How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
This is the season of political debate. While a few foreign policy differences have opened between the two parties—for example, on deployment of a strategic defensive system—the debates so far have revolved around personalities more than policies. They have been surprisingly devoid of serious substance. Even the Senate hearings on the INF treaty, which could have provoked a major controversy, have to be called tame. Sharper divisions will presumably appear once the final candidates are chosen.
Meanwhile, a concern over foreign policy that has captured the public mind is being articulated outside the arena of presidential politics, among scholars, commentators and officials looking back on their former responsibilities. There is one general conclusion: with President Reagan’s departure, his particular approach to foreign affairs has clearly run its course, no matter who succeeds him. "The day of the messianic foreign policy . . . is coming to an end, for a while at least" is the way Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., put it in our Winter issue.
What can be said now of the post-Reagan period? For a start, the next several years will be dominated by the legacy of the huge budget deficits and trade imbalances accumulated during the Reagan presidency. We have become badly overextended.
"Our aims may exceed our resources," Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, concluded in this journal. Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard elaborated on the theme: America’s foreign policy is no longer in balance, he argued in our America and the World 1987/88 issue; a "gap" has developed between our commitments and our capabilities. Consequently, we have to repair our economic position if we are to restore our strategic balance. The question, in short, is whether, and how, the United States can maintain its security commitments and defend its interests in a time of severely constrained economic resources.
Some observers go further and wonder if the problem is solely one of economics. In his widely noted new book analyzing the historical rise and fall of great powers, Professor Paul Kennedy of Yale suggests that the United States suffers not merely from an imbalance but from the same "imperial overstretch" that afflicted the empires of the past: the United States is vulnerable, unless it adjusts, to the fate of its great power predecessors over the past 500 years. The unusual popularity of his hefty volume is testimony that the issue of American decline is striking a sensitive nerve. It will inevitably be in the background of the political debate in the presidential contest. And the related issues of constancy and competence in our global role, as well as of economic capacity, will clearly be on the agenda of the next chief executive when he takes office.
Restoring a balance is possible for a statesman; if the issue runs deeper and the United States does indeed confront a period of historical decline, the problem becomes one of an entirely new magnitude.
Two of our authors in this issue contest the implications of Spenglerian pessimism about America’s future. Zbigniew Brzezinski asserts that "rumors of America’s imminent imperial decline are somewhat premature." Walt W. Rostow, in reviewing Kennedy’s book, raises doubts about the applicability of the historical model to the United States.
In any case, we cannot escape the immediate issues: how will we maintain our national defense in an era of severely constrained budgets? Will our allies be prepared to assume a larger burden in what we believe to be the common effort? How do we conduct East-West diplomacy in the strategic circumstances so altered by the INF treaty and the incipient Reagan-Gorbachev détente? The articles that follow offer some tentative answers.
There seems to be a consensus that the status quo cannot be maintained. The debate is over the nature of the changes required: to stay within the mainstream of policy or seek more radical alternatives to confront the demands of a new era, such as major troop withdrawals from Europe. Brzezinski makes the case for a new geostrategic vision, including an increased assumption by Western Europe of the costs of its defense and a stronger, more cooperative partnership with Japan. Increased burden-sharing is also the theme of the article by David Calleo, Harold van B. Cleveland and Leonard Silk, who describe the geopolitical causes and impact of the budget deficit and the weak dollar.
But the effort to shift the burden of European defense costs is an issue still open to analysis and debate, and is complicated by the potential consequences of the INF treaty and the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Europe. The lowering of the nuclear threshold would seem to argue for an increased effort to strengthen NATO’s conventional defenses, rather than an American withdrawal. On the other hand, the economic pressures on the United States point toward a reduction in the American contribution to the alliance. In his farewell appearance at NATO, in early March, President Reagan sought to reassure the allies about the American commitments; he received strong support for another arms treaty with the Soviet Union on longer-range strategic weapons. But the overall atmosphere was one of apprehension about the direction of a matured alliance in the 1990s.
European security and arms control issues are addressed by Lynn E. Davis, the former deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. She believes that, despite the current "unease" in Europe, the INF treaty accomplished the West’s objectives and that, accordingly, further steps in arms control can be taken if lessons drawn from the INF negotiations are taken into account. Two other defense experts, Jeffrey Record and David Rivkin, see major problems for the alliance in adjusting to the post-INF circumstances. They doubt a Soviet interest in accommodating Western terms for a mutual reduction in conventional defense forces, despite General Secretary Gorbachev’s new rhetoric.
Skepticism about Gorbachev’s basic aims is the starting point for former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s comprehensive review of the arms control record and the consequences for the future. He strongly urges that the focus of arms control remain on genuine reductions in weapons. But while pursuing this course, he argues, the West must maintain its strong commitment to defense, and the next administration must resist the major cuts being proposed in Congress.
Thus the post-Reagan agenda for American foreign policy is beginning to emerge. Some of the questions covered in this issue of Foreign Affairs have a familiar ring—NATO, China, Israel and the Arabs, the United Nations, Indochina. But in confronting them in the years ahead, the United States will have to operate under drastically altered economic and geopolitical conditions.