Can the US Remain Number One?

The Future of American Strategy

by David C. Hendrickson
Holmes and Meier, 210 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Thinking About America: The United States in the 1990s

edited by Annelise Anderson, edited by Dennis L. Bark
Hoover Institution Press, 590 pp., $14.95

Preventing World War III: A Realistic Grand Strategy

by David M. Abshire
Harper and Row, 331 pp., $19.95

The end of the century is coming, and serious citizens of the world’s number one power are beginning to get worried. Four decades earlier, it had occupied a virtually unchallengeable position in the international system. Its economy was far larger and more productive than any other, its financial reserves were enormous, and its current-account surpluses were staggering. It was the manufacturing center of the globe, and it was also dominant in invention, science, and technology. Being the richest and most successful nation in the world, its inhabitants believed that they had been blessed with a unique political culture—of economic liberalism, a constitutional balance, individual liberties—which all other societies ought to imitate; if, that is, they wished to improve themselves. Moreover, its own superior way of life was buttressed by considerable armed forces should it ever need to fight to preserve its national and international interests; it had the world’s most powerful navy, an unrivaled capacity to move troops from one continent to another, and an enormous industrial “surge capacity” in the event of a prolonged war.

But that was four decades ago, and in the meantime things had begun to change. Nations that had hardly existed then were emerging as regional or even transregional great powers. Areas of the world that had earlier seemed unimportant (or at least quiescent)—the Near East, Persia, South Africa, East Asia—now threatened to explode. The shifting military balances, and the newer frontiers of insecurity, had led to large-scale rises in the defense budget, but it was never enough to satisfy the admirals and the generals. The navy still possessed the most powerful surface fleets in the world, but its planners agonized over the sheer number of places in which they might have to operate: the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf, the coasts of Central America, the Atlantic and Pacific sea lanes. The army, whose reputation had been badly hurt by its poor performance in a recent overseas war, also agonized over its strategy and force structure: Should it be preparing to fight a large continental land campaign in Europe, or for further operations in the tropics? In the background, newer technologies of warfare were bringing to an end the country’s previous strategical invulnerability.

Yet these concerns about military security were not, perhaps, as significant as certain worrying developments in other fields. After all, foreign great powers each had their own strategical weaknesses and vulnerabilities; if some were perceived as enemies, others were regarded as friends. And, although the annual bill for the country’s armed forces was already large, it could be increased if the international scene really worsened—and if taxpayers and politicians were willing to bear the extra costs. Reports of a “gap” in this or that category of weapons would usually produce a flurry of popular alarm, and then an increased allocation of funds in order to “catch up” or “stay ahead.” For all the facile comparisons that were being made with …

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Letters

What to Do about Decline? June 15, 1989

What to Do about Decline? June 15, 1989