CONSIDER the difference in the world position of the United States at the end of World War II and, almost half a century later, at the end of the cold war. Then, we were not only the most powerful country in the world; we were far and away the richest - the only major combatant with its industrial plant intact. Our allies as well as our enemies had been laid waste.
Today, we are still the world's greatest military power, but the power does not count for as much as it once did. And we are no longer even close to being the world's richest country. On the contrary, we owe foreigners more money than any country has ever owed before. The deficit and our domestic budget is greater than the gross national product of any but a handful of the richest countries.
This change in our fortunes has profound implications for how we order our foreign policy in the post-cold war world and for the role which we play in that world. Walter Lippmann, whose wisdom has never been more sorely missed, used to remind us from time to time that a nation's foreign policy has to be tailored to fit its resources.
This means that American foreign policy has to be scaled back. That's too bad, because it coincides with a period of seminal historic change in Eastern Europe. During the coming five years or so, patterns that will influence the shape of Europe for the next several decades will be set. In this sense, post-cold war Europe is comparable to post-World War II Europe. The period 1945-50 saw the launching of the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the clanging down of the Iron Curtain, and the start of the cold war. The United States was a leader either in initiating these events or in reacting to them. We are inhibited from that kind of leadership now by a lack of resources which we had then.
We can at least stop the expenditures that were associated with the cold war and are continuing. Besides the Defense Department, these are most noticeable in the foreign-aid program. Take aid to Pakistan and the Philippines, two of the largest recipients, as two of many examples. The cold war drove aid to Pakistan as support for American policy in Afghanistan; aid to the Philippines was to assure continued use of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base. But the United States and Pakistan have different interests in Afghanistan. With the Soviets gone from that country, US-Pakistani relations need to be reconsidered. And the need for Clark and Subic needs to be reexamined.
If the end of the cold war produces, or ought to produce, a peace dividend in the foreign-aid program as well as in the Defense Department, it also creates new needs for foreign aid, needs which cannot be easily met in our present straitened circumstances. Nicaragua, no less than Poland, is a victim of the cold war. One was victimized by the United States, the other by the Soviet Union. We have more than an ordinary obligation to undo, so far as possible, the damage done by our economic warfare against Nicaragua (damage that was compounded by ill-advised policies of the Sandinista regime).
THE needs of Poland - indeed of all Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union - are no less urgent. After World War II we spent a great deal of money and energy in rebuilding the devastation that had been wreaked not only on our allies, but also on our former enemies. This policy was so resoundingly successful that we now stand in awe of the economic behemoths that have arisen from the ashes of Japan and Germany. (Japanese and German financing of our budget and trade deficits keeps us from realizing how badly off we are.)
Thus there is precedent for helping defeated enemies. The Bush administration is being short-sighted in opposing lending to the Soviet Union by the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. This is in keeping with the administration's tendency to follow history rather than to make it. In our present circumstances, we could not do much ourselves anyway, but we certainly ought not to discourage our European friends who can do something.
Until we get our own fiscal house in order - something that daily becomes more urgent - we are going to have to rely on our friends to do a great deal that we once would have done ourselves. We are also going to have to stop acting like a superpower. Nuclear weapons, which we have in abundance, don't count for as much as money, of which we have a great scarcity. We can come back from this, but (just like an alcoholic) not until we admit that we have a problem. An exercise in humility would probably be good for us, but that's not going to make it easier.