Part of Power and the United States

The Default Power

The False Prophecy of America's Decline

Every ten years, it is decline time in the United States. In the late 1950s, it was the Sputnik shock, followed by the "missile gap" trumpeted by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. A decade later, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sounded the dirge over bipolarity, predicting a world of five, rather than two, global powers. At the end of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech invoked "a crisis of confidence" that struck "at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."

A decade later, academics such as the Yale historian Paul Kennedy predicted the ruin of the United States, driven by overextension abroad and profligacy at home. The United States was at risk of "imperial overstretch," Kennedy wrote in 1987, arguing that "the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them all simultaneously." But three years later, Washington dispatched 600,000 soldiers to fight the first Iraq war -- without reinstating the draft or raising taxes. The only price of "overstretch" turned out to be the mild recession of 1991.

Declinism took a break in the 1990s. The United States was enjoying a nice run after the suicide of the Soviet Union, and Japan, the economic powerhouse of the 1980s, was stuck in its "lost decade" of stagnation and so no longer stirred U.S. paranoia with its takeover of national treasures such as Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center. The United States had moved into the longest economic expansion in history, which, apart from eight down months in 2001, continued until 2008. "Gloom is the dominant mood in Japan these days," one Asian commentator reported in 1997, whereas "American capitalism is resurgent, confident and brash." That year, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that "the defining feature of world affairs" was "globalization" and that if "you had to design a country best suited to compete in such a world, [it would be] today's America." He concluded on a triumphant note: "Globalization is us."

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