic career for a century.