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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 previous collapsed empires, the country was not at one with Nineveh and Tyre.

What the really prescient citizens worried about, however, were certain less dramatic but nonetheless insidious changes occurring in the nonmilitary sphere, which posed a long-term threat to the nation’s prosperity and strength—and ultimately to its capacity to remain number one. The days of its unrivaled economic lead had now gone; other countries, once prostrate or backward, had grown at faster rates decade after decade. In one key industry after another, and in domestic and foreign markets, they had expanded their shares. Most of these new competitors saved more, invested more, and had enjoyed greater increases in real productivity. They seemed committed to moving into ever newer high-technology products, and enjoyed greater support from their governments in their efforts to compete commercially on the global stage. Consequently, foreign nations’ shares of total world GNP, and of manufacturing output, and of financial reserves, had steadily increased as one’s own share declined. There were actually some foreign countries that were now richer per capita, an unheard of thing in one’s grandfather’s day.

It was true that the economic news was not all bad. The rapid growth of so many countries had naturally led to enormous increases in world manufacturing and commerce over the past four decades, and many sectors of the number one economy had also benefited from this general increase in prosperity; the services industries in particular had enjoyed a boom, even as important sectors of manufacturing industry collapsed in the face of foreign competition. The country as a whole was richer than it had been four decades earlier, and there was certainly a lot of wealth around—as was daily demonstrated by the conspicuous consumption of those in the top 2 or 3 percent of the nation’s income bands.

Despite this evidence of prosperity, the worriers remained doubtful. What if the relative decline continued into the indefinite future? Was it really of no concern if the citizens of other countries became better off than one’s own, and had greater purchasing power for the world’s goods? Was it wise to become heavily dependent upon foreign nations for so many important manufactured products, including those (such as the subparts of weapons systems) which were deemed strategically vital by the armed services? Could a “service economy” sustain a great power militarily?

But the deepest fear of the worriers was not about the fate of this or that sector of industry, however strategically important; it was with the long-term education and social health of the people as a whole. They were disturbed by the increasing evidence about the conditions of an entire underclass, perhaps as many as one-quarter of the population, living in poverty in the inner cities, suffering from malnutrition, in poor health and poor housing conditions, and having far fewer educational opportunities (and prospects) than the average citizen. They were also disturbed at the increasing evidence of the weaknesses of the public educational system: Why did their thirteen-year-olds or seventeen-year-olds have far less knowledge of foreign languages, of mathematics, of natural sciences, than their equivalents in most of the other advanced societies? Why were their craftsmen less knowledgeable about science and technology, or even understanding blueprints, than craftsmen abroad? What was it in their social culture that made so many bright students desire to become lawyers or bankers or bond dealers, and turn away from becoming engineers? If the nation could not correct these fundamental weaknesses, how could it compete in the next century against better organized and better educated societies? How could it possibly remain number one?

Does all this have a familiar ring to it? If so, it may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that the number one power described above was not the United States today, but Great Britain about ninety years ago. Four decades earlier, in its mid-Victorian prime, it had seemed effortlessly above every other nation—in its manufacturing strength and technological lead, in its commercial and financial dominance, in its per capita income, in its naval and strategic power. By the turn of the century, however, the situation was different: the international scene was much more complicated and diffuse; its economic and technological advantages had been eroded; its educational and social weaknesses had become evident. In sum, it faced an altogether more competitive environment, and some of its more thoughtful citizens—strategists, academics, editors, even a few politicians—wondered if the time had not come for some fundamental reforms in defense priorities and overseas deployments, in general education and technical training, in industrial and investment policy.

Much of this debate in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain has now been brought together in Aaron Friedberg’s fine new work The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905. Friedberg’s underlying concern is how statesmen think about power, how they become aware of shifts in the relative power balance, and how they seek to adapt their own nation to such shifts. To allow a more detailed examination of the British case, he divides his book into four strands: Britain’s relative position in the international economy (“economic power”), its capacity to pay for an adequate defense (“financial power”), its control of the seas (“sea power”), and its ability to defend its interests on land (“military power”). In all four respects, the situation around 1900 was much less comfortable than it had been in mid-century, and reforms were needed. Moreover, although these were separate problems, they were also interrelated: enhancing British naval power by building more modern (and expensive) warships implied further demands upon British financial power, and that in turn raised the issue of the country’s ability to create fresh wealth.

Although some earlier British historians were lavish in their praise of the manner in which the Conservative governments of 1896–1905 “restructured” the nation’s policies and priorities in the face of all these challenges, Dr. Friedberg’s own assessment is rather more cautious. While Whitehall successfully redeployed its battle fleets into the North Sea to mask the rising German threat (albeit at the cost of ceding maritime influence elsewhere), it never properly faced up to the military implications of preserving the continental balance of power against a possible German bid for domination in the age of mass, industrialized warfare. Friedberg also feels that, with rare exceptions, the political leadership was decidedly unimaginative in its assessment of how much money could be raised, by fresh direct or indirect taxes, to pay for defense spending in excess of the national “upper limits” (and this during a period when the government’s share of the GNP was less than 10 percent). As other societies have in turn discovered, it is difficult to reconcile a laissez-faire, “low government,” fiscal policy with the spending requirements of a number one power; or perhaps it is better to say that most people like the prestige and benefits of being the “hegemonic” nation, but shrink from the costs involved.

Above all, Friedberg argues, Britain failed to deal with the challenge of relative economic and industrial decline, without which it could not remain at the top. This was not for want of earnest debate and controversy. Commission after commission investigated the erosion of Britain’s industrial lead and market shares, the deficiencies of its scientific and technical education, its poor healthcare record, its failure to invest sufficiently in either new plants or new skills. Some piecemeal measures were, indeed, adopted. A “national efficiency” movement (read “competitiveness movement”) agitated for much more. The charismatic politician Joseph Chamberlain virtually broke the Conservative party in half in his campaign between 1903 and 1906 to abandon free trade and turn again to a neomercantilist package of policies (protective tariffs, government intervention). But all of this ultimately foundered on the public’s unwillingness to change old habits, to adopt foreign techniques, and to give priority to productivity. For most people, things were quite comfortable as they were; if all countries were economically expanding, did it really matter if the Germans and Americans were expanding twice as fast? Ultimately, therefore, the British did not respond to the issue of “relative decline” because of a widespread cultural and psychological—and in many ways, understandable—resistance to change.

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