The decline of the superpowers

In political circles, of course, everyone knows who is to blame for the fact that Washington cannot run much of th eworld as firmly and decisively today as it almost could in the heyday after World War II.

If you are among Democrats the blame lies at the doorstep of Republicans, particularly President Nixon and his most important adviser and lieutenant, Henry Kissinger. If you are among Republicans, the fault lies with Democrats for having overloaded the federal budget with goodies for the undeserving poor and neglecting the national defense.

The truth of the matter lies elsewhere. For anyone willing to work through a highly sophisticated and technical explanation of what has happened to reduce the ability of Washington to make plans for most of the world and have them executed, I refer to an article in the spring issue of Foreign Affairs, "Inflation and American Power." It was written by Prof. David P. Calleo, who is at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

The fault behind declining US power lies with many people and many events. One big part of the blame, of course, goes to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson for having pursued expensive domestic and foreign policies. Another piece goes to Republican President Richard Nixon for continuing those expensive policies and then sustaining them by devaluing the dollar. If Lyndon Johnson laid the foundations for our troubles, Richard Nixon built the superstructure by the dollar devaluation which unleashed inflation. It has been with us ever since.

But according to Professor Calleo's reconstruction of the story (which seems to me to be eminently correct), there is also the fact in the background that the policies pursued by the United States at the end of World War II were sound, and remarkably successful. Americans set out to rescue the economies of their friends and allies, and eventually their former enemies, and to build a coherent economic trading community among those countries which did not follow the Moscow way.

Those policies were splendidly successful. The prosperity of much of today's world came from those good works launched in the glory days of victory in 1945. And there is no solid reason to think that the prosperity would be threatened today if the American economy had not been overloaded with too much welfare spending at the same time as the Vietnam war. The two together overextended American commitments. It was too much for the resources of even the world's strongest economy.

But, even if there had not been the overcommitment of the "Great Society" at home plus the Vietnam war overseas with resulting inflation, there would still have been a relative decline in US influence around the world. Here is Professor Calleo's version of that part of the story:

"As Europe and Japan have revived and the Third World developed, the international system has grown more plural. With strategic parity, the superpowers have themselves grown more equal. These changes have inevitably affected America's world position. They represent not so much the decline of America as the revival of the world."

In other words, the decline is in part the result of excellent and successful planning at the end of World War II. But it has been exaggerated by the overextension of both foreign and domestic policies during the Johnson-Nixon years which, in turn, plunged the US into an inflation which has not yet been brought under control.

If overcommitment is the main reason for exaggerated damage to America's world role, then what is the solution? The main answer is to cut back on commitments both at home and abroad until they are again in balance with resources. That is the way to end the inflation.

But is such a cutback possible politically? And could be desired result be gained without cutting back on foreign policy commitments? President Reagan is trying to cut back on domestic welfare commitments but as yet has not proposed an equal cutback on foreign commitments.

Professor Calleo's conclusion is that the US has "wandered into a cul-de-sac of unsustainable pretensions abroad and wanton inflation at home," and "equilibrium will not return to our economy at home without a more reali stic balance of power abroad."

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