Intellectual error is not necessarily bad. It is sometimes the price of imagination and bold thinking. But it may also be the result of sloppy reasoning, wishful thinking, or the venal desire to sell copy. So it is not necessarily good, either.
Few subjects have been more fruitful of intellectual error in recent times than that of America’s prospective decline. In the late 1980s, several books purported to have spotted harbingers of this dispensation, thus bringing welcome relief to those who could not bear the triumphalism they found in Ronald Reagan’s successful policies. In 1988, the New York Times devoted a Sunday magazine essay to exalting the new declinists, calling them “a small but growing cadre of intellectuals who are wielding considerable political influence [and] have sparked a rousing dialogue . . . that threatens to shake Reagan’s America from a decade of rose-colored, Ike-revivalist torpor.”
Foremost among this cadre was the transplanted British historian Paul Kennedy. Owen Harries described the reception of Kennedy’s 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers:
A historical study of nearly 700 pages, with eighty-three pages of notes, a thirty-eight-page bibliography, and dozens of tables and charts does not often enjoy a vogue. But [in] best-seller 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.
Harries should have also mentioned congressional hearings, because the key to Kennedy’s phenomenal success was that he seemed to place the balance of historical scholarship in the scales against Reagan’s defense buildup. “Imperial overstretch” had caused the collapse of past empires and would do the same to America, he said. Never mind that America had no empire, at least not in the sense of the Hapsburgs and Ottomans and others whose fate Kennedy chronicled. Never mind, too, that his argument was economic nonsense, as former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Herbert Stein deftly demonstrated.
(A massive defense cut would, even with rosy assumptions, enhance the growth of the economy by a fraction of 1 percent. In other words, as Stein put it, our alleged military excess was causing us to have to wait until September to reach the level of national prosperity we would otherwise have achieved in January. Was this the difference between ascendance and decline?)
Within two years, Kennedy’s theory was borne out—except for one detail. Sure enough, our excessive defense spending had brought about, or had helped to bring about, the collapse of an empire. Except it was not our “empire” that collapsed, but that of our enemy, the “evil empire” as the benighted Reagan called it. Apparently our “overstretch” had driven the Kremlin to ever greater exertions. While we were spending roughly 6 percent of our economy on the military, the Soviets were spending something like 25 percent of theirs, contributing to their demise. Kennedy got the story exactly upside down.
To say that he could not have been more wrong is not to say that others did not try to outdo him. A year after the appearance of Kennedy’s master-work, Clyde Prestowitz, oracle of another school of decline, also published a bestseller, trumpeting his own prescience: “Japan has, as I predicted it would, become the undisputed world economic champion.” Within a year, Japan’s speculative bubble burst, and that country entered its “lost decade” without economic growth.
Mea culpas from the likes of Kennedy and Prestowitz were notable for their absence, though, by the turn of the century, Kennedy, for one, was striking a different note and expressing awe at American predominance. “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power,” he proclaimed. Now, a decade later, things have come full circle: Declinism is back, and Kennedy and Prestowitz are once again singing their old tunes. In this go-round, the dire prognostications proclaimed so exultantly find their grist not in the ascent of another power or in our defense budget, but in our unsustainable deficits. America’s decline is also said to be reflected in a loss of influence in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere.
Amidst all this drama and heavy breathing comes the calm voice of Robert J. Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown and author or editor of a string of volumes—over the span of more than three decades—on American policy and the country’s standing in the world. (Confession of connectedness: Thirty years ago, Lieber served on my dissertation committee and gave me a hard time. We’ve been on better terms since.)
Lieber offers a little historical context, reaching back beyond the declinist boom of the late 1980s to show that prophecies of American decline have been a recurrent attention--grabber since at least 1797, with the work of Joseph de Maistre. Furthermore, Lieber reminds us that such predictions don’t only come from the lips of publicists. In 1972, President Richard Nixon, who prided himself on being a deeper thinker about world affairs than his rivals and most of his predecessors, pontificated that the world was shifting to a pentagonal balance of power among the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Western Europe. Forty years later, just as Nixon’s vision might have been expected to reach fruition, the Soviet Union exists no more, and Japan and Europe are economically troubled and militarily weak. That leaves only the United States and China from Nixon’s five-cornered model.
And what of China? Theories of U.S. decline comprise two broad themes: America’s weaknesses and the strengths of possible competitors. Today, that putative rival is China. Lieber reminds us that China is a less formidable foe than those we bested in the 20th century—namely, the Axis powers and the Soviet Union. True, China’s economy is predicted to grow larger than our own in the coming years, but gross output is not a definitive statistic. In one of this book’s more interesting factual tidbits, Lieber tells us that “in 1870, China and India possessed the world’s largest economies in GDP terms,” even while both were being trampled underfoot by more developed countries with smaller GDPs. Per person, China today is only about one-fifth as wealthy as America. That means Americans have far more discretionary income to draw upon for national purposes, including those which translate into power.
Moreover, China’s economic growth masks a range of vulnerabilities. Lieber finds it unlikely “that the economic model of export-led growth can be sustained indefinitely.” He also cites other debilities: the aging of the population, which will produce a burdensome ratio of pensioners to workers; a system of higher education that, according to one reputable study, produces engineers only 10 percent of whom are employable; and a political system that makes no sense. In addition, China has limited influence: Its language is spoken by few non-Chinese, and its political system is emulated by almost no one. Most of its neighbors fear it and are prone to form alliances of various kinds to balance against it.
If the most likely rival to America has feet of clay, what about America’s internal weaknesses? Lieber sees fewer of them than strengths. He concedes that America’s share of world economic output has shrunk, but only from about one-fourth of the total down to about one-fifth—a difference he finds inconsequential. On the other hand, he cites many enduring advantages, such as America’s size in geography and population, and the fact that, unlike other countries, the population is not shrinking. Another is the patriotism of the populace and its willingness to sustain foreign commitments. Then there are the vast superiority of its higher education institutions, the international ubiquity of English, and America’s unflagging attractiveness to immigrants and to allies.
Above all is the country’s flexibility:
While serious errors of policy and delays in coming to grips with domestic and foreign crises are nothing new, the long-term record of the United States is one of remarkable resilience, adaptation, and crisis response.
This record makes Lieber hopeful, albeit not certain, that America can come to grips with what he sees as the greatest danger to its current position: unsustainable deficits and paralysis of fiscal policy.
Failure to face this danger and disarm it could indeed erode our strength and lead to the waning of America’s global power, which would imperil “not only the national interest and security of the United States itself, but the stability of the global order that the United States has underwritten during the past seven decades.” Such an outcome, however, does not inhere in any objective factors.
The human potential, flexibility, openness, entrepreneurial skills, and scientific, educational, and technical assets within the United States are available to underpin this role, as they have been in the past. The underlying question is less one of capacity and potential than of policy, persistence, and political will.
This is Lieber’s core message.
Nothing lasts forever, so someday the predictions of America’s decline will come true—whether in this millennium, or the next. Meanwhile, the sightings always titillate, just as those of Nessie and Sasquatch do. And so the likes of Kennedy and Prestowitz, however much in error they are shown to be, can laugh all the way to the bank. Those readers who prefer wisdom and good sense in their historical analysis, and would rather find their frissons elsewhere, will get more out of reading Lieber.
Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.