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What to Do about Decline?

In response to:

Can the US Remain Number One? from the March 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Allow me to make a brief clarification regarding the argument of my book, The Future of American Strategy, recently reviewed in your journal by Paul Kennedy [NYR, March 16]. Though some of Professor Kennedy’s criticisms are no doubt just, it is misleading to state that my book “contains nothing in the way of proposals for arresting the relative US economic and financial decline.” One of my central premises in writing the book was the belief that defense cuts would have to be an important part of any plan to break the gridlock over the budgetary deficit. Hence the search for a more discriminate military strategy, hence also the call for higher taxes on energy consumption and tight restraints on entitlement spending. My reasons for thinking that such a program would be useful in arresting our economic decline are entirely conventional and will be familiar to readers of The New York Review, where the essentials of the case have been summarized repeatedly over the years by Messrs. Peterson, Rohatyn, and Thurow (Arresting economic decline means more investment, which requires raising our low rates of national saving, thus in turn a concerted attack on national “dissaving,” i.e., the federal budget deficit.) Given what I took to be the widespread consensus on this point, my task was one of showing how a reordering of our security policy might be undertaken that would contribute to that objective and that would not at the same time expose us to other dangers.

One final observation seems in order. There is indeed something disturbing in the virulent outbreak of optimism that followed upon the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, for as a country we are still very far from making the indispensable adjustments in national policy that our circumstances plainly call for—a point underlined by the recent demise of the National Economic Commission. As between the pessimism of Professor Kennedy and the optimism of the Wall Street Journal‘s leader writers, I much prefer the former. (American political culture unfortunately seems to require a consensus that we are heading down the tubes before President and Congress can rouse themselves to any substantial effort.) Still, there is something unsatisfactory about the attention devoted to the question of whether the United States will continue to be numero uno in the coming decades. We know, after all, that there are a number of disturbing trends; the point is to reverse or mitigate them. My suggestion to Professor Kennedy is that he declare victory in the war among the intellectuals over American decline, and turn his attention to finding a way out of the predicament. This, so far as I can judge, he has yet to do. Though he has accumulated much evidence demonstrating that we are in trouble, he has offered very little in the way of concrete suggestions and hard choices—particularly in the realm of national security policy, the traditional core of grand strategy—if we are to set things right. It is, I suppose, a harsh decree to ask a gifted historian to become a policy animal; but it seems to me that this is the next stage of the argument, and one would hope that he would move on to it.

David C. Hendrickson
The Colorado College
Colorado Springs, Colorado

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