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.

After 1967, new ideas and policies emerged: the Vietnam War weakened American national purpose, interventionist fiscal and monetary policies undermined the old “triad,” inflation soared, pressure groups scrambled to protect their own interests, and the international economic order (including fixed exchange rates) came tumbling down. As a result, global growth stalled. However, after 1980 the Reagan presidency brought renewed purpose and healthy policies to the force, restored American public morale, encouraged laissez faire at home and abroad, and ushered in a new era of low inflation and revived global prosperity. Alas, Reagan and his team (by 1983, Mr. Nau had left the administration) then failed to follow through on their purposes and policies. They avoided budget cuts, enlarged the deficit, and steadily surrendered leadership to a narrow-minded Congress.

It will have to be left to economic experts to provide a detailed analysis of Mr. Nau’s views about such issues as the ending of fixed exchange rates, the Plaza Accord of 1985 to coordinate monetary policy among the major economic powers to drive down the value of the dollar, and the handling of East-West trade issues. The book makes repeated references to the debate over “decline.” And on this point Mr. Nau is intelligent enough not to deny that some degree of relative economic decline has taken place; he also offers two consoling thoughts. The first is that, since it was human failure (i.e., the lack of intelligent “purpose and policy”) rather than inexorable forces that caused the economic problems of the decades after 1967, human successes (i.e., the free-market policies he advocates) could well produce a lasting recovery. For that reason, he argues, “America’s decline is a myth,” and all talk of reducing the American presence abroad is dangerous and misconceived.

His second consoling thought, one which has been frequently offered over the past decade by conservatives who are uneasy with the references to relative economic decline, is that the American “way of life” is prevailing across the globe. As Mr. Nau puts it:

America leads today, less by sheer size of resources and dominance of international institutions, than by its domestic purposes and procedures, which are widely admired and increasingly emulated around the world. In short, America leads by knowing what it stands for politically and by getting its own house in order economically. The choiceoriented ideas of assertive, but tolerant, national purpose and market-oriented, but equitable, domestic policies are more relevant today than ever before, precisely because America has less relative power to lead by other means. Either America will lead by democratic example and market initiative, or it will follow increasingly the purposes and policies of other countries.

Etc., etc., etc. This way of arguing is so common, and so important, a feature of the “revivalist” argument that I will return to it later in this review. For the moment, let me conclude that The Myth of America’s Decline is (despite its title) a learned and important contribution to the scholarly debate on the conduct of United States and international economic policies over the past half century, and well worth one’s plowing through.

The same is true of Richard Rosecrance’s book America’s Economic Resurgence, his most recent contribution to the “decline” versus “revival” debate. A few years ago, Mr. Rosecrance published an excellent book, The Rise of the Trading State, which argued that while the Soviet Union and the United States were devoting their attention and energies to a mutually ruinous arms race, the world was witnessing the growth of successful, commercially driven societies (Japan, Taiwan, etc.) that eschewed military power in favor of manufacturing and trade. In many ways, that placed Mr. Rosecrance in the “declinist” camp, as did certain other writings of his; he is, after all, the editor of America as an Ordinary Country,8 whose very title has caused apoplexy in some political circles. In this latest work, however, he is a “revivalist,” albeit one with an unusual line of argument.

To begin with, Mr. Rosecrance is willing both to admit that the United States has lost ground to foreign competition, economically, technologically, and commercially, over the past few decades, and to express the fear that continuation of that relative decline could lead to its occupying a second-class, and dependent, position—dependent, that is, upon the whims of a supremely successful Japan. But most of his book is a complicated discourse on what he terms “the preconditions of resurgence”; in other words, his interest is not so much in why nations decline (although he has much of say on the topic), as in how they recover. Borrowing widely from various historical periods, he sets out the “preconditions” for reversing the trends. The list he offers will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the debate over America’s future: reduce the federal deficit, raise educational standards, increase national savings and the overall levels of investment in research and development, curb the obsession of American businessmen and financiers with short-term profits at the cost of long-term market shares, divert resources from external military requirements to internal needs, and so on.

It is also a list very close to that offered by the popular NBC Nightly News commentator, John Chancellor, in his contribution to the debate. Perhaps because it is written by someone outside academic life, Peril and Promise is much more forthright than the other three books reviewed here. Mr. Chancellor willingly confesses that his book was written

in anger and frustration in the autumn of 1989 and the winter of 1990, as the United States continued to demonstrate an inability to manage its affairs.

A relatively short book, it summarizes clearly the ways in which American politics, economy, education, and technology are felt to be defective, or at risk. It is particularly critical of the follies of the Reagan administration, its easy choices, reckless economics, breezy disregard of longstanding problems, and patriotic rhetoric in place of hard decisions. Because of “The Reagan Enchantment,” Mr. Chancellor feels, there occurred a further eight years of neglect, leaving a legacy of false optimism. The only answer is for the nation immediately “to get to work” by pushing through reforms in the electoral process, accepting higher taxes, cutting entitlements, reducing the defense budget, supporting technology, and…and…and….

To both these books, one might pose the question, Why should these transformations take place, when Wall Street shows no sign of changing its bad habits, the budget-reduction process remains gridlocked, Japan continues to outpace the United States in R&D spending, etc.? Mr. Chancellor, who describes himself as a “frightened optimist,” would reply that Americans simply have to improve, otherwise “the country will slide downhill and perhaps never regain its primacy in world affairs.”

Mr. Rosecrance’s reply is more interesting, although it is split in two. Reforms and renewals are likely, he argues, because the American economy is much more integrated into the international economy than was the case sixty or even forty years ago, Facing intense competition for the international division of capital, labor, and technology, and unable (despite the lessening of cold war tensions) to retreat into isolationism, the United States will be forced to improve itself by the example of, and interaction with, foreign markets, companies, researchers, investors, and entrepreneurs.

This galvanizing process is the more likely, Mr. Rosecrance argues, because the reckoning is coming. In a far too brief discussion of “Scenarios of Crisis” near the end of this book, he forecasts a number of reasons—collapse of the Tokyo Stock Market, third world debt/bank crisis, widening US trade deficit—that could produce a crash. Presumably this makes Mr. Rosecrance also something of a “frightened optimist,” since he is relying upon the psychological effect of financial shocks to provide the answer; as he puts it,

The crisis would be salutary in that it would permit political leaders to act decisively to reform the system.

Yet it seems to this reviewer by no means certain that the deus ex machina of economic recession, higher unemployment, a rise in the federal deficit, increased dependence upon foreign credit, would force the United States to stop behaving like the “Prodigal Son,” or would actually lead to the positive measures of improvement that Mr. Rosecrance advocates. What if it leads in another direction, toward protectionism and economic backlash? And what if there is no “crash” at all, just the slow, steady hemorrhaging of American industry, the gradual takeover of US assets by foreign companies, the continued mediocrity of the educational system, poor rates of productivity, an economy whose GNP grew, year after year, but at only half the rate of the economic growth in Japan, a united Germany, China, and other states? As one economist reminded us a few years ago,

It is hard to imagine, but a country whose productivity growth lags 1 percent behind other countries over one century can turn, as England did, from the world’s indisputed industrial leader into the mediocre economy it is today.9

This analogy leads us to the attempt in Joseph Nye’s weighty book Bound to Lead to demonstrate that the United States today is not like earlier declining great powers (and especially not like Edwardian Britain). There is, of course, more to Mr. Nye’s work than that. Indeed, he has brought together in this study all conceivable reasons why the “decline” thesis is exaggerated, and why the United States will continue to play the major role in world affairs in the coming decades, perhaps the coming century. The book is, like Mr. Nye himself, judicious, reasonable, and thoughtful. It has been endorsed by a long list of well-known figures in public life, almost to the point where the commendations on the dust jacket speak in a single voice: “Joe Nye refuses to join the doomsayers” (Paul Volcker); “A timely and forceful response to the doomsayers who have proclaimed the inevitability of America’s alleged decline” (Zbigniew Brzezinski); “A refreshing break with the doom and gloom of the prophets of the inevitability of decline” (François Heisbourg). Even the reviewer in The Wall Street Journal, a paper which probably differs with Mr. Nye on most political issues, breathes a sigh of relief10—the nation is saved at last!

It is, of course, a caricature to describe Mr. Nye’s book as the “answer” to the declinist thesis, but that will not prevent it from being referred to as such, especially by those who will not read it but would like to keep up with the latest intellectual fashion. Life is, after all, too busy—especially for politicians, bankers, journalists, and Washington pundits—to sit and read a book from cover to cover when a couple of reviews have told you all you need to know about it. Just as it was evident (without reading it) that The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was about “the inevitability of America’s alleged decline” (sic), so it will be equally evident that Bound to Lead demonstrates the “inevitable” continued leadership of the United States.

In fact, Mr. Nye’s book is much more cautious in its predictions. Like the other authors under review, he is aware of American weaknesses, and in an entire chapter (Chapter 7, “Domestic Challenges”) he goes through the usual gamut of problems: productivity, education, research and development, political sclerosis. In all of these matters, Mr. Nye takes pains to point to the weak points as well as the strong points in the American system, and each section here concludes in schoolmasterly tones: “To remain ahead, the United States will have to improve its productivity”; “Increased competitiveness will require more efforts…”; “Greater efforts will have to be made to raise the skills of [immigrants] without education…”; and so on. Who could disagree?

Preceding that chapter is a much more lengthy and original discourse, “Power in the Past” (Part I), which is followed by a survey of “New Challengers?” (Part II) to America’s leading position. Part II is the easier both to understand and to describe. Mr. Nye here seeks to prove, in logical fashion, why neither the large Communist nations of the Soviet Union and China, nor such flourishing allies of the US as Japan and the European Community, come close to the United States in the composite of military and economic power—so that, even if there has been a “relative decline” in the American world position, there is no other obvious contender to become Number One. Thus the Soviet Union has large military forces but a collapsing domestic structure, Japan is impressive economically but unable to play a world role, and so on. Here, too, there is some consoling reading for most Americans—who may miss the larger point that, since a diffusion of power is leading more and more to a multipolar international system, spotting the next “Number One” is something of an intellectual red herring.11

Mr. Nye’s chapters on historical power (“Power in the Past”) are much less predictable and the more interesting for that. Using impressive tables, statistics, and references to existing scholarship, he discourses with great lucidity upon the general problem of “power transitions,” the dubious utility of historical analogies (especially that of the United States and Britain), and the nature of the post-1945 balance of power. The twofold purpose of this section is to prove (a) that the United States in the twentieth century has occupied a far larger place in world affairs than Britain in the nineteenth, and (b) that while the United States was neither as all-powerful nor as influential during the decade or so after the Second World War as is commonly assumed, so also has it not declined as precipitously since that time as the “declinists” portray.

The most original section of Bound to Lead is Mr. Nye’s discussion in Part III of whether “Power” itself is not different nowadays from what it was in the time of Bismarck or FDR. It clearly has become more diffuse, partly because the world has become increasingly interdependent and complex, partly because that very traditional form of power—the application of military force—seems less central (even if still important) in the late twentieth century. By contrast, Mr. Nye thinks, the power and influence of ideas, of financial flows, of mass communications and multinational firms, seem more important; and in most of those fields, the United States enjoys clear advantages. By taking encouragement from such strengths while also seeking to rectify existing domestic weaknesses, the country, he thinks, should continue to be the leading power in the world and should ignore “declinist” voices suggesting that the time has come for strategical retrenchment. No other power, either previously or today, is like the United States. No other power can perform its special roles and functions. It is, therefore, “bound to lead,” as the ambiguous title suggests.

Nye’s book is as useful a portrayal of things from the antideclinist viewpoint as one can imagine, and will be much referred to in future debates upon this topic. His study, like the other three books under review, begs certain larger questions which will be raised later here. More specifically, Bound To Lead runs the risk of inducing complacency among its readership, not because it claims “all is well” but because in analyzing the problems facing the United States it gives off such an air of sober and balanced scholarship that at first sight it is likely to persuade the reader that the situation is not too bad: worth concern, of course, but not alarming.

One of the reasons for this sense of relative complacency derives from the difficulties of unraveling statistical indicators of relative economic power over time. Thus, if it can be proven that things are roughly the same as they were in father’s—or grandfather’s—time, we surely ought not to get alarmed. The present debate offers nice examples of this sort of statistical quibbling. Mr. Nye and everyone else agree that any comparison of the US present share of total world GNP with that of 1945 would be erroneous because the special conditions that attended the close of World War II made that American share “artificially high.” In many of his tables Mr. Nye prefers the comparison year of 1938, which allows him to argue that America’s share today is roughly the same as it was before the Second World War: therefore, why be concerned? Yet that selection has its own problems, since the 1937-1938 depression (from which the rest of the world escaped) plunged American manufacturing and overall output to an “artificially” low level, but only for that particular year. Perhaps Mr. Nye was unaware of the fact; or perhaps the 1938 figures—rather than, say, the 1928 figures—are preferred because they don’t seem so dramatically different from those showing the American share of world product in the 1970s and 1980s.

Another statistical device that obscures rather than assists our attempts to measure relative economic change (“rise” and “fall”) over time is the recent switch by most American institutions, such as the CIA, to measuring comparative GNPs in terms of “purchasing power parities” rather than current exchange rates. Such a use of statistics occurs in different parts of Mr. Nye’s book (pages 11 and 109, for example), and at first sight the tables look both impressive and authoritative: but if they were expressed by the earlier method, things would look different: the Japanese GNP, at current exchange rates, may be close to 60 percent of the size of the American economy, but that is nicely “trimmed down” to 40 percent by measuring purchasing power parities. Similarly, the per capita income in the United States has fallen behind that of various countries (Switzerland, Japan) by the first measure, but still remains ahead by the other. Clearly, the solution is to employ both measures, since each of them possesses advantages and disadvantages in conveying statistical information; but it should come as no surprise to learn that the antideclinists prefer the measure that shows the United States in a more favorable light.

Whether one believes this matters depends very much upon one’s obsession about being “Number One” and about “relative decline.” In the view of Herbert Stein (whose Wall Street Journal articles always prefer the “most favorable light” statistics), this argument

is a distraction from our real problem, which is not to get richer than someone else or to get richer faster than someone else but to be as good as we can be, and better than we have been, in the areas of our serious deficiencies, such as homelessness, poverty, ignorance and crime.12

Amen to that; but that is not a ground upon which most of the antideclinist circles in this country wish to stand and fight.

The other possible weakness in Mr. Nye’s presentation concerns his comforting argument that in the newer, nonmilitary measures of power the United States occupies an incontestable position: that, to use his terms, it has the “ideological and institutional resources to retain its leading place in the new domains of transnational interdependence.” That may have been the case twenty years ago: but is it so certain nowadays, in a period when the US has become the globe’s largest international debtor, where none of its banks are in the world “top ten,” where its technical and scientific universities are being penetrated month by month by foreign (chiefly Japanese) investment, when the Patents Office annually reports a shift in the percentages of patents claimed by Hitachi, Mitsui, Sony, and other Japanese companies, where the biggest expansion by multinational corporations seems to be that orchestrated in Europe and Japan, and when development aid to Eastern Europe or South-East Asia comes primarily from Bonn and Tokyo?

In this reviewer’s mind, there even lingers a doubt about the proud assertion that English is becoming the undisputed Weltsprache. Assuming that one is really referring to the increasing dominance of English in political, diplomatic, and scientific exchanges (and not the fantastical idea that it will replace Urdu, Basque, and Swahili down in the village), one might well ask the question: In a world in which some of its businessmen, scientists, and diplomats know only one language—English—and others know both it and a second language, who is the better equipped to deal with global complexities and cross-cultural misunderstandings? There is such a thing as linguistic arrogance to complement cultural or ideological arrogance.


Despite these reservations, I have tried to describe the arguments in these books as fairly as I can, and in some detail, because it seems to me that their subject is historically important as well as one that clearly fascinates intellectuals and politicians seeking to understand the events of the final decade of our century. Readers themselves will have to decide just how convinced they are by the arguments advanced by Messrs. Nau, Rosecrance, Chancellor, and Nye. (Incidentally, apart from Susan Strange in London, no women appear to be taking part in the debate:13 Is “power” still an exclusively male intellectual preserve?) In all too many cases, one suspects that minds will have been made up even before the evidence here is examined. Those who hate the very idea of American “decline” will welcome these publications; those who are convinced the nation is in deep trouble will be unconvinced by their homilies about “the need to improve competitiveness”; and those confused by the earlier arguments will probably not have their views settled by additional facts. This is, after all, a classic example of a debate in which one expert can assemble (seemingly impressive) evidence for “decline,” whereas another expert can produce (apparently equally impressive) evidence for “revival.”

Just how will this all appear to the historian of the year 2040—or to a Martian visitor passing through today? What will impress them about the mood of the nation in the last decade of the century?

The future historian, or Martian visitor, may be less struck by the arguments themselves over economic statistics and trends than by the fact that this debate is taking place at all. If one leaves aside the extreme triumphalists on the one hand and the “we are in terminal decline” cultural pessimists on the other, the disagreement over decline may actually be much more one of degree than of kind. To put it crudely, certain writers are claiming that the “container” of American world power is now half empty; others that it is half full. Virtually everyone seems to agree that the present position of the United States in world affairs has changed from that of 1945, even if there is disagreement over how far it has changed, and what that change implies. Virtually everyone also agrees in being concerned about the sorry condition of American public education, technology, inner cities, financial system, the lower ratios of savings to consumption, although once again there is disagreement about the means needed to reverse those trends. The “half empty” school inclines to believe that a further diminution will occur. The “half full” school (in Mr. Nye’s case, we might say the “two thirds full” school) inclines toward believing that much of the decrease was natural, that the level has now stabilized, and that there are prospects for that level being maintained indefinitely if certain reforms are undertaken.

While each camp will continue to quarrel over the statistical evidence, the significant historical fact is that this debate not only is occurring but is such a protracted one. So many publications about American decline simply would not have occurred during, say, the Eisenhower years because there would have been no cause for concern. Again Chesterton’s remark that people only talk about their health when they become worried about it applies, for despite Mr. Nye’s innumerable efforts to prove that the United States today is not like Great Britain around 1900,14 there are uncanny echoes in post-Reagan America of the Edwardians’ concern about “national efficiency.”15 In that case, too, any later historian has to be struck by the contradictory moods of assertiveness mingling with anxiety, of robust self-confidence and profound despair.

Two final remarks are worth making about the antideclinist argument. The first can be dealt with briefly, and returns us to the issue of ethnocentricity—most clearly seen in the argument that, even if the United States’ material share of global product is nowadays less than it was forty years ago, the “American idea” is now conquering the globe. In the words of the dust jacket of The Myth of American Decline: “America’s power has declined since 1945, yet America’s democratic purposes are more widely emulated in the world today than ever before…” etc., etc.

That this claim is made with special emphasis by the ideological right is curious when one thinks of the traditional conservative preference for the harder measures of power—or, as Bismarck would have put it, for “blood and iron”—rather than such intangibles as culture and ideas. It is also, clearly, a form of psychological consolation: “We may not bestride the world, but everyone seeks to emulate our system.”16 The real problem with this claim is that the democratic freedoms that are being regained in Eastern Europe, or gained for the first time ever in parts of the third world, are no more American than they are French or Norwegian or Australian; they are, rather, within the rich Western heritage that began with the Greeks and made its way via the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, parliamentary reform acts, Enlightenment thought, and led to the twentieth century. We may all rejoice that the Poles and Czechs are free; but let us not fool ourselves that such a breakthrough gives special advantages to the United States over, say, the European Community or Japan.

A second problem with the triumphalists’ claim that “The American idea” is carrying the world by storm is that it produces a frightening cultural arrogance, which in turn makes it more difficult to understand foreign perceptions of the United States. One particularly grotesque example of this arrogance, by the conservative Michael Novak, recently appeared in Forbes magazine:

In Central Europe and in Central America—even in the U.S.S.R.—ordinary people and even intellectuals seem to want a system like ours. Suddenly, they seem to love all things American…. [Ours is] a noble national experience,…the most universally attractive of our era….

Which part of the world does not feel U.S. influence today?…. A democratic republic built on checks and balances and respectful of individual rights; an innovative and free capitalist economy; and an open and pluralistic culture—the influence of American ideas has never been greater around the world in this age of instantaneous and universal communication….

And the only thing wrong with this tale of victory, in Mr. Novak’s view, is that “declinist” intellectuals have “unforgivably damaged our national morale….”17

Ironically, just as I was pondering on Mr. Novak’s philippic, another article was brought to my attention. It was composed for New Perspectives Quarterly by M. Jacques Attali, who is the chief adviser to President François Mitterrand and has just been named as the president of the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Although his article is about global trends, it is his remarks upon the American condition that are pertinent here:

The signs of America’s relative decline are converging and unquestionable. Japanese productivity is increasing at three times the US rate while European productivity increases at twice the US rate. Traditional consumer items once associated with American industrial strength, like television sets or cars, are no longer produced competitively for export…the growing US commercial deficit accompanies the shrinkage of the American role in the global economy…. In the US, the state itself hasn’t sufficient resources for the maintenance of the once admirable American education system, for health care or for control of the drug trade and other crime. Infrastructure, especially in the Eastern US, verges on the decrepit…. Sadly for America, it has already fallen to a secondary position behind Japan—from the most basic activity of economic life to the most advanced. America has become Japan’s granary, like Poland was for Flanders in the 17th century. More land in America is devoted to agricultural production destined for Japanese mouths than the entire land surface of Japan. Japanese savings already help pay the salaries of Washington’s civil servants through financing the deficit. American universities are largely forming the scientific cadre of its principal economic rival….

It is improbable that these trends will be reversed because they are rooted in a fundamental cultural ethos which has come to dominate late 20th-century America: the cult of the immediate. America today seems to be a nostalgic nation, lacking foresight and turned sadly inward out of resentment over its diminishing weight in the world. This more than any economic dissertation, explains the present American malady. 18

The gap between Novak’s uncritically rosy account of America’s world role, and Attali’s bleak and dismissive portrait is so enormous that it is almost funny—except, of course, that these mutual misperceptions are themselves worrying. Even if one feels that Attali’s views are too pessimistic, the more important issue is, how widely are they shared in Europe, and Asia, and elsewhere? And how will Americans understand that attitude if they wear Novak’s cultural blinkers, or—in a much more moderate way—if their contacts with foreigners are relatively limited? Professors Nye and Huntington both enjoy quoting the opinions of their Tokyo colleague, Seizaburo Sato, that Japan does not possess an attractive world culture, plus his further claim that “The twentieth century was the American Century. The twenty-first century will be the American century.”19 But neither of them appear to have inquired about the Japanese distinction between tatemae (polite-speak: what you think your listener wants to hear) and honne (speaking the truth). This may be contrasted with the considerable evidence that an increasing number of Japanese agree with the criticism of American policies and culture expressed in the Ishihara and Morita book, The Japan That Can Say ‘No.’20 But how will American decision makers be able to grasp the variety of attitudes that foreigners display toward the United States—and to assess how widely (or narrowly) held are the views of Messrs. Attali and Ishihara—if they go around making Novakian claims about being in “the most universally attractive” society in the world? All this reminds one of the many classical authors who warned that the greatest cause for the decline of empires was hubris.

The final remark concerns determinism or, better still, historical inevitability. If there is one thing that the four writers under review stress above everything else, it is that America is free to determine its future and that political willpower is decisive:

The debate about America’s purpose and policy—how it is conducted and how it is resolved—is the most important element of America’s power in the postwar world…. America’s decline is a myth;…it ignores the choices that America still has to reaffirm its own purposes and rejuvenate its own power.


A new crisis leadership, either in Congress or the executive, could produce a sea change in attitudes and create an entirely new climate of opinion—one that would welcome change and instill greater social cooperation to find a solution to the American predicament.


America’s present inadequacies are not the inevitable product of the ebb and flow of history. They are problems created by drift and inattention, which can be solved by work and dedication…. The job will require sacrifice and commitment, leadership and plain talk, and a renovation of some American institutions.


The critical question is whether [the United States] will have the political leadership and strategic vision to convert [its] power resources into real influence…. The United States remains the largest and richest power with the greatest capacity to shape the future. And in a democracy, the choices are the people’s.


The references to “free will,” “choices,” “willpower,” and “leadership” are accompanied by the information that the authors reject the notion of inevitable decline, that they don’t “believe there are ineluctable forces pushing the United States into decline,” and so on and so on.

The chorus is interesting—as much for the state of mind it displays as for anything else—but it seems to me to miss the point. Part of the reason may be that none of the four authors, although each has had an impressive career, has been trained as a professional historian. If they had been, they might have taken account of two related facts. The first is that, in all previous great powers that were engaged in a national debate about “decline”—early seventeenth-century Spain, for example, or Edwardian Britain—there was at the time a widespread argument that their decline was not inevitable, and that the country could hold its own, or reassert itself, provided that there was enough “vision,” “willpower,” “leadership,” and the rest. One of the greatest ironies of the current debate is that many of the people who hate the very notion of “decline” and insist that the American case is different from previous examples have no idea that exactly the same argument was advanced in those earlier societies. The fall of the British Empire, the revivalists of 1900 insisted, was not inevitable. Nor did it seem inevitable then, for such voices occupied a similar position to the revivalists of today, believing that the future was open.

And so, indeed, is the future for America in 1990 open, just as it was for the British Empire in 1900. This brings us to the second point, about the very use of the terms “inevitable” or “ineluctable.” As E.H. Carr once observed,

Historians, like other people, sometimes fall into rhetorical language and speak of an occurrence as “inevitable” when they mean merely that the conjunction of factors leading one to expect it was overwhelmingly strong…. In practice, [however] historians do not assume that events are inevitable before they have taken place. They frequently discuss alternative courses open to the actors in the story, on the assumption that the option was open, though they go on quite correctly to explain why one course was eventually chosen rather than the other. Nothing in history is inevitable, except in the formal sense that, for it to have happened otherwise, the antecedent causes would have had to be different.21

In 1900, in other words, the fall of the British Empire was possible but not inevitable, because it had not yet taken place; only in 1947, or 1967, was it inevitable, a fait accompli. Similarly, in 1990, there is no “inevitable” future for the United States; it may incur further relative decline, it may maintain its present position for a period, it may perhaps even enhance its position—for a while. The real debate at the moment is over how to interpret what Carr termed “the conjunction of factors.” Presumably the declinists see little or nothing occurring to persuade them that the United States is going to deal with the problems that have led to the erosion of its relative position, whereas the revivalists place hope in the possibility that American politicians and their public can be stimulated into recovery.

But the fact is that no one knows what the outcome will be, for the only generalization that can safely be made about the future is that history does not stand still.22 To label the school of decline “determinist” or “inevitabilist”—unless it can be shown that someone has openly claimed that the position of the United States is bound to deteriorate, and that nothing at all can prevent that deterioration—is both a misuse of the English language and a misunderstanding of historical method. What is being discussed here are probabilities.

This brings us back to the political dimension of the problem, more particularly, to the political capacity and political purpose of leaders in Washington to institute the reforms that are being called for in these books. As for their capacity, it ought to be honestly asked whether the much vaunted American Constitution, deep-frozen in the late-eighteenth century when “checks and balances” were a more important consideration than national efficiency, does not hinder—or nowadays even paralyze—the taking of unpopular but necessary reforms. Elsewhere in the world, matters are often arranged differently. One may or may not admire Mrs. Thatcher’s policies, but if her Conservative administration (with its majority in the House of Commons) decides that it is necessary to raise new taxes, to cut entitlements, to introduce higher educational testing standards, to divert foreign aid from one part of the world to another, then these measures will be implemented. In the event, the measures may not turn out to be very effective, and the government might be heavily punished by the voters at the next election. But at the least, other democratic constitutions—not just Britain’s, but those of France, West Germany, and Australia—do permit governments to govern.

In this country, it may simply be harder to carry out such unpopular but necessary reforms. The division of powers, however attractive in theory, reduces national policy making to a crawl and sometimes to a complete halt. The electoral system comes close to paralyzing decisions every two years (which party will dare propose a Middle East peace settlement, or a tax increase, as a presidential election year approaches?). In Washington itself, politicians are hounded by lobbyists, political action committees and all sorts of other interest groups, all of which, by definition, are prejudiced in respect of this or that proposed reform. In such a system, the rhetoric of reform and good intentions is all too frequently overwhelmed by the actuality of interest-group politics, as can be witnessed by the disputes over the “peace dividend” or the scandal of S&L loans crisis. The electorate itself is poorly served by mass media that constantly simplify complex foreign or domestic policy issues: for the major television networks, time and space for such topics are severely limited, since their raison d’être is chiefly to make money and secure audiences, and only secondarily to inform. Nor are things helped by the still-powerful “escapist” urge in the American social culture, which may be understandable with respect to the nation’s “frontier” past and earlier isolationism but is now a hindrance in dealing with today’s more complex, integrated world and with other cultures and ideologies.

If, then, the central debate is not about determinism but about “the conjunction of factors,” favorable or unfavorable, that will decide America’s future, it seems to this reviewer that the revivalists will have to do better. Expressing pious hopes that the ratios of saving to spending should be increased, or the school year lengthened by an additional fifty days, or federal spending on entitlements cut, is surely insufficient. Is not the reader justified in asking, What evidence is there at the moment that even those changes will occur? Mr. Rosecrance is at least honest enough to suggest that only the shock of a severe economic crisis will galvanize a political and public willingness to institute serious reforms, whereas the other three authors seem to have nothing left in their armory but to call for fresh purpose, vision, willpower, and leadership. That sounds very nice—who could be against such appeals?—but it also has, unwittingly, a very historical echo to it.


Is the US Declining? October 11, 1990

  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.

  8. 8

    Cornell University Press, 1976.

  9. 9

    Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987), p. 446, quoting from The New York Times of April 8, 1984.

  10. 10

    Gregory A. Fossedal, “U.S. Must Lead the Word Into ‘90s” (a review of Bound to Lead), The Wall Street Journal (April 9, 1990)—an article which distinguishes Nye’s work from “Paul Kennedy and the New York Review of Books brigade [who] see a pitiful giant awash in deficits and overcommitments.” Could there be something ideological going on here?

  11. 11

    Which great power, to take a historical example, was “Number One” in 1880, when a multipolar system flourished: Bismarck’s Germany? the British Empire? tsarist Russia? Each of them possessed a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, which is what one might expect in that system—and in a future multipolar system.

  12. 12

    H. Stein, “Who’s Number One? Who Cares?,” The Wall Street Journal (March 1, 1990).

  13. 13

    Susan Strange, States and Markets (Basil Blackwell, 1988); and, more particularly, “The Future of the American Empire,” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 42 (Fall 1988).

  14. 14

    For the latest of these, see Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “The Misleading Metaphor of Decline,” The Atlantic, March 1990, pp. 86–94.

  15. 15

    See again G.R. Searle, The Quest for National Efficiency.

  16. 16

    See again the quotation from page 371 of Nau, quoted in the text above.

  17. 17

    M. Novak. “What Became of the Ugly American?, Forbes (April 30, 1990), p. 120. (I rather like the “unforgivable” part. Aren’t fellow Catholics supposed to forgive each other? I might just as well accuse Mr. Novak of having “unforgivably” heightened American cultural arrogance and ethnocentricism.)

  18. 18

    J. Attali, “Lives on the Horizon: A New Order in the Making,” New Perspectives Quarterly, (Spring 1990), p. 6.

  19. 19

    Nye, Bound to Lead, p. 168; Huntington, “The U.S.—Decline or Renewal?” p. 93.

  20. 20

    Morita Akio and Ishihara Shintaro, The Japan That Can Say ‘No’ (Kobunsha, 1989); reviewed by Ian Buruma in The New York Review (December 7, 1989).

  21. 21

    E.H. Carr, What is History? (Penguin, 1964), p. 96—from Chapter 4, “Causation in History,” which is very appropriate reading for this issue.

  22. 22

    It was in that sense that I made what was (arguably) the only “inevitabilist” sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, when I remarked on page 533 that “it simply has not been given to any one society [in this case, the United States] to remain permanently ahead of all the others, because that would imply a freezing of the differentiated pattern of growth rates, technological advance, and military developments which has existed since time immemorial.” Is that not a reasonable contention?