The American Enterprise, June 2005
The American Enterprise Online, February 9, 2005
By Alan W. Dowd
On the other side of the Atlantic, a debate is brewing about whether American power is beginning to ebb, cresting or still surging. One of the more lively expressions of this debate can be found on the pages of The Times of London, where Gerard Baker and Matthew Parris have exchanged salvos about the state of our union.
Mr. Baker writes almost romantically about “a nation tirelessly willing and uniquely empowered to take on the responsibilities of global leadership.” In his view, “The world may grow and change around it, but I would not bet on America’s eclipse just yet.” Baker reminds us that “previous premature judgments about America’s decline enjoin us to be a little circumspect about its current difficulties.”
Indeed they do. Yet Mr. Parris counters Baker by trotting out many of those same old arguments about American decline:
“Ever-heavier burdens are being loaded upon a nation whose economic legs are growing shaky…America 2005 is overstretched…America has more than 350,000 troops abroad.” For good measure, he references the good old days, when America was respected and beloved the world over: “Mr. Bush said ‘freedom’ 27 times in his [inaugural] speech. John F. Kennedy could be more sparing with the word because the idea behind it shone so brightly for America then, and for the world.”
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Mr. Parris could be right about America's future, although this is an unusual moment to try to make such a case. After all, America’s is the fastest growing industrialized economy, and it remains the largest economy on earth (this after absorbing the financial body blows of September 11). Only when Europe cobbles its 25 economies together can it claim to rival US economic output—and even then the claim is shaky, given the EU’s shaky prospects.
From fashion to film to fast food, American culture and products are coveted and imitated to an unprecedented degree. As Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami has noted, “The world rails against the United States, yet embraces its protection, its gossip and its hipness.” Especially its protection: Some 50 countries enjoy defense treaties with the United States. The US military is the last (and first) line of defense for dozens of others. This role of global guarantor expands daily in the War on Terror, with US forces now welcomed in more than 100 countries.
Of course, the US military does more than protect and defend: In the span of about 23 months, it overthrew two enemy regimes located on the other side of the planet and replaced them with friendly, popularly supported governments. Not bad for a faltering empire.
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Whether or not Mr. Parris’ premise is sound, it’s anything but new. A quick survey of history reminds us that "the decline and fall of America" mantra is a decennial prediction that keeps being pushed back by its adherents (which actually calls into question the soundness of the declinist view).
Historian Paul Kennedy concluded that America’s decline was sealed in the late 1980s. As Eliot Abrams put it, “Kennedy's thesis was simple: America, like the great empires that preceded it, had over-expanded, and its military expenditures were now so great that an irreversible process of decline had already set in.” Indeed, by 1990, political scientists and pundits were quipping that while the US and the Soviet Union waged the Cold War, it was Japan and Germany that won it.
Kennedy and others in academia were certain that Japan and Germany would overtake America on the economic field and, since security was no longer important, that the role and relevance of American military power would simply wither away. They were wrong on both counts, of course. As a matter of fact, it was the Soviet empire that was in decline and would disappear.
After a period of innovation and immigration, retooling and restructuring, the US economy surged ahead in the 1990s. At the same time, Japan and most of Europe began to limp, straining under the weight of growth-choking regulation, aging populations, constrained immigration policies, and burdensome social welfare programs.
Likewise, the 1990s saw American military power liberate Kuwait and protect the oil that flowed to Germany and Japan; end the vivisection of Bosnia; break the siege of Kosovo; and defend the Gulf.
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Of course, the arguments about America's might draining away were even sharper (and far more plausible) in the late 1970s, when Moscow was on the march and Washington seemed unable to summon the resolve to push back. Indeed, détente was arguably an expression of American weakness.
This period of self-doubt and self-imposed decline was itself a byproduct of an earlier period of "American decline" known as the Vietnam War. Mr. Parris apparently forgets that tiny Vietnam derailed Johnson’s juggernaut presidency, deflated American prestige and triggered an identity crisis within the US. By the end of the 1960s, Americans were questioning the need for their postwar empire and the value of their postwar position. Historian Paul Johnson calls the failure in Vietnam and consequent postwar crisis of confidence “America’s suicide attempt.”
Even in those halcyon days of Camelot, it looked as if the US had fallen fast and hard from its World War II perch. What else could be said of an empire that couldn't oust a petty Third World dictator 90 miles off its coast?
When the Soviets deployed missiles in Cuba, the worries of American decline were expressed openly by US military and political leaders. Noticing the gaping hole in America's veneer of invincibility, European states like France began to look for their own methods of deterrence and protection.
And contrary to Mr. Parris' half-history, Kennedy used far more than moral suasion to promote freedom. He deployed hundreds of CIA-backed forces to Cuba, thousands of troops into Vietnam, thousands into Europe during the second Berlin Crisis, and moved America's entire military to a state of global war to force Moscow's retreat from Cuba.
Indeed, Mr. Parris is apparently unaware that America’s overseas deployments are far lower today than they were during any chapter of the Cold War. In addition to six-figure troop deployments in both the Japan-Korea theater and Europe, the US had 520,000 forces deployed in Vietnam alone. From 1947-1989, Americans built and manned more than 600 overseas bases, invested some $5 trillion and sacrificed 100,000 lives to wage and win the Cold War.
Thus, with a much larger economy, much larger population and much smaller global footprint, the America of 2005 is certainly not anymore “overstretched” than the America of 1965.
Many observers even worried that America was in decline in the 1950s, when communist forces fought US and allied forces to a stalemate in Korea. So taxed was the US in Northeast Asia that Washington called for German rearmament in late 1950. American power was thought to be waning in the late 1940s as well, when “we lost China,” and in the immediate postwar period, when Americans were reading news stories about failure and futility in occupied Germany.
In other words, we’ve heard it all before.
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At the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin shared with his fellow delegates how he had admired a carving of the sun on the back of the presiding officer’s chair. He wondered during the convention whether the sun was rising or setting. Only after the constitution had been written and ratified did he conclude, “I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.” Almost 220 years later, Franklin’s assessment still holds.