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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
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.
Therefore, it is very difficult psychologically to accept the possibility that today other ways of mobilizing and organizing the economy may be more effective—for instance, the ways in which the Japanese openly use the state as a kind of partner, often the senior partner, of private enterprise. Americans find it hard to imagine that ministries and bureaucrats can work successfully with entrepreneurs and captains of industry. Mind you, I am not saying that Japanese methods are intrinsically better than the American or that they could be imported, as we import their cars. But the very possibility of doing things in another way does not come easily to you.
The same is true, of course, of other countries. What has been called the British Disease used to refer to the inability of my own countrymen to change English ways of running a business to American ones. Perhaps today it refers to their difficulty in running them in an Italian or a Swedish fashion. Maybe one day in the future that challenge will come full circle, and the Japanese will be worrying about why they can’t match the new-American—maybe by then even the new English—way of organizing their national economic effort.
America’s commitments—and its conception of its role—are unrealistic.
For the moment, though, the gauntlet is at the feet of the United States. This is the country whose established ways of thinking and doing are being challenged. That brings us back to what we talked about earlier, the problem of adaptation and flexibility. That has been the great secret of success and failure, of rise and fall. I suspect it will be the same today and tomorrow.
I take it you have some doubts about America’s capacity to adapt.
I don’t regard the American future as anything like foreclosed. But I’m concerned lest there be barriers in the American outlook that will make it hard to respond to challenge, especially on the economic front. To my way of thinking, in the face of so much uncertainty the best chance of remaining flexible and adaptive—competitive—is to raise the share of resources going into infrastructure. I don’t just mean roads and water mains. I mean first-class educational systems, basic scientific research, the production of scientists, engineers, skilled workers of all kinds. That is not, right now, a generally shared urgent priority for most Americans.
What course should we pursue?
I see the answer in a group of coordinated responses, not in any single effort. Let me begin with the military/diplomatic sphere. The United States is carrying an immense military burden, which it imposes upon itself because it still perceives itself as the world leader it was forty and thirty or perhaps even twenty years ago. It is that no longer.
Soviet military strength quite aside, both the American experience in Vietnam and the inability of the United States to control the Persian Gulf situation are clear warning signals that the days of unchallengeable American military might are in the past. Do not forget that there was a time when the United States could (and did) unseat an Iranian premier whose policies were regarded as unfriendly and oust or install whatever regimes it wanted in Central America with a few Marines. That period is past. So I sense that America’s military commitment—perhaps I should say its conception of its role—is unrealistic. That is, I am sorry to say, an old story that we can trace back to the Hapsburg monarchy in the sixteenth century, and no doubt much earlier: too many fronts to defend; too many “enemies,” too large a military burden to be borne by the economy. In America’s case it means devoting too large a proportion of its best scientific and skilled manpower to ends that do not add to the growth of the economy. If history teaches us anything, it is that an emphasis on military power over economic vitality leads to a deterioration of both.
And what about the nuclear question?
In a sense we have to put the nuclear issue to the side. There is simply no precedent for the possibility that using a weapons system might destroy not only the enemy but also oneself. But non-nuclear military force is still extremely important. So I think the next President should seize the opportunity presented to us by Russian perestroika to say to Gorbachev: “Look, we both have to modernize and improve aspects of our societies. We have our own perestroika to attend to—different from yours but also needing our full attention. So let us seek to de-escalate together, realizing that we are very different kinds of societies that nonetheless have some common problems ahead of us.”