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Can the US Remain Number One?

Although ambitiously broad, Dr. Friedberg’s book by no means gives us the full story of Britain’s “Experience of Relative Decline” between 1895 and 1905. To follow the amazing number of diplomatic readjustments—such as the move from Constantinople to Cairo, the settlement of numerous Western-hemispheric quarrels with the United States, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, the entente with France and Russia—one would need to turn elsewhere, to the first-class studies of J.A.S. Grenville and G. Monger.1 To gain a deeper understanding of the depth of the laissez-faire (and chiefly liberal) resistance to change, one ought to read Correlli Barnett’s excoriating account in The Collapse of British Power.2 Above all, perhaps, there is G.R. Searle’s brilliant study The Quest for National Efficiency, 3 which captures the moods of those campaigning for change and those who preferred the status quo. Nevertheless, Friedberg’s study is a valuable new contribution to this important issue, and both historians and political scientists will be indebted to him for it.

But there is more to it, of course, than that. Edwardian Britain’s dilemmas as it moved into the twentieth century fascinate us because, in so many ways, they echo the dilemmas facing the United States as it heads toward the twenty-first century. As Dr. Friedberg points out:

The questions that informed Englishmen were asking themselves at the beginning of this century will have a familiar ring to American ears: Are we now passing through a period of relative national decline? How can we tell? If it is occurring, is that decline inevitable? Does it reflect our unusual (and transient) good fortune during the past thirty or forty years, or is it the result of mistakes and misguided policies? Is our international economic position being eaten away, and what, if anything, can we do about it? Should we adhere to a policy of free trade or should we adopt protectionism? Are we approaching the limits of our national financial resources? Can we afford to maintain vast foreign commitments while at the same time improving the welfare of our citizens? What are the implications for our world role and, in particular, for the structure of our alliances of having lost clear “strategic” superiority? Do our commitments now exceed our capabilities? Do we have sufficient ground forces to support our friends and allies overseas against the vast armies of hostile land powers? Can we sustain our present posture without resorting to conscription, higher taxes, or other burdensome impositions on our domestic population?

This is not to say that the position of the United States in the world today is identical to that of Britain a century ago. There were and are (as Friedberg concedes) certain obvious differences in “size, economic base, population, location, natural resources.” Britain is, after all, a small island-state, whereas the United States is a vast continent with far larger resources and population. It is inconceivable, as I have pointed out else-where (but the less perceptive critics have missed), that “the United States is destined to shrink to the relative obscurity of former leading Powers such as Spain or the Netherlands.”4 On the other hand, if the US possesses far greater natural resources than Britain ever did, it also has certain greater weaknesses. It has a glaring federal budget deficit, and a fast-growing national debt, whereas the British budget was always in surplus (except during the few Boer War years) and the debt was being steadily reduced.

In addition, the United States may not be so well organized politically and constitutionally as Britain to carry out difficult strategical or financial policies. In the Cabinet-cum-parliamentary structure of British decision making, once the national leadership had resolved to withdraw from the Caribbean, to close an array of overseas naval bases, or to raise direct taxes, such measures were implemented. (By contrast, one can imagine the political fuss and paralysis, and the agitation of lobbies, if a future American administration proposed to reduce its commitments in the Middle East, or to change its deployments in East Asia.)

Other differences and similarities could no doubt be added to the list. For example, Professor Joseph Nye at Harvard spent a considerable amount of his energies late last year compiling reasons why the United States today is not like Britain in 19005—as if any two great powers in world history were ever “like” each other in their geographic, demographic, constitutional, and economic characteristics. It is ironic to note that there were many in Edwardian Britain who strongly resented the suggestion that their great country had become “like” Spain two centuries earlier, and who offered all sorts of reasons why that was not so. Most of those reasons were true, in a literal sense (e.g., Spain had been an autocracy, but Britain was a parliamentary democracy; Spain’s manufacturing base had been far more run down than Britain’s was; etc., etc.). But all those intellectual consolations missed the central point of the analogy, namely, that the number one power was now operating in a much more challenging and competitive world than had been the case decades earlier, and if it did not correct its weaknesses its relative decline would most likely continue.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these academic comparisons between the US and Britain is that books such as The Weary Titan provide us with the cautionary message that “national security” in the proper sense of the term involves much more than military security—just as a national, long-term “grand strategy” comprehends much more than military policies. To remain number one, the country concerned needs not only adequate and efficient armed forces; it also needs a flourishing economic base, productive and modern manufacturing, efficient plant and infrastructure, an enormous commitment to education at all levels, and a healthy, properly nourished, and decently housed population whose potential talents and energies are not sapped by deprivation.

Interestingly enough, in the British case it was the nontraditional (but archpatriotic) Conservatives like Amery, Milner, and Joseph Chamberlain himself—the originator of the “Weary Titan” phrase—who appreciated that critical connection. And no less a person than Field Marshall Lord Roberts, who in his suspicions of Russia and later Germany would make today’s Committee on the Present Danger seem like liberals by comparison, became so alarmed at the conditions of the inner cities that he eventually argued that “Social Reform is a preliminary to any thorough system of National Defence.”6 Similarly, it was the political right, not the left, that worried about industrial decay, the loss of skilled trades, the erosion of strategically important manufacturing, the inadequate numbers of engineers. (With that British example in mind, it is the more mysterious to this reviewer—whose recent Rise and Fall of the Great Powers has been assaulted for the past year by such luminaries as Caspar Weinberger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, Max Lerner, and the rest—why today’s American right pays so little attention to the technological, educational, and social health of the country they passionately desire to remain as number one.)


Three recent works recommending longterm policies for the United States are well worth considering in the light of Friedberg’s important study, and of the considerations it engenders about what constitutes a truly effective grand strategy for a number one power when the global productive and military balances are in flux. The first, by a rising young scholar, David Hendrickson, discusses The Future of American Strategy. The second, by a Hoover Institution “collective” under the editorship of Annelise Anderson and Dennis Bark, involves Thinking About America: The United States in the 1990’s. The third, by an “old hand” in military and strategic affairs (and latterly the US ambassador to NATO), David Abshire, is concerned with Preventing World War III: A Realistic Grand Strategy.

In fairness to all three endeavors, it needs to be remarked that the international scene has been altering so swiftly in the second half of the 1980s that it is inordinately difficult to keep pace with all the possible implications. The “evil Empire” of the Soviet Union is, under Mr. Gorbachev’s push for perestroika, executing or proposing policies that only a couple of years ago no Sovietologist in the West would have thought possible; and the weaknesses and defects of his Bolshevik inheritance become more manifest by the day. With Soviet forces evacuated from Afghanistan and the Red Navy resting silently and mysteriously in its home ports, the Kremlin nowadays also seems to be less “imperial” and threatening in Eastern Europe; indeed, the irony is that while some of its less charming satellites (Czechoslovakia, East Germany) are cracking down on reform movements, Russia itself appears to be more relaxed on civil rights. It is also more encouraging on the arms control front. Week after week, or so it seems, the Kremlin proposes new “cuts” in medium- or short-range missiles, or tanks, or troops…. Is it true, pace Doonesbury, that the cold war is over?

Yet, at the same time as the nation’s worries about military security are subsiding, the challenges to its economic security are larger than ever. In the space of a few years, the United States has changed from being the world’s greatest creditor nation to being its greatest debtor; its twin deficits, of the federal budget and of the current-accounts balances, are now supported (and just how firmly?) by foreign funding. Its high-tech lead has been eroded in industry after industry, from automobiles to computers.

A new, multipolar economic world order is emerging to replace the old one. The European Community, with a total population and GNP considerably larger than that of the United States, is gearing itself up for its 1992 market integration. Japan, now (clearly) the financial center and (increasingly) the high-tech center of the world, has a GNP of some $3.25 trillion to the US’s $4.8 trillion and its economy continues to expand at a rate which is always between 1.5 and 2.5 percent higher than that of the US. The People’s Republic of China is lurching forward at an astonishing, and unstable, growth rate of 10 percent or so each year, and much of the rest of East Asia grows at breakneck speed. And all the time, the “knowledge explosion” intensifies and a revolution in global communications, finance, and trade carries the tests of “competitiveness” to ever higher levels. In these kaleidoscopic circumstances, it is probably impossible for any single person or think tank to separate the ephemeral from the longer-term, and to get a full “grasp” of the correct order of priorities and policies for the next decade. Since we do not know the future (will the stock markets crash? will Gorbachev survive? will the “greenhouse effect” intensify?), it behooves reviewers to be modest in their prognoses and gentle in their criticism.

Professor Hendrickson’s The Future of American Strategy begins on a promising note by recognizing that the essence of a successful long-term national policy is to achieve a proper balance between ends and means. Like many others, he approvingly quotes Walter Lippmann’s 1943 call for an equilibrium between “the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power”; again, like others, Hendrickson feels that the 1970s witnessed a dangerous widening of what might be termed the “Lippmann gap,” and for three reasons. The Soviet Union grew equal to the United States in strategic nuclear power; it retained (and perhaps enhanced) its conventional military threat to Western Europe, and it developed a formidable naval force. At the same time, the oil crisis of the 1970s and the possibility of Soviet intervention in the Persian Gulf revealed the weakness of American armed forces to provide military security in out-of-NATO regions following the post—Vietnam War reductions in military mobility. Thirdly, there was the steady erosion in American real per capita productivity, in growth rates, and in world manufacturing shares—at the same time as its allies in Europe and Asia were getting richer.

  1. 1

    J.A.S. Grenville, Lord Salisbury and Foreign Policy: The Close of the Nineteenth Century (London: Athlone Press, 1964); G. Monger, The End of Isolation: British Foreign Policy 1900–1907 (London: Thomas Nelson, 1963).

  2. 2

    C. Barnett, The Collapse of British Power (Humanities Press, 1986).

  3. 3

    G.R. Searle, The Quest for National Efficiency: A Study in British Politics and British Political Thought 1899–1914 (Basil Blackwell, 1971). This important book has been out of print for several years, so it is welcome news to learn that it will soon be reissued by Humanities Press.

  4. 4

    Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987), p. 533.

  5. 5

    Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Short-Term Folly, Not Long-Term Decline,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 1988; idem., “Underestimating US Strength?” address to CIA Office of Global Issues symposium, December 9, 1988, Washington, DC; idem., “Before the Fall,” The New Republic, February 13, 1989, pp. 37–39.

  6. 6

    Quoted in Paul Kennedy, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914 (Unwin Hyman, 1980; reprinted by Humanities Press, 1987), p. 343.

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