A Crow's-Nest Critique of the United States

THE NEXT CENTURY. By David Halberstam, William Morrow, 126 pp., $16.95

ANTICIPATION is whetted by this seemingly important volume of scarcely more than 100 pages, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of ``The Best and the Brightest'' and ``The Reckoning.'' The book jacket promises that David Halberstam ruminates on the possible shape of the 21st century and ``proposes some provocative solutions to our current dilemma.'' Curiously, he does not.

The essay is eloquent, sprinkled with a few idea-bites of note, but it tells us virtually nothing about what the future will be like, or how we should shape it. The ``next century'' of the book title does not even refer to the 21st century, but simply to the undefined era that succeeds the ``American century,'' which is deemed to be over.

Halberstam suggests that the new era will be defined by Japan, a nation on the ascent and ``surging with confidence.'' The pragmatic and self-sacrificing Japanese have been successful in fashioning ``a form of state-guided communal capitalism,'' giving the world a new definition of economic power. Unlike America, Japan maximizes productivity through education and discipline.

In Europe, the Soviet empire is unraveling under Gorbachev, ``the most radical of modern leaders'' (at least until a few months ago), and the coming economic transformation of Eastern Europe is ``likely to surprise us.'' Germany will catapult to a new level of dynamism and strength.

While others surge or stumble forward, America seems frozen. Halberstam gauges its high-water mark in 1964, when Americans had the illusion that they could have it all. The Vietnam War expedited the end of the American century. The cold war perverted the nature and purpose of our society, leading to a national security infrastructure with a dynamic of its own.

Halberstam's lament continues. Americans picked up many bad habits over 30 years of affluence. The United States is viewed as addicted to cheap oil, and afraid to tax its people honestly. The country sells off the future to pay for the present, and politicians dare not tell the truth. America's class divisions are widening, and becoming more bitter. The Reagan years witnessed ``hysterical jingoism'' and ``capitalism gone mad.'' Network television news has trivialized politics, and US society has become isolated from the new realities of the world. Other countries reinvest more in capital structures and R&D, and place a higher value on education.

Complaints well taken, but all have been voiced by many others in recent years. Core conventional wisdom now opines that the Japanese have the right stuff for the new era (although several contrarians warn that they are due for a fall), and that the US spends too much on guns and not enough on human resources. ``The most interesting question,'' according to Halberstam, ``is why this country [the US] remains so paralyzed in the face of what would for most countries be threatening news.'' None of the many answers are explored.

Equally interesting is the absence of any attempt to sketch what the next century might be or ought to be. George Bush is often criticized for his lack of attention to the ``vision thing,'' but Halberstam is just as evasive.

Many surprises will greet Americans in the decades to come (and even now, Halberstam's ``posthegemony America'' reasserts itself - or has a last fling - in the unfortunate and unforeseen Persian Gulf war). But a few basic directions are quite likely. World population will balloon from its present 5.4 billion to more than 8 billion by 2020. Nations of the world will take various actions to preserve the environment and create some semblance of a sustainable society. Globalization o f the economy will continue, and a wide array of technologies will dominate our lives both for better and for worse. Halberstam mentions none of this.

As for prescription, the best Halberstam can recommend is that America should reexamine ``our inflated view of our world role and our inflated view of how well our own economy works,'' and the president should ask ``what can we do to forge a strong economy into the next century.'' With such tepid generalities from one of the best and brightest journalists, perhaps the United States really is in deep trouble.

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