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Is the US Declining?

In response to:

Fin-de-Siècle America from the June 28, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

After the several flattering remarks Paul Kennedy made about my book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power [NYR, June 28], it might seem uncharitable for me to quarrel with parts of his review. But I do not wish to leave unanswered several impressions he has created.

Professor Kennedy is a fine historian who was lured into some political science in the final chapter of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Fortunately, he seems to have dropped the application of his theory of imperial overstretch to the modern United States where the numbers do not fit the theory. But he does not respond adequately to my criticism of his view that the US share of world GNP has, in his words, “declined much more quickly than it should have over the last few years.” His reply is to criticize my use (following Simon Kuznets) of 1938 as a pre-war comparison. (In fairness, he might have mentioned that I discuss the difficulties he cites in a footnote on page 272 of Bound to Lead, and that his own use of Paul Bairoch’s estimates covers only industry which is much less than total output.) But his focus on 1938 does not rescue his description from the fact that the American share of world product has held constant at about 23 percent for the past decade and a half. Nor is his second point about purchasing power parities telling. If one uses purchasing power parities (which measure what consumers can buy more accurately than current exchange rates do), the US share actually increases slightly in the 1980s. It is odd that he takes me to task for using purchasing power parities on two pages of my book while arguing that “the solution is to employ both measures.” I wonder if he read the discussion in note 12 of Chapter 3 of Bound to Lead where I also conclude that “it is useful to look at the data from both perspectives.”

In other places, I found myself lumped with an anonymous group of revivalists so that paragraphs that started as descriptions of my views slipped into general criticisms of an amorphous category whose views I do not fully share. Professor Kennedy warns against those not trained as professional historians who “have no idea that exactly the same argument was advanced in those earlier societies.” I wonder if he skipped page 12 of Bound to Lead where I quote one of my favorite Yale historians to that effect. Rather than replying to my criticism of his position, Professor Kennedy argues that Bound to Lead may induce complacency not because it claims all is well, but because its “air of sober and balanced scholarship…is likely to persuade the reader that the situation is not too bad.” As scholarly criticism, I find that puzzling.

The United States is a rich country that currently acts poor. Unlike Britain at the turn of the century which was third in size of its economy and its overall military strength, and hardpressed by Imperial Germany on both counts, the United States has more power resources than any other country. Contrary to the popular political saying, the United States lacks the will, not the wallet. It can afford to undertake necessary reforms at home as well as provide international leadership. Some of the same features were true of the United States in the 1920s. Various forces could cause change: external political threats, an economic shock, or generational change of the type described by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Where Professor Kennedy and I agree is that neither decline nor revival is inevitable. Where we disagree, and where the argument of my book holds, is that the conjuncture of forces is not as dire as Professor Kennedy and his fellow declinists have described.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Director, John F. Kennedy
School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Paul Kennedy replies:

I sympathize with Professor Nye’s feeling (expressed in his third paragraph) about being “lumped” with an anonymous group of writers whose views are not always the same although they are regarded by the general public as conveying the same message. There are differences in the four books I reviewed, which is why I attempted to describe their contents separately before commenting upon the “revivalist” position in general. If it’s any consolation—and it may not be much—I’ve spent the past two years wriggling in irritation at being “lumped” with a group of other scholars (as I am in Professor Nye’s final sentence, when he refers to myself and my “fellow declinists”). As for the issue of statistics, I admit that I did not cover all of Professor Nye’s caveats and nuances—just as I did not cover all of the nuances in the other three books reviewed. There was no space for that. But I thought that I was advancing a valid point in calling the reader’s attention to the complexity of making statistical comparisons, especially when so many of today’s agencies prefer to measure internal purchasing-power parities rather than international purchasing-power parities. And I don’t think I was being unfair in stating that, on the whole, Professor Nye’s book reflected a preference for the more favorable measuring account.

One further point deserves comment. In his letter, and in other places (the London Sunday Times, July 22), Professor Nye claims that I have dropped my “theory of imperial overstretch” with respect to the United States. This is misleading on two counts. The first is that, as careful readers of that now-notorious passage in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers noticed, I suggested that the United States “runs the risk of what might roughly be termed ‘imperial overstretch’ “; that is to say, it was heading in that direction if it did not adjust its national priorities and policies. But it was still capable of reducing that risk. The second is that this theory—if it is to be graced with that description—is not about military overspending per se, but about a Great Power’s need to achieve the correct balance between its resources and its obligations. Some Great Powers decline because they overreach themselves militarily (the “German” variant), others because they fail to remain competitive economically (the “British” variant). In either case, a “gap” opens up between resources and obligations, between means and ends, so that, if a future crisis occurs, the country in question finds itself “overstretched.”

Will this happen to the United States? It’s impossible to tell. With the Soviet threat winding down, there’s now a chance of concentrating resources upon America’s own internal weaknesses, as both the revivalists and I propose. The difference between us is that I am somewhat more skeptical about the proposed reforms being implemented. In twenty years’ time (which was what the final chapter of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was really all about), it will be interesting to see how much “revival” or “decline” has taken place.

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