The Magazine

Alive and Well

American power and influence need not be on the wane.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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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.)