Don't Worry, America

Three years ago, Yale professor Paul Kennedy became America's favorite prophet of doom. His book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" popped up on coffee tables throughout the land; he found himself before congressional committees and television talk shows, expounding the book's thesis of "imperial overstretch." The United States, he suggested, was falling victim to the same process that had undone other great powers: as their influence grew, so did their military commitments; these obligations strained their economies; nations with lighter military burdens sprinted ahead of them. This notion was gobbled up by a nation then obsessed with the Japanese economic "threat. "

But that was in 1987, and authors beware: whom the gods would destroy, they first put on the best-seller list. Events since then have-not smashed Kennedy's thesis, but they have roughed it up. Today the U.S. military burden seems more manageable: with the Warsaw Pact collapsing, the Pentagon itself has proposed a 25 percent cut in American defenses. Instead of suffering from military overstretch, the United States is cutting itself some slack. And now comes a new batch of books arguing that America isn't on the decline at all.

They've been artfully titled to try to catch the backwash from Kennedy's 1987 wave. "The Myth of America's Decline" (424 pages. Oxford University Press. $29.95) by Henry R. Nau, a member of the National Security Council staff during the early Reagan years, is really an account of U.S. economic policy since the end of World War II. Its message: stable prices, lower trade barriers and minimal government intervention have been the key to our prosperity and will be again if we bind ourselves to this trinity. "America's Economic Resurgence" (230 pages. Harper & Row. $22.50) by Richard Rosecrance is actually a rather gloomy work: "The United States has demonstrably declined," Rosecrance says, but "it can and will come back" if it adopts "radical new policies" such as an overhaul of the state school system, a drastic tax reform, trimming of bureaucratic bloat--reforms so unlikely as to make one question Rosecrance's optimism.

The most subtle of the anti-decliners is Joseph S. Nye Jr., whose "Bound to Lead" (307pages. Basic Books. $19.95)is subtitled "The Changing Nature of American Power." That seems to be the heart of the matter; Nye offers an illuminating analysis of "hard power" versus "soft power." The future, he suspects, lies with noncoercive forms of authority, and here he thinks the Americans have special advantages. The least subtle of these books is "The Coming Global Boom" (267 pages. Bantam Books. $19.95) by Charles R. Morris, wherein the wonders of the next gilded age stand revealed. "There can be almost no doubt," for example, "that, sometime around 1995 or so, the current federal budget deficits will disappear." Morris revels in his contrarian views, and they're by no means all farfetched.

The New York Review of Books recently commissioned Kennedy to review a bunch of these books, and he didn't bend a bit. He quoted chunks in which the anti-decliners conceded that some things in the United States were indeed pretty bad. Who has the better of the argument? First, a few points to clear the rhetorical undergrowth:

Of course the U.S. economic lead over Japan and West Europe has diminished since World War II. Everyone acknowledges this. The immediate postwar period was an aberration, and an unhealthy one. If Japan and West Europe had not started catching up, that would have been a failure of American leadership.

Many people including Americans, always think their country is in decline. It is human nature to think beck, selectively, to a golden age when one's country was strong and respected. Some Americans now regard the 1950s as such a time. Yet during the 1950s, Americans complained that we couldn't win the war in Korea. that we didn't lift a finger to help the Hungarians during their uprising, that Cuba had gone communist 90 miles from our shore and that the president couldn't even speak English correctly.

Pick a number, any number. The long-term annual growth rate of real per capita income in the United States has been about 2 percent since 1870, a sign of stability. But American per capita income has recently fallen behind several countries' (Kennedy cites Japan and Switzerland). But if per capita income is weighted by purchasing power, the United States is still ahead. The statistical argument is an impenetrable thicket.

Perhaps it is more fruitful to consider, as Nye does, what sort of power is most useful in the contemporary world. Military power is certainly less crucial than it was when Kennedy wrote his book, but it's hardly obsolete and the United States has a lot of it--more. relatively speaking, than before the communist world crumbled. An aircraft carrier steaming off the coast can still concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Meanwhile economic power has grown more diffuse--and not just among nations. With all the attention paid to the rising economies of Germany and Japan, too little notice has gone to another phenomenon: the rise of transnational corporations that are not strictly American or Japanese or European, but a bit of each. Transnational trade blocs like the European Community, the Canadian-American (and probably Mexican) free-trade zone and a proposed Pacific counterpart are also overshadowing national economies. But the United States would have a huge advantage among three such trading groups: given its enormous market, it would almost certainly be a player in each.

This is an example of what Nye calls "soft" or "co-optive" power: the ability of one nation to induce others to define their interests in ways consistent with its own. When communist countries join GATT, when Indian students sing rock music, when English becomes the second language in schools around the world, American soft power is at work. This kind of power can rarely be measured; sometimes it isn't even noticed. But it's real nevertheless. If Nye is right, American power may actually be on the rise.