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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

1.

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.

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.)

2.

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.

While the Reagan administration’s response to the first two threats was a large increase in defense spending (with which Professor Hendrickson is sympathetic), those expenditures were indiscriminate—strategic missiles, bombers, tactical fighters, tanks, aircraft carriers, AEGIS cruisers, and so on—and not accompanied by a corresponding increase in the level of strategic thought.

Even more worrying, and “in opposition to Walter Lippmann’s dictum, the governing program of the Reagan administration has thus been based on a refusal to pay for what we want and an inclination to want far more than we are willing to pay for.” Not only did this further weaken American economic competitiveness, it also produced the inevitable backlash by the Congress and public alike, so that in the changed climate of the late 1980s there is now no prospect that all of the Pentagon’s requests will be granted. Instead, a period of fresh “cuts” looms.

To handle this period of relative austerity, Professor Hendrickson proposes much more discrimination in military spending—and in the consequent military strategies. In strategic nuclear weapons, his preference is for systems that are good for retaliation (bombers, cruise missiles, Trident I submarines) but not initial attack (MS, Midgetman, D-5); and while the latter are being scrapped, so also would be the SDI program. When it comes to conventional forces Hendrickson is a convinced Europeanist: a strong American commitment to NATO’s ground and air forces is the “core,” and other areas and roles are peripheral. Unlike those who wish to restructure the US Army for possible third-world operations, he argues that Washington should rely upon mobile air and sea power alone to deter aggression and preserve its interests in, say, the Persian Gulf or Central America. All he has to say is interesting but, in its way, limited. In other words, the greater part of The Future of American Strategy concentrates on defense policies rather than on grand strategy itself, as Hendrickson openly admits on page 5 of his introduction. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the debate that is occurring within and without the Pentagon’s walls at that particular level. His prescriptions will no doubt be agreed with by some, but violently opposed by those who favor, say, a lesser military commitment to Europe but a greater capacity for third-world interventions, or those who wish to match the Soviet Union in accurate “counter-silo” missiles.

But what this reviewer misses—apart from the relative neglect of the changing strategic picture in the Far East—is any systematic explanation of how, and how far, the proposed modifications in American defense forces and roles will help to close the “Lippmann gap.” There is no attempt to show the costs of the various options here, along the lines of the analysis of William Kaufmann7 ; and all that one reads about the immense backlog of weapons systems currently being developed but not yet paid for suggests that the fiscal “crunch” that is coming will be greater than even Professor Hendrickson’s more discriminate choices make allowance for. Nor, since the author explicitly repudiates the notion of reducing America’s NATO commitments and compelling European allies to pay much more, can financial relief come from the direction of “burden sharing.” Finally, and more generally, The Future of American Strategy contains nothing in the way of proposals for arresting the relative US economic and financial decline—that is to say, for increasing the nation’s “means” and “capacities” in order better to meet the strain of its many “ends” and “obligations.” While this is not within Professor Hendrickson’s intended scope, he himself after all expressed his eagerness to place his investigation within the broader context defined by Lippmann. It is therefore curious that he does not return to this central issue.

But since few, if any, minds can match Lippmann’s range, it may be best to rely upon teams of writers to offer a full agenda of policies that might deal with the challenges facing the United States. This, clearly, was the Hoover Institution’s intention in bringing together its collective study Thinking About America: The United States in the 1990s—a title suggesting that it should be regarded as the successor to The United States in the 1980s, which had a large influence upon the early Reagan administration (no doubt because it was written by many of its members). The table of contents indicates that the present volume can hardly be faulted for lack of range; there are fourteen essays on “Foreign Policy and National Security,” six on “International Economics Issues,” fifteen on “Domestic Policy and National Purpose,” and twelve covering “Philosophical Perspectives: Peace, Prosperity, Liberty.” Four of those essays are by past presidents of the United States (or their scriptwriters), and the cover bears a glowing recommendation from none other than George Bush. If nothing else, it will be intensely scrutinized in the Kremlin.

The difficulty this reviewer has with Thinking About America is the mixed quality—or perhaps one might better say mixed usefulness—of its contributions. There are a number of articles by regional policy experts, such as Philip Habib and Avigdor Haselkorn on the Middle East, Robert Wesson on Latin America, Peter Duignan and Lotti Gann on Africa, and Richard Allen on the Pacific Basin, which provide intelligent and generally dispassionate accounts—and make useful reading for any administration in Washington. Thus Mr. Habib provides an extensive survey of all of the rivalries and obstacles that conspire against an Arab-Israeli peace settlement in the Middle East, but also suggests a number of ways in which progress might be sought, thereby aiding the moderate voices in each belligerent camp; just as, in their jointly written chapter, Professors Duignan and Gann propose a useful set of working principles in order that the United States can advance peace and prosperity in Africa.

Similar qualities exist in various essays covering broad policy problems: Gale Johnson on world agriculture, Annelise Anderson on immigration policy, Rita Ricardo-Campbell on social security and Medicare, and a number of other articles on the budget, taxation, international debt, and related aspects of economic policy. This is not to say that these pieces are wholly without political bias; most of them, as one would imagine in a Hoover-sponsored collection, prefer conservative solutions to the problems they identify. Nonetheless, they are usually nuanced in their approach, and careful in their prescriptions. For example, June O’Neill’s survey “Poverty: Programs and Policies” displays a Reaganite suspicion of financial handouts to unmarried women with dependent children, but also recognizes that inner city, black family poverty is a compound of problems and therefore unlikely to be solved by any “quick fix” scheme (whether abolishing a program or doubling the benefits).

The same, alas, cannot be said of a dozen or more of the contributors, who are at times breathtakingly simplistic: the “hidden hand” of the market will take care of it all; reducing the role of government is desirable; the tides of liberty and democracy are surging relentlessly across the globe; the Soviet Empire, socialism in general, and Fabian cryptosocialism are all visibly collapsing…. On the other hand, the Soviet Union is still an “evil Empire,” the global military balances are tilting ever more in its favor, its ambitions to dominate the world are unchanged—while the Western democracies still contain too many liberal defeatists who are blind to the Soviet menace, press for isolationism and defense-spending cuts, yet also press for ever more expenditures on inefficient social policies (the latter are always “inefficient”). A reading of even the first half-dozen of these has the same numbing effect on the brain as would a similar perusal of essays by a Marxist “collective” twenty years ago: the ideological blinkers, the intellectual arrogance that they have found the philosopher’s stone, the cross-buttressing of one another’s positions (Milton and Rose Friedman praising Friedrich Hayek; Ronald Reagan, in the collection’s final piece, praising Milton Friedman), the denunciations of their internal and external foes, offer a none-too-pretty sight.

It is not possible in the scope of this review to debate “Thinking about America,” but a few observations may be in order. The first is that the United States—and the Western world in general, for that matter—does not face a stark choice between market and non-market approaches. As Charles Wolf, Jr., dean of the Rand Graduate School, points out (in one of the wisest and most balanced of the essays here), “The real world has neither perfect markets nor perfect governments.” and there are some public goods, such as national security, the environment, the creation of a tolerably decent safety net for society, that require nonmarket mechanisms even in a political culture that has strong laissez-faire preferences. The task of American government is to be able to understand the difference between, say, deregulating airline travel and—as seemed to be happening in the early 1980s—attempts to undermine the Departments of Education and of the Environment. Perhaps it is because of this general and uncritical belief in free-market forces that there is no examination in this collection of essays of the way the quite different, quasi-mercantilistic policies of Japanese industry and of MITI, the ministry in charge of improving technology, are steadily eroding American industrial competitiveness.

Finally, despite the more than fifty essays in Thinking About America, there are some significant gaps. There is virtually nothing on the critical issue of technology—Nathan Rosenberg’s article being chiefly about why socialist economies can’t deal efficiently with technological change—even though it would be generally agreed that the possession of a flourishing scientific and technological base is prerequisite for the nation’s future wealth and strength. Does Mr. Weinberger, who here enjoys lambasting The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers for its defeatism and isolationism, while earnestly pressing for a long list of new high-tech weapons to check Soviet expansionism, ever worry at this country’s dismal production of American-national engineers or at its levels of commercial R&D?

More generally, many of these contributors enthusiastically refer to the “knowledge explosion,” and to the metamorphosis from materials-based to “knowledge-based” industry, as if the United States were inevitably going to be the chief beneficiary of such a change. But if knowledge is to be the basis of the nation’s wealth and strength, is it not alarming that American seventeen-year-olds consistently score well below those of other advanced societies on international tests of mathematics, natural sciences, foreign languages, and the like? That their knowledge of history is abysmal, and of geography even worse (three quarters of them not even knowing where the Persian Gulf is)? Can one be as confident about the future as the Hoover Institution contributors when American illiteracy rates are much higher than those of every other advanced industrial democracy? Will the “hidden hand” correct that deficiency? In sum, although George Bush “highly recommends” Thinking About America, he may very soon discover that he needs a more sophisticated manifesto to help him lead the United States into the 1990s.

Curiously enough, the study that provides that more rounded and sophisticated approach is David Abshire’s. I say “curiously enough” for two reasons. The first is that the title Preventing World War III in some ways is misleading, suggesting perhaps a technical treatise on “confidence-building measures” or a grand disarmament plan. The second is that the book contains many chatty remarks (“I sat in the crystal-chandeliered room of the Senate Majority Leader, hospitable Mike Mansfield, while…,” etc.), which readers may welcome as light relief—or regard as unnecessary distractions. But these are quibbles, which hardly weigh against the overall strength of Abshire’s work.

The first strength lies in its structure. It is divided into two sections, “The World Theater” and “The Strategies.” The first half is an account and analysis of the contemporary political and strategical scene, with a heavy emphasis upon NATO, its problems and its potential: it is full of important insights into the differing European and American perceptions of deterrence and reassurance, into the fragmentation of policy making in Brussels and (even more) in Washington, and into the critical relationship between the conventional balance and NATO’s nuclear strategy. Thus, while he argues the case for the modernization of the various “linked” levels of nuclear weapons systems in Europe (including short-range, tactical nuclear systems), he also suggests a variety of ways whereby the conventional defensive power of NATO might be enhanced—the result being a double form of deterring a possible Warsaw Pact attack predicated upon a swift victory.

All of this is very well presented, which is not surprising in view of Mr. Abshire’s recent tenure as US ambassador to NATO. What is impressive, however, is his description (in chapters nine through eleven) of American global interests, from the Korean Peninsula to Canada (how many other American strategists, one feels compelled to ask, ever include their important northern neighbor in the equation?). In all these fields, Mr. Abshire is concerned to identify what American interests (in the broadest sense of the term) really are, how the peoples and parties of these countries view the United States, and what developments are underway that could either improve or damage the American position. To what extent, for example, can Washington encourage Canadians to continue or, better, enhance their commitments to NATO without provoking anti-American sentiments?

In the same way, in his commentary upon the current state of US relations with the People’s Republic of China and Japan, he emphasizes the critical and growing role that both those Asian nations are playing as “power balancers” to Soviet influence, yet he is quick to warn how rash it would be if ever an American administration took that for granted and ignored the cultivation of continued good relations with Beijing and Tokyo. Finally, he provides a reasoned and nonideological assessment of Gorbachev’s Russia: its centuries-long tradition of expansion, its ruthless and autocratic political system, its clever diplomacy are bluntly described, but so, too, are the economic weaknesses, the forces for change, the seriousness of perestroika.

But it is the second half of Mr. Abshire’s book that is the really stunning part. It begins with a sophisticated awareness of the complexity of evolving a long-term coherent strategy:

Grand strategy, like art, is composed of several elements. And just as the artist must take into account form, color, tone, texture, design, and technique, the strategist must incorporate the diverse dimensions of statecraft into his design. Grand strategy must include consideration of public understanding and approval; it must consider the realities of deterrence; it must reflect the limits of available resources to support national goals; it must be cognizant of technology and the role it plays in shaping strategy; and it must be a product of effective, organized government.

Should the skeptical reader say, “All that is true, but how do we get from A to B?” then much of the answer (in this reviewer’s opinion) is contained in chapters twelve to twenty of Mr. Abshire’s work, in which he lucidly describes the various strands of a coherent American grand strategy: the “political” strategy of coordinating things properly with both Congress and the allies; the “public” strategy of clearly articulating the working principles of American policy to its own voters and to the world at large; the “economic” strategy of grappling with recent industrial, technological, and social weaknesses (at last, in reading Mr. Abshire’s book, one finds someone who understands that an integral part of “grand strategy” is trying to deal with the fact that approximately three thousand American students drop out of high school each day).

Finally, these many strands are brought together again in a final chapter, “Organizing for Strategy,” which makes important practical proposals for improving the way Washington ought to approach and then deal with these important issues. Such practical proposals range from improvements in various Washington offices (separating the “planning” from the “daily crisis and operations” functions of the National Security Council) to improvements in the larger operations of government (regular consultations between the President and a new “congressional leadership committee”) to improvements in NATO structures (especially to achieve better consultations and harmonization of measures during a period of crisis). Much of this may sound procedural, administrative, bureaucratic almost, in content and form; and so it is. But an effective grand strategy requires both vision and machinery. Mr. Abshire’s schemes therefore merit close reading by Mr. Bush and his team before they become bogged down in inside-the-Beltway politics.

3.

The future of American grand strategy is going to be influenced by many factors, but two, it may be argued, really stand out at this moment. The first is, will the Soviet Union continue the path of reformist, conciliatory policies instituted by Mr. Gorbachev? The second is, will the United States itself take the necessary measures to deal with these worrying fiscal, industrial, technological, and educational trends, which, if they continue, could undermine its wealth and strength over the long term?

The first, concerning the future of the Soviet Union, is not really in American hands; pacifying the ethnic disputes, dealing with the huge problem of Eastern Europe, improving agriculture, and industry, and public health, satisfying the Soviet consumer…these are problems chiefly for the Russian and non-Russian people to settle, however much we outsiders worry about the consequences of failure—or success. One can wish the reformers well, without the naive enthusiasm that has characterized some Western portrayals of Gorbachev; and one can also dismiss those purblind conservatives who assert that perestroika is merely another device in the Soviet armory of deceptive measures. At the moment, Gorbachev seems in charge, and the internal reforms (and external diplomatic gestures) continue. But it is worth recalling that, if he is unseated by some internal coup, this will cause all of Russia’s neighbors, from the Germans to the Chinese, to be more suspicious of Moscow. The “correlation of forces” is still heavily tilted against the Soviet Union internationally.

This suggests that the United States has been given a certain “breathing space” to do a number of the things proposed by Mr. Abshire: to improve the organization of American strategy inside the administration, with the Congress, with the public, and with major allies; to improve arrangements within NATO, both military and political; to evolve a coherent policy toward the third world and the Pacific powers; above all, to carry out a much-needed perestroika at home, which would entail closing the federal budget deficit, evolving a coherent policy on technology, pushing for radical improvements in the public-school system, and changing the tax laws to encourage a higher savings rate.

But the problem of having a “breathing space” is that one feels much less under pressure to change things—which brings us back, finally, to the example of late-Victorian Britain. It was not the case that the British, in their long decades of “relative decline,” constantly staggered from one crisis to the next. On the contrary, there were periods of relative tranquillity, during which an old enemy was reconciled (e.g., Russia after 1907) or broad international agreements were reached (e.g., the Washington Conference Treaties of 1921–1922). When that happened, the tendency was to go back to “business as usual,” to dismiss those pressing for structural reforms as alarmists, to prefer laissez-faire policies, to enjoy their absolute prosperity without worrying about the relative erosion of their productivity and wealth. The harsh confrontation with reality was thereby postponed for another decade, another generation.

Today, with Gorbachev in power in the Soviet Union, with China bent upon getting rich, strong alliances continuing with Europe and Japan, and with a variety of regional conflicts being resolved and continued American prosperity (however precariously funded), the United States may be entering just such a “breathing space.” If there is some shrinking in the merchandise-trade deficits, and an agreement with Congress to make a minor dent in the federal deficits, it would not be surprising to discover another outbreak of mindlessly optimistic proclamations that all is well from, say, The Wall Street Journal‘s leader-writers. In such circumstances, it may be difficult for the genial, eager-to-please Mr. Bush to avoid repeating that policy—or rather, nonpolicy—of Victorian Britain, which one of its leaders admitted consisted of nothing more than “drifting lazily downstream, putting out the boathook to avoid an occasional collison.” It is a pleasant entertainment, on a Sunday afternoon, but not the best long-term strategy for the number one world power.

Letters

What to Do about Decline? June 15, 1989

What to Do about Decline? June 15, 1989

  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.

  7. 7

    See, for example, W.W. Kaufmann, A Reasonable Defense (Brookings Institution Press, 1986); and his new analysis, “A Defense Agenda for Fiscal Years 1990–1994,” in J.D. Steinbruner, ed., Restructuring American Foreign Policy (Brookings Institution Press, 1989).

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