Over the last twenty years, American intellectuals have accused the United States of being imperialistic, arrogant, bellicose, exploitative, brutal, and worse. Now they have added another charge to the list: it is in irreversible decline. Not only is Ronald Reagan a lame-duck President, but the United States is a lame-duck country.
The essential argument is by now familiar: sustainable political and military power depends on economic wealth and technology; for a few decades after World War II, America enjoyed economic supremacy and was able to dominate the world; now that lead has declined sharply and will continue to do so; consequently the United States is overstretched and its political and military power must also decline.
While the assertion of decline usually takes the form of either an accusatory charge or a lament, an underlying note of satisfaction and anticipation is often evident. This is not surprising. For those who have spent much of their lives railing against America’s “arrogance of power,” a diminution of power is a condition for the diminution of “arrogance.”
The decline thesis also has an operational purpose. It is meant to strengthen the case for curtailing the United States’ geopolitical commitments and military strength, to add the authority of inevitability to what has long been urged on ideological and moralistic grounds. The policy prescription attached to the analysis is not that the country should strive to arrest and reverse the decline, but that it should adjust to it.
The main recent inspiration of the decline thesis, and its principal intellectual resource bank, is Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers1 At the beginning of 1988, the New Republic, a practiced and astute spotter (and promoter) of cultural trends, predicted that this book would represent the flavor of the year. On its face it was a bold prediction. A historical study of nearly 700 pages, with 83 pages of notes,2 a 38-page bibliography, and dozens of tables and charts does not often enjoy a vogue. But the instincts of the New Republic‘s editors were sound, and the book has quickly become inescapable. In bestseller lists, op-ed pages, seminars, talk shows, little magazines, and dinner-table conversations it is evident that the decline of America is an idea whose time has come. The October 1987 stock-market plunge shortly before the book appeared only seemed to underline its truth and relevance.
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is an unusual amalgam of history, commentary on the contemporary international scene, analogy, prediction, and theoretical generalization. The straight history, providing a survey of Great Power politics over the last five centuries with particular emphasis on economic and technological matters, occupies the bulk of the book. As might be expected, given the author’s standing as a historian, it is very well done. Kennedy is firmly in control of an astonishing mass of material, has narrative skill, and an excellent eye for the telling fact. (Did you know that in the 18th century, supposedly an age of restrained and ritualistic warfare, Prussia lost half-a-million lives in the Seven Years’ War, out of a population of six million? That in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian empire had to give the mobilization order in fifteen different languages? Or that as a result of World War I the number of separate currencies in Europe increased from fourteen to twenty-seven?)
But the history is not what has made The Rise and Fall a best-seller. Whatever Kennedy intended, the appeal of the book derives from his generalizations about the relation between power and wealth and his application of those generalizations to America. Unfortunately for him and those who look to him for guidance, in this respect the book is much less successful. In fact it is something of a mess.
It becomes apparent as early as the introduction that Kennedy is not sure exactly what it is he wants to maintain. In the first paragraph, the theme of the book is described as “the interaction between economics and strategy” (the author’s emphasis here and elsewhere). A few pages later, however, he writes about “the process of rise and fall among the Great Powers—of differentials in growth rates and technological change, leading to shifts in the global economic balances, which in turn gradually impinge upon the political and military balances. . . .” Now these are two very different statements. The first speaks of interaction, implying not the primacy of any one force but a complex, pluralistic state of affairs in which causation is multi-directional; the second is monistic, asserting a one-directional chain of cause and effect, in which economic and technical factors are primary. The two positions are irreconcilable.
Kennedy is clearly aware that there is some sort of a problem here, but as he wants to hold on to both positions, his repeated efforts to confront the problem necessarily fail. Though he himself is not a Marxist, his dilemma is precisely the one that Marxists have faced over the years in trying to articulate the theory of an economic “foundation” and a political-cultural-ideological “superstructure,” and anyone familiar with their efforts will find a very similar pattern here: a shifting of weight from one leg to the other, a giving followed by a taking back, the evoking of the “long run” or “the last instance” as an escape clause, qualifications followed by qualifications of the qualifications.
Here, for example, is Engels:
According to the materialist conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more. Now when someone comes along and distorts this to mean that the economic factor is the sole determining factor, he is converting the former proposition into a meaningless, abstract, and absurd phrase. . . . We ourselves make our own history, but, first of all, under very definite presuppositions and conditions. Among these are the economic which are finally decisive. But there are also the political, etc. Yes, even the ghostly traditions which haunt the minds of men play a role albeit not a decisive one.
Compare that with Kennedy:
. . . a dynamic for change, driven chiefly by economic and technological developments, which then impact upon social structures, political systems, military power, and the position of individual states and empires. . . . [E]conomic prosperity does not always and immediately translate into military effectiveness, for that depends upon many other factors, from geography and national morale to generalship and tactical competence. Nevertheless, the fact remains that all the major shifts in the world’s military-power balances have followed alterations in the productive balances. . . .
Both writers are responding to the same problem: the hard, more deterministic, one-directional version is required by the thesis but is unsustainable (for who can demonstrate convincingly that everything is reducible to economics?), while the softer, pluralistic version is true but inadequate and banal (for who can dispute that among all the factors at work the economic is extremely important?). The concern to be arresting and interesting draws in one direction; the concern to be true to the evidence, to recognize the autonomy of non-economic forces, in the other. If Kennedy had taken seriously what he says repeatedly about the importance of geography, morale, leadership, political systems, and the rest, he would have had to write a different account of decline, one that explored and assessed the varying weight of those forces in different circumstances, and examined carefully the limitations as well as the importance of the economic factor, as one among many. But that would have been a much more complex and dense study, more in accordance with reality but lacking the dramatic impact and the ideological appeal of what he has in fact written.
This unresolved conflict is the central weakness of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But there are others.
There is, for example, his treatment of the notion of a “balance” between a nation’s defense requirements and commitments, on the one hand, and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments, on the other. Kennedy observes that maintaining such a balance is one of the great tests that challenges the longevity of every major power, and that meeting it is particularly difficult for a “number one” country because of the proliferating demands made on it and challenges launched against it. Sometimes he also presents the balance to be struck as one between “the short-term security afforded by large defense forces” and “the long-term security of rising production and income.”
Now, it is indisputable that balancing is an essential part of making policy. But deciding where and how to strike a balance is a difficult business, involving more than the weighing of arms against resources. In particular, and crucially, it depends on the seriousness of the threat a country faces. If the threat is dire, if there is good reason to believe that an evident weakness will be pounced on and exploited, perhaps decisively, the balance will have to be different from what would be appropriate in a more benign environment, and long-term considerations will have to yield to short-term ones, as a condition for survival. In other words, the proper balance depends on the intentions and capacities of other actors as well as on one’s own material resources.
One of Kennedy’s key terms is “imperial overstretch,” and given that it combines neatly the idea that the U.S. has an “empire” and that military spending should be cut, it is not surprising that it has become one of the book’s most quoted phrases. But he conspicuously fails to speak of the complementary danger of “understretch.” Bearing in mind the performance of the United States and the other major democracies in the period 1918-39, and the consequences that flowed from their disinclination to shoulder the costs of meeting threats in good time—or, for that matter, the burden-sharing delinquency of Japan and some of the West European countries today—“understretch” is surely worthy of attention. For a failure to appreciate the gravity of a threat and to respond appropriately can lead to decline (and worse) even more surely and swiftly than an overlarge military commitment.
Kennedy is able to play down the threat faced by the United States because he does not believe that America’s principal rival, the Soviet Union, poses much of a threat. The overwhelming impression given by his treatment of the Soviet Union is not of a dangerous adversary but of a country beset by problems and debilitated by internal weaknesses. To be sure, here as elsewhere Kennedy covers all bases and enters qualifications that run counter to the main thrust of his analysis (he ends the section with a stern warning that the USSR is not close to collapse). To be sure, too, most of the weaknesses he points to in the Soviet Union—backwardness in the area of high technology, the demographic trends, the nationality problem, and the rest—are real enough.
But his treatment is flawed in two respects. First, he gives no serious account or assessment of the role of ideology in shaping the Soviet Union’s relations with other countries, and therefore no sense of an ambition and hostility that go well beyond what is normal, even for Great Powers. Indeed, the entire book is weak in this respect and it mars the treatment of America as much as it does that of its principal rival. There is as little here about freedom as there is about totalitarian oppression and ambition, and the very occasional attempts to venture into the realm of values and principles are feeble. (At one point the “principles in dispute” between the West and Russia over Europe are described as “self-government versus national security, economic liberalism versus socialistic planning, and so on.”)
Leaving aside any moral consideration of such a “value-free” approach, its intellectual consequences are serious. The numerous comparisons of the United States with imperial Spain and the France of Louis XIV, for example, lose much of their plausibility if one takes into account the differences in value systems involved, in terms of individual freedom, property rights, security and equality under the law, the right to associate, etc.—and what these mean in terms of comparative adaptability, creative energy, and recuperative powers. Ideology also largely explains one other crucial difference between the United States and most of the earlier “number one” powers: the fact that while they were confronted by coalitions of hostile states, the United States leads a grand coalition against its main rival, which all other major powers (even China) consider more alien and threatening.
The second weakness is Kennedy’s treatment of the military strength of the Soviet Union. Here again what he says is superficially balanced, in that he acknowledges its might to be “extremely imposing,” but the overall thrust is to stress the limitations of Soviet power and to downgrade the threat it poses to the West. The emphasis is on Soviet military spending as an obstacle to reform, the technological time-lag from which the Russians suffer, the “nationality problem” in the armed forces, and the undependability of its allies. Kennedy castigates “the curious omissions and provisions which have characterized some of the more alarmist Western assessments” and the “somewhat bloodcurdling” assessments of the U.S. Defense Department; but he is silent about the sins of those who take too sanguine a view of Soviet power. Perhaps he does not think that there are such people. For even on the question of relative conventional strength—where the Warsaw Pact forces enjoy a 2.5:1 advantage in tanks, a 3.7:1 advantage in artillery, and a 5:1 advantage in fighter aircraft—he confesses that he agrees with the optimistic view of those Western analysts who maintain that the Warsaw Pact’s preponderance “is not a very comforting one” for Moscow. Most of those tanks, he thinks, “would simply clog up the roads.”3
If Kennedy plays down the military threat from the Soviet Union, he is equally concerned to play up the growing economic challenge from the Pacific, particularly China and Japan, and from the countries of the European Economic Community (EEC) collectively. In his view, a “pentarchy” of powers already exists. Yet while it is surely right to acknowledge the rapid economic growth of these other countries and its potential significance in political terms, this seems somewhat premature. The overall superiority of the United States, and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union, in power terms is still immense and sets them apart. And the problems the others face in order to catch up are formidable: China’s history over the last forty years is characterized by an inability to hold a steady course for any length of time, which makes it dangerous to extrapolate from recent growth rates; Japan’s geographical and resource base is so slight, and its inhibitions about taking on the role of a great power once again so strong, that for some considerable time the problem is going to be to persuade it to assume responsibilities, rather than to cope with its political assertiveness; and the notion of a collective European identity remains, for the present, a notion.
Indeed, when Michael Howard, in a review of this book, writes that the recovery of these other countries “has gradually reduced American ascendancy to that of primus inter pares at best,” it is difficult to know what he can possibly mean. First among equals? At best? What does the Regius professor of modern history at Oxford have in mind? While the U.S. share of the Gross World Product has declined significantly since the artificially high level of the postwar years, when every other major power was economically devastated, it continues to be larger than that of the Soviet Union and Japan combined, and only just smaller than the total share of all twelve EEC countries (see Kennedy’s tables 43 and 44). Some lame duck.
Paul Kennedy maintains that, in relative terms, the United States has declined, is declining, and will continue to decline; that this decline is largely due to the military burden it carries; and that the best that can be done is to “manage” affairs so that the decline takes place slowly and smoothly. Like Kennedy, I am not an economist. Herbert Stein, who is, has recently subjected the Kennedy thesis to economic scrutiny. He points out that since 1976 the U.S. economy has been growing faster than that of the USSR and West Germany, and that while Japan has been growing faster still, the excess of the Japanese growth rate over the American has been declining. At present growth rates, the U.S. share of the combined U.S.-Western Eurrope-Japan Gross Domestic Product will rise, not fall; and in thirty years its GDP will have gone from 75 percent higher than that of the USSR to 100 percent higher.
The assertion that America is declining because of an excessive military burden Stein dismisses as “a quite incredible idea.” He points out that the slowdown in economic growth since 1973 has affected all industrial countries, including Japan, whose military burden is trivial; and that during America’s period of most rapid growth, from 1948 to 1973, defense expenditures were a much larger fraction of Gross National Product than they have been in the last fifteen years: 8.6 percent as against 5.7 percent. (Even if the “adjustment to decline” argument were to be accepted, therefore, it could be maintained that the necessary adjustment has already been made.) Oddly, despite his constant emphasis that it is relative rates that are crucial, when it comes to military expenditure it is actual sums—“more and more of their resources,” rather than the percentage of what is available—that seem to count for Kennedy.
Stein goes on to point out that a trade-off between military expenditure and growth is not the only possible one: if we want to increase investment in economic growth, it can be done just as well by a slightly lower rate of consumption (currently close to being the highest in the world) as by a lower rate of defense spending, and thus without incurring any of the risks involved in a diminution of America’s power But though Kennedy writes of the “triangular competition” among defense spending, consumption, and investment for growth, and although his subject is power, that alternative is not explored, let alone advocated. In his eyes it is clearly defense that should “give” in the competition.
Elsewhere, whether wittingly or not, Kennedy does provide evidence that runs counter to his conclusions. Thus, dealing with the period 1919-42, he points out that “in the year of the Munich crisis, the U.S. share of world manufacturing output was lower than at any time since around 1910.” In fact, according to the figures he provides, that share was lower throughout the 1930’s than it had been in 1929, while in the same period the Soviet share more than tripled (from 5 percent in 1929 to 17.6 percent in 1938). On this basis it could have been argued then, as it is argued now, that America was on the way out and that its displacement as the dominant economic power was inevitable and not very distant. This is what many Western intellectuals actually believed at the time, and they were hopelessly wrong. Wrong, not only because World War II stimulated the productive use of underutilized resources in America but because, as the vigorous and sustained postwar growth was to show, the United States contained within itself a dynamic capacity for renewal and expansion—while the Soviet gains had been achieved only at a hideous and ruinous cost, and involved gross inefficiencies.
In similar fashion, those who advocate nuclear disarmament and those who oppose SDI would be wise to exercise some care in embracing Kennedy’s arguments. If the case for reducing the military forces of the United States is based on the need to lighten the economic burden they impose, and to achieve a better balance between military power and wealth, then nuclear weapons are the last thing that should be cut, for they are the cheapest component in the American defense arsenal.
As for SDI, if Kennedy’s history is accepted, the United States has much to gain in terms of security by pressing on with its ambitious program of technological innovation in weaponry, regardless of whether it will provide an invulnerable shield. Since the time of Peter the Great, he maintains, “Russia has always enjoyed its greatest military advantage vis-à-vis the West when the pace of weapons technology has slowed down enough to allow a standardization of equipment and thus of fighting units and tactics. . . . Whenever an upward spiral in weapons technology has placed an emphasis upon quality rather than quantity, however, the Russian advantage has diminished.” Ergo, if you want to diminish the Russian advantage, initiate an upward spiral in weapons technology—which is what the SDI program is doing. Yet it is a safe bet that any poll of American intellectuals would show that an overwhelming majority of them oppose that program.
Perhaps the United States will experience a serious decline in the next few decades and will be reduced to primus inter pares or worse. But if that happens it will not be because of ineluctable forces, or because of “imperial overstretch.” It will be because the American people and their leaders have decided that they want other things more than they want to remain the leading power in the world. They made such a choice once before in living memory, when they declined to accept the obligations of leadership after World War I. The results were disastrous. They might have done so again in 1945—despite Kennedy’s claim to the contrary, there was nothing preordained about America’s assumption of leadership then; it was the result of conscious decision and determined statesmanship.
For twenty years now the impulse to retreat from that decision has been powerful in the United States. The strength and appeal of Ronald Reagan, despite all his manifest shortcomings, was that he spurned that impulse. But the uncritical enthusiasm that has greeted Paul Kennedy’s deeply flawed book, with its advice to accept the supposedly inevitable, demonstrates that it is far from dead. Unless it is vigorously contested, it is an impulse that may well prevail. For their own sake, and for the sake of free societies everywhere, Americans should resist the advice to become good losers.
1 Random House, 677 pp., $24.95.
2 As even a cursory glance reveals, however, not all of them are accurate. Thus the article “Living With a Sick Bear,” from the National Interest, cited on page 619, was written by H.S. Rowen, not Rosen. Also, the author of Britain's Industrial Renaissance is Sir Alan Walters, not Waters.
3 It is interesting that the writer Kennedy refers to most often on the contemporary Soviet scene is the Australian, Paul Dibb. He is a competent and knowledgeable student of Soviet affairs, but one suspects that his chief attraction for Kennedy is the fact that he is more impressed by Soviet weaknesses than strengths. In Australia Dibb is best known for the review he conducted for the present Labor government of Australia's defense needs and capabilities. It is noteworthy for its conclusions that Australia should abandon its postwar policy of forward defense in Southeast Asia as reflecting “the concerns of a previous era,” and that Australia's commitments under ANZUS should not influence the structure and equipment of its defense forces.