TODAY the United States leads the struggle against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Our troops in Saudi Arabia are the most numerous there; our planes and ships, the most powerful. President Bush, at the United Nations or in Washington, orchestrates the coalition and is head spokesman for the allies from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. But once upon a time the world leader operated without allies, bore all the costs, and unilaterally made all the decisions. So it was with Augustus Caesar's Rome. So it was with Queen Victoria's Britain.
And so it was in the late 1940s when American introduced the Marshall Plan for European recovery. General MacArthur's occupation of Japan ruled omnipotently and had the deep pockets to pay for whatever Japan needed.
Now things are different. President Bush expects the Kuwait government in exile and the frightened Saudi Arabian king to bear a generous fraction of the costs incurred for their defense. Past oil sales gave them hundreds of billions in assets: to save their lives and restore their future incomes, they are made to help pay the bills.
So it is also with several of the other Gulf sheikdoms and emirates. Poverty-stricken Egypt, first to play ball on the Bush team, is given new billions in food aid and debt forgiveness. To honor old parities, Israel is to receive new armament aids. One fears that, before the rollback of the Iraqi dictator is completed, the terrorist-supporting dictator of Syria will be qualifying for Washington handouts!
To compensate Turkey and Jordan for the grave economic harm they incur in honoring or suffering the trade embargo imposed on Iraq, President Bush requires billions of further dollars.
So far, I have been dealing with costs expressed in terms of money and such economic resources as food, clothing, tanks, cannons, and ships. France, Britain, and other UN allies of America have been sending token units of soldiers and token naval vessels as well. The small Saudi Arabian Army now has alongside it troops from Egypt and other Arab League opponents of Saddam Hussein.
One supposes that the American forces, who now number beyond 100,000, have no real need for these foreign manpowers. Indeed, coordinating such heterogeneous battalions must enormously complicate the tasks of defense and offense. Why then this dramatic pressure by Washington to recruit military forces from so many other UN allies?
The reasons are diplomatic and psychological. Arabs generally hate Americans. Saddam Hussein counts on that. Egyptians are valuable in giving legitimacy to the anti-Iraqi operations. Even the Syrians, who come into the court of world opinion with unclean hands, are welcomed by Machiavellian opportunists. Some would take help from the devil himself, and perhaps even from the unbalanced Libyan dictators.
The allies who were victorious in 1945 were glad to make Japan and Germany pacifistic nations forbidden to possess armies. How ironic then that the White House and Congress now criticize Japan and Germany for their lack of meaningful manpower delegations to the Gulf.
The main question I want to address here is economic not military or diplomatic. What do we learn about America as a superpower from the contrast between President Bush as 1990 beggar for burden-sharing and the 1947 President Truman as provider of Marshall Plan and other foreign aid programs?
Is America a has-been leader? Has the US gone the way of imperial Rome and triumphant Britannica?
Who will take America's place if it be the case that she has lost it? Surely, in the age after Gorbachev, not the Soviet Union? Japan? Reunified Germany? The post-1992 Common Market?
I know that Yale's historian, Paul Kennedy, has written a best seller on America's decline. The late Herman Kahn, brilliant physicist and cold-war strategist who insisted on thinking the unthinkable, 20 years ago, invented the concept of the Pacific Basin and claimed it would come to be world dominant.
Here are my economic views.
1. America has definitely in the 1990-2010 epoch declined in its fractional share of global income. But it is still at No. 1. There is no close substitute, with Japan, at No. 2, enjoying total real GNP of less than one-half that of the US.
2. In per capita real standard of living, the US is definitely still first. Canada and Norway come next. Then Germany, Denmark, France, Switzerland, and Sweden. Japan is still not quite in these leaders' class (but of course is gaining a bit most years).
3. Although rich and richest, America now lacks spare resources. We save little and consume much. Presidents Reagan and Bush weakened the American tax system. No wonder George Bush, with beggar's bowl in hand, pleads with all his allies not to be ``free riders.''
It is good that America be realistic about its limited powers. It is good for the world that the two superpowers - the US and the USSR - be losing relative hegemony.
And it is good that the rest of the world, from Korea and Japan to Italy and Spain, emancipate themselves from dependence on a Big Brother. In the Age After Gorbachev, the prospects are brightened for a world of peaceful nations in tolerable and tolerant balance.
That is why the struggle to contain Iraq is more than a fight to keep the price of oil moderate.