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Are We Really Going The Way Of The British Empire?
Those who believe America’s power is on the wane look to the example of Britain’s shockingly quick collapse. But the similarities may be less alarming than they seem.
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
The short form would assess the other contenders for the leading position as follows: China is a less developed country, and likely to remain so for quite a long time. Russia is a country that is in serious economic decline, a decline based on such deep-rooted factors that it’s not likely to reverse in the course of a decade or more and is now leading to dangerous political fragmentation. Europe has the capability, in terms of human resources and economic scale, to be the size of the United States. It lacks only one thing, and that’s unity, and even with progress of the Common Market in 1992, Europe will be a long way away from being a single state. In order to give a sense of proportion on that, Germany, even in its unified form, is just over one-quarter the size of the United States.
The other major contender would be Japan, which has had a remarkable economic performance, which is the second-largest economy in the world, roughly half the size of the U.S. economy, and which is the world’s largest creditor nation, the world’s largest aid donor, and ahead in many areas of manufacturing technology. But the Japanese remain very much a unidimensional power, their power being concentrated in the economic areas of financial and manufacturing capabilities. This is not a very diversified portfolio of power. It is deficient in the military area and has a weak base in the area that I referred to as soft power, the cultural and ideological field, and in its ability to operate effectively in international institutions. As we compare the major contenders for being the most powerful country with the United States, the Americans remain the most impressive, with a more diversified portfolio of power resources than any other country in the world.
So perhaps the Japanese, with a mere 3 percent of the world’s population and .03 percent of its area, might be a more suitable case for the Britain analogy.
You mean in the sense of a Japanese decline?
Yes. If someone is scripted to follow Britain, Japan is far more likely than anyone else, given its current brilliant performance versus its natural resources.
What an interesting thought. There is a book written by a British journalist that argues—well, the title of the book says it: The Sun Also Sets. He essentially argues that the dominance of Japan is likely, after the turn of the century, to turn out to have been somewhat ephemeral, that the savings rates are coming down, that many of the inefficiencies of the Japanese economy are coming to the fore, that the population is aging, that they are less able to import people from abroad, and that Japan may suffer in that sense.
I am still profoundly skeptical of historical analogies; what we do with analogies often anesthetizes our minds to the importance of differences. Basically, it’s important to have a sense of history, to sensitize ourselves to things that do recur. But our nature is that we get too pat about the analogies, and we don’t pay enough attention to the differences.
I don’t think the Japanese are in cultural or societal ways similar to Edwardian Britain. And therefore, I don’t think they’ll follow that path. Maybe the best response is that which is attributed to Mark Twain: “History never repeats itself; at best it sometimes rhymes.”