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Fin-de-Siècle America

The Myth of America’s Decline: Leading the World Economy into the 1990s

by Henry R. Nau
Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $29.95

America’s Economic Resurgence: A Bold New Strategy

by Richard Rosecrance
Harper and Row, 230 pp., $22.50

Peril and Promise: A Commentary on America

by John Chancellor
Harper and Row, 176 pp., $17.95

Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power

by Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Basic Books, 307 pp., $19.95


Of all the difficulties facing the historian in his task of understanding and describing the past, none can be greater than that of emphatically recreating the popular “mood” attending any particular event or period. For example, in describing the Europe of 1914, it may be relatively easy for the historian to detail the day-by-day diplomatic moves, or to analyze the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each of the European armies and navies, or to scrutinize manufacturing output and commercial relations. All of these tangible aspects of history have left records—not perfect, to be sure, but usually adequate—in the form of letters, instructions, and statistical data from which reasonable conclusions may be drawn. In other words, we can historically know the structure of Anglo-German trade in 1914, just as we can know what telegrams entered and left the French Foreign Ministry.

Yet to know with any degree of accuracy the “mood” of European societies on the eve of the First World War is altogether more challenging, not because documentation (such as diaries, reminiscences, police reports, press accounts) is missing, but because the evidence is contradictory and confusing. One segment of society appears optimistic, another pessimistic, about the future. Some pressure groups urge the resort to war, others agitate for peace. One year’s best seller, Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, showing the folly of war, is succeeded by another, General Bernhardi’s Germany and the Next War, arguing that conflict was both inevitable and desirable. The art, music, and literature of the period also reflect different feelings, from a contentment with nature to angry rebellion, from satisfaction to a sense of impending doom. And many people, including powerful political figures,1 seem themselves to have oscillated frequently between moods of hope and de spair, between activism and fatalism. Despite brilliant efforts by historians to “recover” the atmosphere of 1914,2 we remain—and must remain—uncertain what it was really “like” then.

If that is true of past epochs, will not the same uncertainties and confusions attend the historian of the future who seeks to describe the mood of the United States as it enters the final decade of this century? Such a historian might at first conclude that in 1990 there was much for the nation to be optimistic about. There was a positive, upbeat president in office, achieving record popularity in the opinion polls. Notwithstanding the national debt and deficit, the economy continued into its seventh year of expansion. New cars, new consumer goods, new gadgets, were announced every day. Breakthroughs in science and technology and medicine occurred, seemingly with unstoppable regularity. Abroad, major improvements had taken place: the Soviet Union was in deep difficulties, democracy had “broken out” in Eastern Europe and was steadily gaining in South Africa and Latin America, the cold war was winding down, arms-reduction talks were accelerating, the “peace dividend” was already being anticipated. Triumphalists like George Gilder and the leader writers of The Wall Street Journal were in a happy frame of mind, which will be noted in the historical record.

So far, so good. But how is our historian of the future to reconcile these signs of optimism with the contradictory evidence suggesting that there simultaneously existed in the nation a mood of anxiety, a sense that things were not as they once were (or as they should be), an apprehension about the future, and fear of the direction society was taking—along with what conservative columnist George Will calls “a gnawing, growing sense that savagery and second-ratedness are increasing in America”?3 The same public-opinion polls that register popular satisfaction with the Bush presidency also reveal a generation that, for the first time ever, believes that its children will have harder, not easier, lives.

It is not difficult to point to the reasons for the widespread national angst. In international affairs, the drop in cold war tensions has caused a reduction in the value many people put on military power—which is not only bad news for the Pentagon and the defense industry, but has the more general effect of reducing the significance of the one measure of national power in which the United States had a clear advantage over other countries. Now, instead of the relative simplicity of military rivalry with the Soviet Union, there are the complications of the technological and manufacturing challenge of Japan, the prospective unification of Europe, and with deep global changes (in the environment, or in shifts in the demographic balances) over which the United States government has little control. Op-Ed writers and opposition politicians angrily denounce the “marginalization” of America in world affairs, a charge that the White House resents but finds difficult to shrug off.

In domestic affairs, the anxieties seem even deeper. Although the national economy continues to grow, there are marked regional disparities; key industries, such as the auto industry, are reeling under Japanese competition; an overhang of bad debt and other financial uncertainties clouds the financial market; the volatility in the stock markets, and in foreign-exchange dealings, points both to investor unease and to the nation’s fiscal fragility. More unnerving still, it is asserted, is the evidence of widespread social decay. America’s schoolchildren appear to lag behind those in other advanced societies in almost every branch of learning—mathematics, natural sciences, foreign languages, geography; indeed, the art of learning itself seems depreciated in a youth culture (and a broader “public culture”) obsessed by consumerism, sports activities, and television trivia. Every day the press brings fresh tales of homicide, shoot-outs, drug dealing. Naive citizens, driving around with “America Number One” stickers on their front bumpers are being warned (again, by Mr. George Will) that:

Nineteen nations have better infant mortality rates than the United States. The infant death rate in Japan is less than half the US rate…. The infant death rate in the nation’s capital, and in Detroit and Baltimore, is humiliatingly close to a Third World rate. It is higher than in Jamaica and Costa Rica. The rate among black American babies is worse than among Hungarian and Polish babies. Nothing that happens in Bangladesh should be as interesting to Americans as the fact that a boy born in Harlem today has a lower life expectancy than a boy born in Bangladesh.4

These facts do not make comfortable reading now, and when they are unearthed by the historian in fifty years’ time they may appear just as distressing, and just as difficult to recon-cile with the more upbeat sounds ofthis generation. Perhaps the future scholar will be driven to the conclusion that the fin-de-siècle United States was exhibiting an acute national form of split personality…?

It is, I think, in this public mood torn between optimism and pessimism that one is going to have to place the many books now being published which deal with American “decline,” America’s “future,” American “competitiveness,” and so on. I say “I think” because, speaking as someone who has been recently swept into the center of this debate by the controversy over my book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, I clearly find it hard to be objective about the subject. Nevertheless, as a historian and social observer, I cannot help being intrigued by the meaning of such an out-pouring of books and articles about the American condition.5 Clearly, something has happened to the public consciousness since the Second World War. Clearly, too, the change has been toward pessimism, suggesting a growing national unease. One is reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that a strong man does not worry about his body; only when he feels he is weakening does he begin to talk a lot about his health. 6

The four books under review, while differing in many ways, all represent the “second wave,” or “counterwave” in the continuing flood of publications. The authors of the first wave (including myself) have been described, by Professor Sam Huntington and others, as “declinists.”7 Whether it is a fair description of all the writers lumped into that category may be set aside, at least for the moment; what is important is they are understood to have argued that the United States is in trouble (“decline”) and that its position relative to the rest of the world will—inevitably or probably, depending upon the hard or soft version of the thesis—continue to get worse.

This second wave of authors might perhaps best be described as “revivalists.” They are not purblind optimists, but they believe either that the talk of America’s “decline” has gone too far or that, while things are indeed wrong, they can be corrected so that (and this is the critical issue for them) the United States can still remain “Number One.” Their task is, first, to modify the “declinist” argument, either by suggesting it is exaggerated or, at the least, that the process of decline is reversible (to paraphrase the Habsburg military, they feel that the situation is ernst, aber nicht hoffnungslos—serious, but not hopeless); and, secondly, to identify those measures that may lead to an improvement in the American condition.

The first of these works, Henry R. Nau’s The Myth of America’s Decline, is not only the most scholarly in its detail, technical apparatus, and references but, paradoxically, possesses a title that most disguises its many themes. (Perhaps the publisher thought that a book with “American Decline” in its title would attract more reviews, and sales.) The book is not, in fact, a frontal attack upon the “declinist” argument but a sober and detailed analysis of American economic policies since the early 1940s, particularly in the management of international economic affairs. This is not to imply that Mr. Nau’s book is simply an economic history of the “Bretton Woods policy” and its collapse, for amid his mass of detail lies a strong and clear theme. It is worth noting here that, before his present position on the faculty of George Washington University, Mr. Nau served the Reagan administration in the formulation of its international economic policies, an experience which he still regards in a positive if not uncritical spirit.

At the heart of Mr. Nau’s book lies a simple claim: that ideas, policies, and “purpose” are much more important in moving the world forward—or in bringing it to a halt—than are institutional structures and material power. At the end of World War II, he points out, the United States possessed all the economic power that could be desired and had set up a basic structure, at least in theory, for international cooperation: the “Bretton Woods policy.” But it was not until 1947 or so, stimulated by the Communist threat, that American actions became more purposeful: “containing” the Soviet Union, giving huge amounts of Marshall Plan aid, and pressing for more efficient economic policies by the recipients of that aid. With the external danger held in check, the West (and much of the rest of the world) enjoyed two decades of unprecedented economic growth based upon—in Nau’s words—the “triad” of stable domestic prices, reduction of trade barriers, and only limited governmental interference in the workings of the market.

  1. 1

    See, for example, the many changes of feeling demonstrated by the German Chancellor Theodor von Bethmann-Hollweg, as recorded in the diaries of his personal secretary, Kurt Riezler, in K.D. Erdmann, ed., Kurt Riezler: Tagebücher, Aufsätze, Dokumente (Göttingen: Harald Boldt Verlag, 1972).

  2. 2

    Among the best of which are James Joll, The Origins of the First World War (Longman, 1984), chapter 8; J.J. Becker, 1914—Comment les Français sont entrés dans la guerre (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1977).

  3. 3

    George F. Will, “Who Will Stoke the Fires?” Newsweek (April 9, 1990), p. 78.

  4. 4

    George F. Will, “Who Will Stoke the Fires?”

  5. 5

    I might note that on my desk—but not for review here—lie such recent titles as The End of the American Century (Stephen Schlossstein), Can America Compete? (Robert Z. Lawrence), The Overburdened Economy (Lloyd J. Dumas), and a host of others.

  6. 6

    Quoted in G.R. Searle, The Quest for National Efficiency, 1899–1914, 2nd ed. (Humanities Press, 1989).

  7. 7

    There is a summary in S.P. Huntington, “The U.S.—Decline or Renewal?,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Winter 1988–1989), pp. 76–96. See also P. Schmeisser, “Is America in Decline?” The New York Times Magazine (April 17, 1988), pp. 24, 26, 66–68.

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