19 MARCH 1988, Page 35


How fast is the USA sinking?

Ferdinand Mount


Unwin Hyman, £18.95

Histories of civilisation come in one size — large — but in assorted shapes. Some seem to be written by housemasters manques; marks are awarded or deducted for moral tone; civilisatiOns sag because they fail to pull their socks up, or they soar because the head of house makes §iire that nobody breaks training. For Arnold Toyn- bee, the West was unmistakably on the skids when shorthand typists in Manhattan refused to work on Saturday mornings (it is an awesome thought that one may be watching the Hinge of History creak while queueing in Barclays on Saturdays for those cheerful clerks in their weekend casuals). These days, modish histories of civilisation tend to belong to the Marinade School: everything soaks into everything else. These works are characterised by a rich mousse of miscellaneous information, covered with a watery Marxist coulis and usually written in French. They contain sentences like: 'with the penetration of the sewing machine, the souffle and the con- dom into the Mediterranean basin, the capitalist undertow of development re- verses itself into the socio-economic super- structure.'

Our Anglo-Saxon fare tends to be home- lier but timelier. While saying nothing very new, it often hits a nerve. The message of Paul Kennedy's study of what makes and unmakes a Great Power is not exactly startling; viz, war is hell, and it also costs a great deal of money. But the book has set the apprehensions of the American public tingling, much as Norman Angell's The Great Illusion did for British readers in 1910.

Professor Kennedy is no Gibbon; he is not even a Toynbee. He is an honest academic historian from Newcastle who now teaches at Yale. That his book should adorn every self-respecting American cof- fee table is not because of any dazzling display of fresh insight or illuminating detail. It is a long haul from Suleiman the Magnificent to George Shultz. Except for his own special subject, our old friend Causes of the First World War, Professor Kennedy writes from well-known secon- dary sources. Unlike the exam bluffer, he does not even bother to regurgitate his sources in his own words but sets large slabs of other academics' prose amid his own. He also has the irritating habit of secondary quoting. If you wish to know when and where Napoleon or Bismarck said this or that, all you usually find in the notes is 'quoted in G. G. Glockenspiel's The Century of Synthesis'. All the same, Kennedy's method has the straightforward virtues of an 0-level essay before GCSE and 'empathy' reared their ugly heads. He presents the facts and figures (as far as they can be reliably had) to give us some idea of the connection between economic strength and military success in the leading powers over the last 500 years and ends up with a chapter of speculation on the prospects for the 21st century. It is the final section of this 'The U.S.: The Problem of Number One in Relative Decline' — that has set the alarm bells ringing in Washington. There are only 20-odd pages of it, and even they are less gloomy than the title suggests. But once the fear of decline takes hold, it finds confirmation of its worst fears in the most moderate forebodings.

The first great powers to bite the dust seem to have done so more or less wilfully. The mandarins of the Ming dynasty turned their faces against commerce and technolo- gy; the Chinese closed their blast furnaces and coke ovens just as Abraham Darby was starting up at Coalbrookdale. The successor of Suleiman persecuted mer- chants, especially foreigners, and aban- doned the construction of ocean-going vessels; so did the Japanese shoguns. For mandarins, sultans and samurai alike, ossi- fication became an organising principle.

The rise of Western Europe was due, Kennedy argues, to the lack of any single stifling authority of the Ottoman type and the relatively open-minded attitudes to- wards commerce and technology, attitudes which date back centuries before they were formalised by Adam Smith. What un- horsed these great powers was usually shortage of cash. Mercenaries were plenti- ful; four-fifths of Gustavus Adolphus' great 'Swedish' army at the Battle of Lutzen consisted of foreign hirelings mostly Scots, English and German. But they were fearfully expensive (although the Swedes were brilliant at twisting the arms of the German princes to pay for their protection).

The French Crown had to declare itself bankrupt in 1557, after borrowing from the bankers at rates of up to 16 per cent. France's opponents, the Spaniards, had to suspend debt repayments in the same year. Interest payments on the debts bequeathed by Philip II amounted to two-thirds of all State revenues; the same was true in the later stages of the reign of Charles V, in theory the most powerful man in modern history. The wealth of the Indies was swallowed by these huge debts, much as the oil wealth has been squandered over parts of the Third World today. Cash, cash, cash. Pas d'argent, pas de suisses.

The development of modern financial institutions altered the problems. Eighteenth-century wars were no doubt just as expensive. At the height of the Seven Years War, Britain had a fleet of 120 ships, was paying for more than 200,000 soldiers, and was also subsidising Prussia. Yet the money markets and the country's increasing industrial and colonial revenues managed to cope. But only a few years later, the first signs of what Kennedy calls 'imperial overstretch' began to appear. The supply lines to fight a large-scale Continental war in America were simply too long; even the Royal Navy was begin- ning to feel the strain of simultaneously protecting the North Atlantic convoys, the exit from the Baltic, the operations in the Caribbean and in India.

'Overstretch' is itself an elastic term as Kennedy uses it throughout the rest of the book: sometimes primarily applied to geography, sometimes to manpower, sometimes (and increasingly so in the 20th century), to the horrendously escalat- ing costs of ships, aircraft and advanced weaponry. Nevertheless, Kennedy insists, the same general rule continues to apply: All of the major shifts in the world's military- power balances have followed alterations in the productive balances; and further, that the rising and falling of the various empires and states in the international system have been confirmed by the outcomes of the major Great Power wars, where victory has always gone to the side with the greatest material


As they say in boxing, a good big 'un will always beat a good littl'un.

Since the United States cannot hope indefinitely to maintain that extraordinary pre-eminence it enjoyed in the wasteland of 1945, it must learn to make the best of a relatively declining position in the world. We are moving into a multi-polar world, for the USSR, the other superpower, is slipping behind Western Europe and Japan in economic terms and will soon be eclipsed by the energetic and pragmatic Chinese.

For Kennedy as for Dr Kissinger, the prospects stir memories of the 19th-century concert of powers, better and safer pros- pects perhaps than the bi-polar struggle in which 'a gain for one side appears as an absolute loss for the other'. Instead of a global struggle between two self-styled titans, we are to look forward to a shifting pattern of alliances designed to contain the ambitions of five or six formidable powers.

A kind of hedged optimism can thus be squeezed out of Professor Kennedy's sup- posedly alarming prognoses. He is right to hedge. In the couple of years since he wrote his forecasts, almost every one looks a little dated. The American economy seems far more vigorous than he suggests; the German and Japanese prospects rather less plain sailing; Britain looks a bit perk- ier, and so on. But these marginal shifts do not really undermine the convincing thrust of the whole. The 'age of the superpowers' was a transient accident. Europe had fought itself to a state of financial, indust- rial and moral exhaustion in two world wars; the histories of Japan and China have been equally traumatic. The world we seem to be moving slowly towards may be less abnormal than the one we are leaving.

Is all this such gloomy news for the Americans? Is it true that, in Kennedy's paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw, `Rome fell; Babylon fell; Scarsdale's turn will come'? It is true, no doubt, that

given the worldwide array of military liabili- ties which the United States has assumed since 1945, its capacity to carry those bur- dens is obviously less than it was several decades ago, when its share of global manu- facturing and GNP was much larger, its agriculture was not in crisis, its balance of payments was far healthier, the government budget was also in balance, and it was not so heavily in debt to the rest of the world.

It is also true that

if the United States at present continues to devote seven per cent or more of its GNP to defence spending while its major economic rivals, especially Japan, allocate a far smaller proportion, then ipso facto the latter have potentially more funds 'free' for civilian investment; if the United States continues to invest a massive amount of its R&D activities into military-related production while the Japanese and West Germans concentrate upon commercial R&D . . . then it seems inevitable that the American share of world manufacturing will steadily decline, and also likely that its economic growth rates will be slower than in those countries dedicated to the marketplace.

But the shifts required to set the US accounts straight are nowhere near of the same magnitude as those needed to get Philip II out of hock, or even to keep the British Empire going after the war. Ten cents on a gallon of petrol and a modest rise in direct taxation — such as, one way or another, the next President may find himself sneaking in — and the budget deficit would soon be brought under con- trol. A modest reduction in US garrisons in Europe (they have often been smaller than today, even at hotter points in the Cold War, as Zbigniew Brzezinski recently pointed out) might do the same for Amer- ica's balance of payments without much upsetting the East-West balance, if it was linked to similar withdrawals of Soviet conventional troops and not accompanied by wholesale denuclearisation of Europe. That is a big if, portending an extremely tricky decade, but not necessarily a calami- tous one.

Meanwhile, the US economy remains unique in world history, not simply by reason of its size, but by its flexibility and vigour. As Professor Kennedy says over and over again, the only certain thing now is that relative change is speeding up; firms and nations copy and improve on each other faster than they ever did; men, money and ideas move around the globe with disorientating rapidity. One of the most striking of all statistics concerns not the brilliant Japanese achievements in high technology but the readiness of American workers to accept a standstill in real wages over 20 years in order to stay in the game. I think Scarsdale has some time to go yet.

In a way, Kennedy stops just when the argument starts getting interesting. For the real question, which he does not address, is how far the American people are hooked on world supremacy. After all, their days as an interventionist world power date back only a few decades. They are not by history or necessity a trading nation. They have no overseas dominions to liquidate. One Vietnam seems to have neutralised their crusading instinct for a generation• We have all had our say about their naive moralising. What needs reflecting on more is how faint an impact the outside world makes on American life, and how thank- fully most Americans respond to President Reagan's reluctance to involve them in its problems. European visitors to the primal' ies always profess to be shocked how little the voters and the candidates know of foreign affairs. In years to come, that may be a strength. What you don't know, you don't miss.