The rumors of America’s imminent imperial decline are somewhat premature. They are, however, quite fashionable. Particularly within some intellectual circles a decided preference has taken hold for Spenglerian handwringing, which barely conceals a measure of schadenfreude over the anticipated end of the imperial phase in the history of this somewhat crass, materialistic, chaotic, libertarian and vaguely religious mass democracy. America’s assumption of the imperial role after World War II—with U.S. power and influence projected around the world—was never popular either within America’s intellectual class or more recently within its mass media. Hence the anticipatory gloating over the allegedly inevitable demise of the world’s current number-one power.

To debate the accuracy of such a prognosis may be futile. The future is inherently full of discontinuities, and lessons of the past must be applied with enormous caution. Some recent scholarly studies have attempted to do so in a searching and comprehensive fashion, and without the dogmatic assumption of any kind of inevitability. This has greatly helped to raise the level of thoughtful discussion. From the political point of view, moreover, there is even some genuine benefit to be derived from the fact that doubts have been raised regarding America’s future. Posing the issue so starkly focuses attention on the definition of the actions needed to maintain a constructive American world role, the essentials of American security, the core American interests, and the effects on the foregoing of the inexorable geopolitical and technological changes.

In other words, the intellectual debate over a possibly inevitable decline can become a political deliberation on how to avoid it, how to reinvigorate America’s global power and how to redefine it in the context of a changing world. That can be the objectively positive result of posing the issue. Accordingly, the task of responsible statesmanship is to define more precisely the policy implications of the geopolitical and technological changes for the U.S. relationship with the world over the remaining years of this millennium, bearing in mind that such changes are significantly altering the setting within which U.S. interests and national security must be protected. Out of such an examination one can derive better guidance regarding the very character of America’s world role in the years ahead.

In any such analysis three clusters of issues are central, namely: (1) strategic doctrine, which bears on how the United States can best promote its national security; (2) geopolitical imperatives, which determine the central foci of American regional involvements; and (3) the U.S. global role, which pertains to the manner in which America should wield its worldwide influence.

Over the last forty years the United States has relied heavily, indeed, predominantly, on nuclear deterrence to check much-feared Soviet expansion, particularly in central Europe. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it in effect possessed a monopoly on the capability to deliver nuclear weapons at intercontinental range, the United States went so far as to postulate the doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation as a response to even conventional Soviet aggression. But as Soviet strategic capabilities grew, adjustments in doctrine became necessary. By the 1960s U.S. strategic doctrine was embracing the concept of flexible response to a Soviet military challenge, though it still lacked to a considerable extent the targeting capabilities and the weapons needed for sustaining such a strategy.

The increased vulnerability of American society to a Soviet strategic attack, however, gave rise to the publicly compelling view that the condition of mutual assured destruction (known as MAD) had now become the basis for reciprocal deterrence. The resulting strategic dilemma was that this transformed deterrence into an essentially apocalyptic threat to commit suicide, a threat that could be credible only to deter a similarly suicidal attack by the enemy. Short of that extreme eventuality, U.S. strategic policy started to lose its credibility in deterring less than a total attack—while concurrent technological refinements have at the same time given rise to altogether novel opportunities for far more selective and strictly military uses of nuclear weaponry. A doctrinal readjustment, with significant force posture implications, was thus becoming due in order to close the consequent deterrence gap.

Over the last four decades, U.S. geopolitical imperatives have been largely preoccupied with the defense of both the far western and the far eastern extremities of the Eurasian continent against Soviet political and military domination. With the recovery of both Western Europe and Japan, which enhanced their capacity for more effective self-defense, and with the felicitous consolidation of a new, stabilizing relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, Americans have come to see the Soviet threat as less ominous. At the same time, American geopolitical concerns are being refocused on other critical regions, heretofore not major sources of U.S. security or political concerns.

The American global role has also been undergoing a profound transmutation. Throughout much of the last forty years, American political leadership has rested on a solid base of economic and military preeminence, and much of the motivation for the exercise of that primacy stemmed from a concern that the Soviet Union was seeking to dethrone and to replace the United States in the exercise of that special role. Today, the economic basis of American primacy is clearly much weaker and is likely to become weaker still in relation to the growth of other economic centers. At the same time, however, the Soviet Union has clearly failed as an economic rival. It has been revealed to be at best a one-dimensional power, a challenger in the military realm alone but not a serious rival socially, economically or ideologically. In other words, the Soviet Union poses a threat to American security and geopolitical interests, but does not represent a challenge to American global primacy as such.

Thus on the strategic, geopolitical and global levels the need exists for significant adjustments in the way the United States participates in the global political process and promotes its fundamental national interests. Let us examine the policy implications that follow in each of the above three broad clusters.


In strategic doctrine, the United States needs to shift away from its long-standing preoccupation with the threat of a nuclear war between the superpowers or a massive Soviet conventional attack in central Europe. Neither danger can be dismissed as impossible, but a central nuclear war is not likely to be initiated deliberately; America certainly has the means to maintain a military posture that precludes any rational Soviet decision-making process from reaching a suicidally erroneous conclusion. Much the same can be said about the possibility of a massive conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe, given not only the complexities of calculating intelligently the real battle trade-offs between existing NATO and Warsaw Pact forces but also the high risk of nuclear escalation.

It must be hastily added that the reassessment of the level of the threat does not imply in the least any decline in the U.S. interest in the security of Western Europe or any significant U.S. disengagement from the defense of Europe. Indeed, the specific adjustments in strategic doctrine and in force posture that are proposed below focus on the central goal of reinforcing the overall credibility of the American strategic and conventional deterrent, of which Western Europe and also Japan are the principal beneficiaries.

To enhance deterrence in the current and foreseeable conditions, a doctrine and a force posture are needed that will enable the United States to respond more selectively to a large number of possible security threats, ranging from the strategic to the conventional. On the strategic level it must be recognized that technological changes have wrought a revolution in the way nuclear weapons may be used in the future. They are no longer just crude instruments for inflicting massive societal devastation but can be used with precision for more specific military missions, with relatively limited collateral societal damage. The increased versatility of nuclear weapons is the consequence of the interaction between smaller warheads and highly accurate delivery systems. The result is that nuclear weapons are no longer primarily blunt instruments of deterrence but can also serve as potentially decisive instruments of discriminating violence.

As a result, in the future the United States should rely to a greater extent on a more flexible mix of nuclear and even non-nuclear strategic forces capable of executing more selective military missions. The central purpose of the strategy of discriminate deterrence is to heighten the credibility of American threats to respond to aggression by increasing the spectrum of effective responses to such aggression, short of the inherently improbable option of simply committing national suicide. More specifically, this calls for greater reliance on highly accurate but less destructive long-range strategic weaponry, including procurement of the now-feasible non-nuclear strategic weapons. In addition, in order to deny to the potential aggressor the temptation of preemptively destroying U.S. strategic forces, it is also recommended that U.S. strategic forces be based on a prudent mix of both offensive and defensive systems, thus assimilating into U.S. force posture some initial elements of the much-debated Strategic Defense Initiative, marking an important break with the notions of MAD.

Space control is likely to become tantamount to earth control. There are striking parallels between the role of the navy in the emergence of American global power and today’s incipient competition for a dominant position in space. The earlier competition among the Great Powers for maritime primacy involved rivalry for effective control over strategic space between the key continents. Control over such space was central to territorial preponderance. That is why the United States, in the phase of its geostrategic expansion, placed such an emphasis on the acquisition of dominant Atlantic and Pacific fleets, linked through direct U.S. control over the Panama Canal.

Today the equivalent of that naval rivalry is the competition in space. At the very minimum it must be the U.S. strategic objective to make certain that no hostile power can deny the United States, while retaining for itself, the means for using space for intelligence, early warning, reconnaissance, targeting, and command and control. Modern military operations are highly dependent on space assets performing these functions, and U.S. vulnerability in this area could be crippling. Thus, even short of seeking to exploit space control for offensive purposes against an enemy (e.g., by the use of weaponry deployed in space), the capacity to protect its nonlethal military space assets, or to inflict a denial of the use of space to the enemy, has become essential to an effective U.S. military posture.

On the conventional level similarly important adjustments are becoming necessary. The most probable threat stems from what are called low-intensity conflicts in areas where American forces are not permanently deployed. Thus, the United States must place less emphasis on prepositioned heavy forces in foreign bases and more on lighter forces, supported by enhanced air- and sea-lift capabilities, poised for a prompt long-distance response. This would reduce the risk that in a crisis (such as during the 1973 Middle East war or the U.S. air raid in Libya in 1986) the freedom to use American forces stationed abroad would be restricted by political inhibitions on the part of U.S. allies.

More generally, the United States in the years ahead must take advantage of its enormous capacity for technological innovation to enhance its military flexibility. Over the last several decades the United States has gradually become a military Gulliver, enormously powerful yet clumsy and inert. Technology is certainly not a "silver bullet" for solving a variety of deficiencies. Neither is it a substitute for well-trained and motivated manpower. But it does provide the basis for effective and rapid coordination, for precision in operations, for enhanced intelligence and for prompt concentration of destructive power. America is almost uniquely equipped to exploit these technological capabilities.

These adjustments in our military strategy and posture will have to be pursued in the context of unavoidable budgetary restraint. It follows, therefore, that some standing priorities will have to be revised. It also follows from the foregoing analysis that the targets for budgetary reallocation will have to fall within three broad categories: less emphasis on offensive central strategic nuclear weapons; less concentration on the funding of new major systems for the individual branches of the armed services and more on technological force-multipliers for existing weaponry; and a reallocation of expenditures and heavy forces away from Europe-oriented missions toward greater flexibility and longer-range mobility in conventional responses to conflicts in regions where no U.S. forces are prepositioned.

The underlying purpose of these adjustments will be to sustain a strategy of more selective commitment and more flexible capacity for action. The era of the big stick is over, but the reality of violence in international affairs is still with us. Under these circumstances, while retaining a residual capacity for an all-out nuclear war to avoid being blackmailed by its threat, U.S. military power must be designed for more limited, prompt and even preemptive actions in areas clearly defined not only as vital but also as not capable of adequate self-defense. In brief, instead of planning to be able to fight two-and-a-half major wars (as not long ago was the case), the United States must be ready to deter one major war by having the means to fight it while also being able to respond effectively to more varied but less apocalyptic security threats.


These needed strategic adjustments go hand in hand with changing U.S. geopolitical imperatives. In the years ahead, three regions other than the far western and far eastern extremities of Eurasia are likely to become the central foci of American concerns. For much of the cold war the major U.S. fear was the possible Soviet domination of Western Europe. It now appears likely, however, that in Europe for the next decade the Soviet Union will be increasingly on the defensive ideologically and politically. The internal communist threat to Western Europe has passed, while the vitality of Western Europe’s development stands in sharp contrast to the stagnation to the east. Western Europe’s economic and political recovery represents a monumental success for America’s postwar policy.

The next phase should therefore involve an increased assumption by Western Europe of the costs of its defense. The U.S. commitment to Europe’s security is sacrosanct, but there is nothing sacrosanct about the level of U.S. military manpower in Europe or the proportion of the U.S. defense budget dedicated to Europe’s security. Since Europe can and should do more for its defense, and since the United States has to make more of a defense effort elsewhere but cannot afford to do so, it follows that a gradual but significant readjustment in burden-sharing is necessary and will occur.

In the meantime, Eastern Europe is rapidly emerging as Europe’s region of potentially explosive instability, with five countries already in a classic prerevolutionary situation. Economic failure and political unrest are becoming the dominant characteristics of life in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and in non-Soviet-dominated but geopolitically important Yugoslavia. In any one, or even in several at once, a spark could set off a major explosion, given the intensity of popular dissatisfaction. Indeed, there are suggestive parallels between the current state of affairs in the region and the historic Spring of Nations of 1848.

Given the volatile state of the perestroika (restructuring) program in the Soviet Union itself, it is even conceivable that the systemic crisis of Eastern Europe will become a more general crisis of communism itself. Unrest has already surfaced in the Soviet-occupied Baltic republics, in western Ukraine, in Central Asia and elsewhere. Moreover, it could become more acute if current Soviet reform initiatives do not yield positive and tangible results but instead prompt, as is in fact likely, major economic dislocations, higher food prices, inflation and even large-scale unemployment.

In that context, a major eruption in Eastern Europe would almost certainly precipitate not only a Soviet intervention but the end of the perestroika itself. What could happen, therefore, is a matter of some importance to the West as a whole. It is not clear that the West has given sufficient thought to the longer-range implications of East European unrest. Gradual change in the region is certainly desirable, especially change involving the progressive self-emancipation of peoples who have long desired to be part of a larger Europe free of Soviet domination. But a large-scale explosion could have tragic consequences, not only for the region itself but also for East-West relations, by prompting a lasting revival of the most negative attributes of the Soviet system.

As a result the United States and its European allies should focus actively on an effort to forge a more stable relationship with Eastern Europe. A more coordinated Western policy of political and economic engagement should be designed to facilitate the evolutionary dismantling of the Stalinist relics in the region. But such a strategic approach is strikingly absent. Failure to develop one could confront the United States, and its allies, with explosive and eventually very dangerous circumstances.

The region’s renewed geopolitical salience is likely to be maximized by growing speculation regarding Germany’s future orientation. Already today in Paris and even in London the topic of concerned conversations is focused as much on the future of Germany as on the future of perestroika or the likely outcome of the American elections. Some of this may be dismissed as an outdated obsession with "the German question." But some of it does reflect an intelligent appreciation of the German angst over the country’s unnatural division and of the traditional German yearning for a grand deal with Moscow.

Any major alteration in the German-Russian relationship would parallel in its geopolitical consequences the earlier American-Chinese accord that so shook the world and so gripped the Russians with the fear of strategic encirclement. It is, therefore, likely to be tempting to Soviet strategists. Moreover, it can only make Soviet economic planners salivate, for in one stroke a new German-Russian relationship would help to resolve the Soviet cravings for both investment and technological innovation.

Fortunately, however, the scope of any potential Soviet initiative toward Germany is constrained by the scope of the East European systemic crisis. In the present circumstances, releasing East Germany—as the price of seducing West Germany—would deprive the Soviet Union of its key bastion for the exercise of effective Soviet military and political control over Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. A neutralized Germany on the edge of an economically stagnant but politically restless Eastern Europe would be disruptive not only for NATO but for the Warsaw Pact as well.

In any case, because of the region’s centrality to East-West relations, Eastern Europe is now likely to become increasingly an object of international anxiety and thus of America’s concern. Its economic problems are so deep-rooted, its political structures so weak and its geopolitical moorings so shallow that for the next decade at least the region’s problems are likely to be high on the statesman’s agenda.

The second major regional focus of American concern will continue to be the Persian Gulf/Middle Eastern area. America’s deep involvement in the problems of this part of the world stems from two major developments over the last two decades. One involved the emergence since about the mid-1960s of a tight American-Israeli connection; the second involved the gradual replacement "east of Suez" of Great Britain by the United States. The first has been, by and large, the product of domestic impulses in the United States itself, spurred on by very successful lobbying of Congress on behalf of Israel. The second was the result of the need to fill the geopolitical vacuum left by Britain and by the collapse of its U.S.-sponsored would-be regional successor, Iran.

The consequence was that the region’s troubles have become America’s burden: America is to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating the Persian Gulf region and also to preserve Israel’s security. There is no reason to believe that in the years ahead these obligations will recede, and there is much cause to expect continued or even intensified conflicts in the area as a whole. Protection, mediation and deterrence will remain predominantly American responsibilities.

The Carter Doctrine, deliberately drafted to echo the words of the Truman Doctrine, was subsequently reiterated by President Reagan. It represents an unequivocal commitment to respond, in whatever fashion necessary, to any Soviet effort to gain a geopolitical presence in the Gulf. That Soviet goal, expressly confirmed by Stalin to Hitler in 1940 and implicitly by Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, can only be denied if America possesses the forces for rapid counterintervention. Only this capability would pose the prospect for Moscow of a direct American-Soviet collision. And U.S. ability to exploit this capability in turn depends on at least a minimal political relationship between the United States and the two geopolitically key barriers to Soviet expansion, Pakistan and Iran.

The creation of the Rapid Deployment Force was meant to meet the first need, and its further expansion has already been justified in the preceding discussion of changes in strategic doctrine. The second requirement was met in part by the extensive American-Pakistani collaboration that developed in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is important to register here the proposition that this collaboration should continue even if the Soviet forces are eventually withdrawn from Afghanistan. At that stage, the inclination is likely to arise, especially in the Congress, for a contraction of some aspects of the American-Pakistani relationship, particularly as some of the more contentious but lately repressed issues resurface (such as the Pakistani nuclear program or the question of internal democracy). In addition, there will be the temptation to sacrifice some aspects of the U.S.-Pakistani connection for the sake of a better relationship with India. Yet it is important not to lose sight of the simple fact that an isolated and hence weakened Pakistan could yield the Soviets geopolitical benefits that Soviet arms have not been able to gain in Afghanistan.

Equally important to the stability of the region, and to key U.S. interests, is the independence and territorial integrity of Iran. For the time being, and probably not until the Iranian-Iraqi war wanes or Ayatollah Khomeini dies, American-Iranian relations will remain antagonistic. But in the longer run some reconstitution of a more normal relationship is in the interest of both countries and thus is likely to take place. For most Iranians, current sloganeering to the contrary, the truly threatening "Satan" is the one to the north and immediately contiguous to Iranian territory. All Iranians know that over the last century and a half the principal hostile designs on their soil and independence have originated from Russia. Rhetorical fanaticism does not obliterate historical memory.

Under these circumstances, some eventual accommodation is likely and will carry opportunities for renewed economic American-Iranian cooperation and perhaps even some military connection. The latter will depend on how the Iranians perceive future Soviet policy and also on the nature of Iranian-Arab relations after Khomeini. One of the major tasks of American diplomacy in this area will be to seek to relieve some of the current antagonism, although the scope for any genuine regional accommodation will probably be quite limited for a long time to come. Much will depend on how long-lasting and dynamic the current wave of Islamic fundamentalism proves to be.

Until then, the more immediate task of the United States will be to make certain that the more moderate Arab states in the region are not destabilized. As events have already shown, this will require both active diplomacy and a significant military presence. There is no reason to believe that the need for either will significantly recede, and thus the American preoccupation with this region is likely to be prolonged, risky and costly.

Much the same can be said of the American involvement in the Israeli-Arab issue, given the incompatible views of the local parties on the Palestinian problem (the West Bank and Gaza) and regarding the Golan Heights. Even if the peace process is revived, it will require extremely absorbing and frustrating mediation. In brief, for America the prospect is a grim one: a continuing and seemingly endless involvement in a messy and dangerous conundrum of ethnic and geopolitical conflicts, in the realization that American disinvolvement from them would create even more dangerous consequences.

The foregoing two geopolitical concerns, as taxing as they are, may yet, and before too long, yield in priority to a third one much closer to home. Unless the United States can soon fashion a bipartisan and comprehensive response to the mushrooming Central American crisis, it is quite likely that in the years ahead the region will pose for the American public the most preoccupying challenge, diverting America from its other global concerns. Fashioning such a response may well become the most urgent foreign priority for the next president, especially since on the other critical strategic and geopolitical issues some ongoing strands of policy exist and some degree of national consensus supports them.

The sad fact is that for the last 15 years the United States has been attempting to respond to the region’s simultaneously nationalist and social revolution, and to the Soviet-communist exploitation of it, by partial measures and through proxies. It has sought solutions on the cheap. Though President Kennedy proclaimed the creation of a communist regime in Cuba to be an intolerable security threat to the United States, his response was to send three thousand Cuban patriots to solve America’s problem—and then to abandon them promptly when the going got tough. Two decades later, another president, Ronald Reagan, similarly proclaimed the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime to represent a mortal threat to the United States. He turned to proxies for a resolution of the problem, with the U.S. Congress then abandoning them.

Neither response was worthy of a Great Power, especially when its vital interests were said to be involved. Kennedy failed to exploit the Soviet collapse of will during the subsequent Cuban missile crisis to insist on a neutralized status for Cuba. Reagan failed to define an equally legitimate U.S. goal regarding a neutralized status for Nicaragua. Both shrank from backing such limited objectives with U.S. national power. Instead, their reliance on proxies to achieve more ambitious goals for an otherwise passive America proved in the end to be self-defeating. In Nicaragua, moreover, the Congress failed to back military leverage with the needed economic development aid programs for the region, as recommended by the Kissinger Commission, with the result that the American capacity to use either positive or negative leverage became severely restricted.

It therefore appears altogether likely that in the years ahead political instability, and more assertively anti-U.S. nationalism, will surface more prominently also in other Central American countries. In Panama, instability will pose an immediate threat to a vital security installation. Moreover, just north of Central America and immediately south of the continental United States, Mexico has the makings of a political as well as economic crisis that could impinge most directly on America. Already Mexico’s serious financial and demographic problems are increasingly becoming America’s nightmares.

Inherent in this mushrooming crisis is an even larger danger: a direct, immediate impact on American society that could prompt a mood of panic and even isolationism. This is why the issue deserves a high priority, and this is also why the most recent conflict on the matter between the president and Congress was so destructive. The disturbing fact was that both sides adopted escapist stances, each avoiding a confrontation with bitter realities. The first chose indirect and evasive means to achieve a forced solution to a problem that went deeper than the presence of Soviet-backed communism. The second preferred to rely on wishful thinking regarding a solution to the real problem posed by the undeniable presence of a Soviet-communist regional challenge. The present political stalemate in Washington does not augur well for the emergence of the needed comprehensive regional strategy, one that combines attainable and legitimate goals with a determination to act effectively on both the geopolitical and the economic levels.


America’s capacity to cope on both the strategic and the geopolitical planes will depend ultimately on America’s overall global position. The undeniable relative decline in American economic primacy, especially given the American-sponsored recovery of Western Europe and Japan, has already led some to suggest that the United States resembles Great Britain in the early twentieth century. Even more ominously, it is postulated that America is doomed to replicate the experience of other imperial powers, and that the painful process of degeneration is already under way.

It would be historical blindness to disregard warning signs based on past experience. Moreover, there is, alas, some justification for historical pessimism. It is, for example, disturbing to recall that in the initial phase of their decline the Roman, French and Ottoman empires were characterized by economic inflation and budgetary deficits, by a preoccupation with gold, by costly external (over)expansion, by domestic fatigue and political gridlock, by cultural hedonism and conspicuous materialistic self-gratification, and even by monumental architectural self-glorification. (The manner in which corporate and governmental America splurges on ostentatious monumentalism is strikingly reminiscent of the pompous architectural explosions in Paris, London and Vienna in their late imperial phases.)

But the differences between those circumstances and America’s position today are equally important and are perhaps more suggestive of future trends. In almost all cases of imperial decline, economic attrition through war—leading to truly significant demographic depletion and eventually even to the collapse of the ruling political elite—was the major precipitating cause. This has not been the case with the United States. Even the recent massive expansion of defense spending did not raise its level above seven percent of the GNP. Though prompting for a while extensive social demoralization, the war in Vietnam did not cause massive casualties. In fact, the last several decades have seen a remarkable infusion of new and creative blood into the American social and political leadership previously dominated by the more traditional elite, notably first from the Jewish community and more lately through the remarkable attainments of first-generation Asian Americans. The dynamics of social renewal are still at work in America, with their impulses for creativity, innovation and sheer drive.

Even more important are two major external differences. The relative decline in American global economic preeminence occurred not in spite of America but because of America. It was the consequence of a deliberate and sustained American policy, pursued with strategic constancy over several decades. It was the American goal to further the recovery of Western Europe and Japan, and the current situation is the consequence of the successful attainment of that central goal.

To be sure, it can be argued that the above does not alter the fact of America’s relative decline, and that it is the fact of decline that counts and not its origins or motivations. This is undeniably true. But it ignores an important aspect. The change in America’s global economic position is neither the consequence of an antagonistic competition nor the result of a hostile rival for global primacy gradually attaining success in displacing America. Instead, it is the outcome of a cooperative policy initiated and sustained by the United States itself. That creates a rather different web of global relations.

Moreover, it leads directly to the other major and perhaps even more important difference. In the past the displacement of a dominant power usually led to the emergence of a replacement power, which then assumed the attributes of wide leadership. A decline and fall of one was part of a cycle involving also a rise and a peak by another. This time the United States does not have a rival that could be a successor. Western Europe simply will not become in the near future a united center of political power capable of filling America’s global shoes. Japan’s aspirations for military-political power are also modest. Thus, neither of the two principal economic beneficiaries of the progressive redistribution of global economic power is America’s political rival for global primacy.

Neither is the Soviet Union—as this analysis has shown, it is a one-dimensional rival. It is a credible challenger in the military realm alone. But the price paid for that awesome military might is that as a result the Soviet Union is not competitive politically, ideologically, economically or socially. In fact, it is becoming even less of a rival in these domains, and that is the principal reason for the currently desperate efforts of the Soviet leadership at a perestroika.

Since it is unlikely that the Kremlin can greatly diminish its military exertions, it is quite probable that over the next two or three decades the Soviet Union will fade even further. As a result the global economic hierarchy by the year 2010 might be the following: first, the United States (with a GNP just under $8 trillion); second, the European Economic Community (with a similar or perhaps even larger GNP but lacking the attributes of a single political power); third, China (with a GNP of just under $4 trillion); fourth, Japan (with roughly the same GNP); and then only fifth in rank, the Soviet Union (with a GNP of just under $3 trillion).

The Soviet Union thus cannot replace the United States. The most it can do is displace it through the use of its military power, prompting a decisive geopolitical upheaval. But Moscow is simply incapable of becoming the world’s financial center or the source of global economic manipulation. This has important implications. Given the fact that the international system cannot operate on the basis of goodwill and sheer spontaneity alone but needs some center of cooperative initiative, financial control and even political power, it follows that the only alternative to American leadership is global anarchy and international chaos. This would have the most destructive political and cultural consequences for those countries that are doing reasonably well in their socioeconomic development.

These considerations, in turn, underline the salience of the point made earlier: the relative decline in America’s global primacy is in part the result of America’s own policies and was effected cooperatively. This reality enhances the stake that other successful states will continue to have in an America that is able to exercise a constructive and cooperative global role. In effect, the fact that the only alternative to America is anarchy generates the vested interest that both Western Europe and Japan will continue to have in the preservation of some kind of a central American role.

Admittedly, that also implies major adjustments in both the style and substance of that role, as well as some significant efforts at revitalizing the American capacity to act. It is evident that in the years to come the United States will have to exercise its special world responsibilities by increasingly subtle, cooperative and even indirect means. The effective exercise of that role will depend on the cooperative stake of others in a reasonably controlled international environment. The analogy that readily comes to mind is not that of states intimidated by a global policeman but rather that of airliners cooperating with their air traffic controller.

That change has already been occurring, with the United States today sharing to a very considerable extent with West Germany and Japan the responsibility for international financial policy. The annual economic summit, despite its meager output in recent years, provides a further example of essentially indirect policy direction. In the military realm the required strategic changes will also enhance the role of the key European countries in NATO decision-making, with the American role becoming relatively less decisive. Consensual leadership, although still based on a central American role, is thus already becoming a fact.

The positive management of the East-West relationship is also likely to become a more collective affair. It is most improbable that a grand American-Soviet accommodation can take place. The interests of the two sides are simply too conflicting. The notion of a global U.S.-Soviet partnership for peace and development is even more illusory. More probable are partial accords on issues where the two sides do have reciprocal interests, in a setting of both continued geostrategic competition and some cooperation. In contrast our European friends, notably Germany, are likely to move further than the United States in exploring various forms of political and economic collaboration with Moscow.

Nonetheless, it is likely that in the foreseeable future the Soviet sphere will be preoccupied with a protracted systemic crisis, including major economic upheavals and perhaps even political unrest. Thus, the Soviet Union will remain internally too weak to become a partner for peace and externally too strong to be satisfied with the status quo. Under these conditions the East-West relationship will continue to represent the negative aspect of the global agenda—i.e., how to avoid growing tensions or conflicts—rather than its more positive, cooperative side.

The emergence in the meantime of a greater degree of pluralism in the West’s decision-making is all to the good. It is also in keeping with long-standing American aspirations. But such consensual leadership still requires a vital, dynamic and powerful America. All concerned are aware that consensual leadership can otherwise easily degenerate into a gridlock. Thus even America’s economic rivals have a fundamentally positive interest in America’s economic health.


This is particularly true in the American-Japanese relationship. A greatly revitalized America can be nurtured by policies that exploit the special complementarity of American and Japanese interests, while also providing Japan with the safest route to continued growth. It is really quite striking how much the two countries’ needs and interests match. The strengths of one compensate for the weaknesses of the other. Each needs the other; indeed, each is likely to falter without the other. Working together ever more closely, they can assure for themselves unrivaled global economic, financial and technological leadership, while reinforcing the protective umbrella of American global military power.

America needs Japanese capital to finance its industrial renovation and technological innovation; it needs Japanese cooperation in protecting its still significant global lead in creative R&D and in opening up new scientific frontiers for both peaceful and military uses; it needs Japanese participation in securing through enhanced economic development such geopolitically threatened yet vital areas as the Philippines, Pakistan, Egypt, Central America and Mexico. Japan needs American security protection for its homeland; it needs open access to the American market for its continued economic well-being and, through cooperation with America, secure access to a stable and expanding world market; it needs to maintain and even expand its collaborative participation in the vast American corporate and academic research facilities that are so central to Japan’s continued innovation.

With Japanese investment in America growing, the Japanese stake in a healthy America will continue to grow. Japan for many years to come will be heavily dependent on American security protection, obtained by an American willingness to spend on defense a share of its GNP more than three times larger than Japan’s; hence the Japanese stake in a globally engaged America will remain great. With America heavily indebted, the American stake in a productive and prosperous Japanese partner will also grow—but so will resentments over the trade imbalance and probably also over the increasing Japanese buyouts of American corporations and properties. Conflict between the two thus could grow even as the need for a joint partnership becomes more obvious.

While it is impossible to quantify the importance of the relationship to either of the two sides, over the last several years the American economic situation, given both the trade and the budget deficits, might have become untenable without the inflow from Japan of well over $100 billion. Even that rough figure does not account for the various other tangible and intangible benefits to America of the good political relationship that it has with the new economic giant across the Pacific. It is simply central to America’s global geostrategic position.

For Japan, these incalculable considerations are even more important; indeed, they are quite literally a matter of life or death. Japan would simply not be—nor would it remain—what it is without the American connection. At the same time, on the narrow level of military expenditures, it can be roughly estimated that without American protection Japan would probably have to spend on its defense some additional $50 billion a year in order to feel truly secure (while at the same time alienating and frightening by such expenditures many of its neighbors).

It is important to restate these verities, for there is the possibility that in the foreseeable future domestic political pressures, especially in America, could damage the relationship—at the very stage when it is ripe for further development. Only through the deliberate fostering of a more cooperative, politically more intimate, economically more organic partnership—in effect, through the gradual and informal emergence on the world scene of a de facto new player—can these two major countries not only avoid a debilitating collision but also ensure that America continues to play the role the world system requires. In brief, the upgrading of the U.S.-Japanese relationship from a transpacific alliance into a global partnership is needed not only for the sake of the two countries concerned but also for the sake of the stability and prosperity of the international order as a whole.

Seeking a more organic partnership of global consequence will require overcoming the obvious cultural and institutional obstacles on both sides, penetrating the tight insularity of the Japanese society and rising above the inherent shortsightedness of the American political process. It will call for a series of sustained, minor steps toward an ever closer relationship, as well as perhaps one or two major acts designed to propel the process more significantly forward.

In the first category one might include the deliberate nurturing of a cross-participation of Japanese and Americans on respective boards of directors of major enterprises, mergers by major business institutions or banks, much expanded exchanges of scientific talent, joint investment schemes and widened collaboration in high technology innovation. Some of that is happening already, but much more could be done, especially as the linguistic barriers fade with the greater familiarity with English on the part of the emerging Japanese elites and also with the forthcoming availability of computerized pocket translating devices.

Perhaps even more significant in fostering the needed global partnership—which one can perhaps call "Amerippon"—would be some major, farsighted acts of statesmanship that in themselves would be beneficial to the international community while advancing the special interests of the partnership itself. While such efforts would require a very major initiative and a great act of political will, they are feasible.

One effort could entail a joint, comprehensive strategy for the development of either the Latin American economy as a whole, or at least its Central American and Mexican portions. Japanese leaders have at times spoken of a possible Japanese initiative on this front. A joint American-Japanese undertaking not only would give the effort greater dimension, but would also significantly upgrade the level of ongoing American-Japanese cooperation. In any case, the need for a major international effort in the region is well established, and the benefits, strategic and economic, to "Amerippon" of a major joint regional initiative—in an area of great potential importance to both—are also self-evident.

An even more ambitious goal might involve jointly setting a target date for an American-Japanese free-trade zone. This would involve a commitment by both sides to a relationship that moves deliberately in the opposite direction from protectionism. In today’s climate it may appear utopian even to invoke this notion, yet the more farsighted thinkers on both sides recognize that movement in such a direction would greatly enhance the prospects of global multilateral cooperation while directly benefiting the two economies involved. This is why such a seemingly farfetched notion was quietly whispered about during the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Washington in early 1988. It would be the logical outcome of a process that deliberately exploits the objective complementarity of the respective interests and needs of the two sides. The result would be not only the creation of the world’s paramount economic unit but also inevitably enhanced global political consultations and joint strategizing.


In the years to come no alternative to a leading American world role is likely to develop, and America’s partners will continue to want the United States to play that role. But in addition, there will be creative opportunities for a renewed and revitalized American contribution to a more cooperative world system. That makes our historical context rather different from the experience of other major powers whose historical trajectories entered irreversible declines.

To seize these opportunities America will have to be guided by a geostrategic vision that accepts the need for more consensual leadership, that purposely shapes a new global partnership with Japan while also coping in the meantime on its own with new geopolitical and security challenges. All of this will call for major adjustments in the American global geostrategy, on a scale perhaps as great as took place in the late 1940s. That is the likely challenge facing America during the last decade of the second millennium. It is also a challenge that can be met.

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  • Zbigniew Brzezinski is Professor of Government at Columbia University and Counselor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from 1977 to 1981.
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