Last Days of the American Empire

Philip Towle

  • Armageddon?: Essays 1983-1987 by Gore Vidal
    Deutsch, 244 pp, £11.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 233 98156 X
  • Empire by Gore Vidal
    Deutsch, 587 pp, £11.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 233 98152 7
  • The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy
    Unwin Hyman, 677 pp, £18.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 04 909019 4

The American novelist living in Europe and the British historian living in America are in broad agreement. According to Gore Vidal, the American Empire died in September 1985 when the country became a debtor, because ‘like most modern empires, ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic primacy.’ The last chapters of Paul Kennedy’s epic study suggest that American power is subsiding relative to other powers rather than dying.

Vidal sees himself as the literary chronicler of the rise and decline of American power. His latest novel begins as the Spanish-American War of 1898 was ending and ushering in the age of American colonialism in the Philippines and elsewhere. Vidal describes the process through the eyes of his characters, Brooks Adams, John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt and a host of others. While Kennedy coolly analyses everything in terms of long-term trends, Vidal’s concerns are with the personalities involved – the indecisive McKinley and the ludicrous Teddy Roosevelt. His latest collection of essays is partly a polemic against President Reagan, but, as with many liberals, Nixon causes Vidal most problems. The man whose Presidency ended with Watergate was also the statesman who brought about rapprochement with China, banned biological weapons, signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviet Union, and eventually ended American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Moreover Kennedy and Vidal agree essentially with Nixon’s view of the position of the Great Powers. In a famous interview, which he gave in 1972, President Nixon welcomed the replacement of a bi-polar with a multipolar international system, claiming that it ‘will be a safer and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance’. Nixon’s America ceased to manage the world economy as it had done since the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. It withdrew from South-East Asia and began to try to reduce its defence commitments.

Divided by the Vietnam War, shocked by the racial violence in their cities and by the Watergate scandal, the American people seemed for a time to accept Nixon’s views on their country’s reduced status. But, by the end of the Seventies, the Carter years, and in particular, the humiliation of the prolonged hostage crisis in Iran, had paved the way for the Reagan Administration – which was all the more assertive because of the humility which had preceded it. During President Reagan’s first term in office, it really seemed to many Americans that he had reversed the downward momentum of the country, just as de Gaulle changed the course of French history in the Sixties. The Contragate scandal and the massive budget and trade deficits have led to bitter disillusionment. All this helps to explain the popularity in the USA of writers who put their predicament into perspective.

Of course, many of Gore Vidal’s political essays should not be taken too seriously. He is a master of the black joke: the suggestion that US governments have encouraged persecution of homosexuals to divert attention from Vietnam. Watergate and other problems; that President Reagan was deeply influenced by fundamentalist Christian preachers who believed that the world could (and should) end in a nuclear holocaust, hence the President’s attacks on the ‘evil empire’ and his arms buildup. Taken at face value, such suggestions make little sense. Reagan will be remembered for his criticisms of nuclear weapons and his proposal that the USA should rely on Star Wars to protect itself. Furthermore he has now signed the most far-reaching arms-control agreement yet negotiated with the Soviet Union. But Vidal apparently enjoys provoking the wrath of the Administration almost as much as he enjoys re-creating the atmosphere of the turn of the century. He has a deep knowledge of US history and culture, though I suspect the characters in his novel would not have been as introspective or prescient as he suggests. The American Empire was not created according to the plans of Brooks Adams and others, but, like the British Empire, by chance and circumstance.

Rising, confident powers are not introspective. Not for them the examination of the roots, or the impact on others, of their success. States, like armies, seek to learn more from defeats than from victories, though they prefer to learn what they want to learn. Thus, after 1870, the British became ever more conscious of their relative decline, and began to examine the reasons for it. Alexander Strange, Lyon Playfair and others saw the backward state of scientific education in Britain, and warned about the effect of this on industrial and technological efficiency. But because their proposals involved difficult social changes, government expenditure and an unpalatable educational transformation, they had far less impact than the circumstances warranted. The writings of the American admiral A.T. Mahan were much more readily acceptable to the Britain of the 1890s because they offered a simple prescription which did not involve deep social change. Mahan claimed that sea power was the key to success. Only if countries turned their backs on the sea, as he alleged the French had done, would they be eclipsed. Oxford and Cambridge awarded the American admiral honorary degrees for the depth of his insight. But British statesmen struggling to defend their sprawling empire, despite the country’s relative economic decline, understood only too well the simplistic nature of Mahan’s prescriptions.

Today advice is travelling from East to West, rather than the other way about. US newspapers have ‘taken up’ Professor Kennedy’s book as their British equivalents once espoused Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History. Mahan was explicitly didactic, something which Kennedy only allows himself to be in his final chapters, yet Time and Newsweek have already told the Presidential candidates that they should study Kennedy’s book or risk repeating previous mistakes. Kennedy points out that in 1950 the US GNP stood at 381 billion dollars, more than that of all the other Great Powers added together, and thus it was simple for the country to shoulder the burden of maintaining international order. It was inevitable that this economic predominance would be reduced as other states recovered from the war. Washington will now again have to espouse Nixon’s view of US power and gradually cut its commitments to make them commensurate with US strength. It is this argument – in terms of defence, the opposite of Mahan’s expansionist advice to Britain – which explains much of the book’s popularity inside the USA, and which may cause problems to those accustomed to ‘consume’ American supplies of security.

It is easy for many Americans to overlook Kennedy’s wise warnings on the dangerous and destabilising effects of too quickly shrugging off external obligations once incurred. It would have been realistic, from Britain’s point of view, to tell the Australians and New Zealanders in the Thirties that they had to look to the USA for their security. London simply lacked the power to protect all its far-flung possessions in Asia and the Pacific, as events proved only too clearly in 1942. But, despite the brash self-confidence Vidal describes, the USA would not have undertaken Antipodean defence, and British withdrawals would only have increased Japanese ambitions.

Nor can one predict the effects of US withdrawals today. President Carter’s efforts to pull US Forces out of South Korea in the Seventies simply led that country and neighbouring Taiwan to begin developing their own nuclear weapons – a process which, if it had not been halted, Japan would have felt obliged to follow. Indeed, nothing other than Soviet and American security guarantees to their allies prevents the realisation of President Kennedy’s fear of a world made up of tens of nuclear-weapon states. It is US support for Israel which Gore Vidal would most like to see eliminated, leaving the inhabitants of the Middle East ‘to make peace, or blow one another up, or whatever’. One hardly has to be a Zionist to find this a gloomy prescription. Nor are other Great Powers today able and willing to take over responsibilities from the USA. Tokyo is slow to undertake financial burdens commensurate with its economic power, and any rapid increase in its military strength would produce responses across Asia and the Pacific which cannot be predicted. Professor Kennedy, like President Nixon before him, rates Europe a potential Great Power, but it remains too divided to shoulder the political, economic and military burdens which Washington has been bearing.

Fundamental to Kennedy’s book and to its reception is his belief that ‘by devoting a large share of the nation’s “manufacturing power” to expenditures on unproductive armaments, one runs the risk of eroding the national economic base, especially vis à vis states which are concentrating a greater share of their income upon productive investment.’ This has long been the refrain of the many commentators in the USA who complain about European and Japanese ‘free-riding’, because it enables them to explain America’s relative decline without blaming their own inadequacies. Thus Gore Vidal sees the ‘republic beginning to crack under the vast expense of maintaining a mindless imperial force’. ‘Excessive’ defence expenditure, however, was not always the fundamental reason for the decline of Great Powers in the past. According to Kennedy’s figures, Britain was spending 5.7 per cent of GNP on defence in 1937, against 28.2 per cent for Japan, 36.4 per cent for the USSR and 23.5 per cent for Germany. Yet it was Britain’s economy which was lagging. Because of the slack in their economies after the Great Depression, the Thirties may have been one of the periods when defence spending actually stimulated growth: but the main reasons for Britain’s relative decline lay deep in its culture.

In the contemporary world Kennedy draws a contrast between what he calls ‘extremely successful trading states’ which have low defence spending and those with higher defence spending which are less vital economically. Unfortunately the pattern does not fit the facts. Japan and South Korea are both highly successful nations in terms of trade and growth in manufacturing, but Korea in 1985 spent a greater proportion of its GNP on defence than any Nato nation except the USA and Greece, whilst Japan only spent 1 per cent. Sweden, which he quotes as a successful trading state, spent about as much on defence as most Nato members (3 per cent), whilst Singapore and Taiwan, which were far more vibrant economically, spent even mote than South Korea (6.8 per cent). Economic failures, like the socialist states of Eastern Europe, some of which can hardly feed or clothe their peoples, spend far less on their armed forces. The fact is that defence spending is only one, and not the most important, of the factors which determine economic growth. In the British case, it was the educational and industrial reformers of the 19th century, rather than those concerned with defence like Mahan, who saw most clearly what the country would have to do if it were to compete effectively. So it is with the USA today.

None of this means that Kennedy was wrong to suggest that America will have to reduce some of its commitments as its relative decline continues. Nor that Gore Vidal may be wrong to advocate US-Soviet co-operation ‘to be a match, industrially and technologically, for the Sino-Japanese axis that will dominate the future just as Japan dominates world trade today’. But neither of these measures, far-reaching though they are, will on their own enable US companies to compete with Japanese. In order for that to happen, America would have to take even harder decisions about its educational system, working practices and levels of investment. US newspapers and Presidential candidates may find it easier to advocate a change of foreign rather than domestic policy: but they will be deluding themselves if they think that alone will transform their economy.

To spend too much time looking for ‘lessons’ in Professor Kennedy’s history and Vidal’s novel in any case belittles their scope and importance. Gore Vidal has managed to bring alive the world of Hearst and Theodore Roosevelt, while Kennedy has wound together the history of military and economic power over the last five hundred years in a way which has not been done before. Given the ambitious dimensions of the project and the complexity of the inter-relationship, most people will find something to disagree with. Kennedy seems, for example, to put slightly too much stress on the balance of economic power as the factor which determines the outcome of wars. This has, no doubt, very often been the case, particularly, as Kennedy points out, in the world wars. But there have been plenty of wars in the 20th century where the economically weaker power was victorious or where it fought its enemies to a standstill: between Japan and Russia in 1904, between the Communist and UN forces in Korea in 1950, or even between the German and Anglo-French forces in 1940. Nor was this only because the economically stronger powers had not mobilised their resources. Superior generalship (in the case of Japan in 1904 and of Germany in 1940), better use of limited resources (China in 1950), the superior morale of one side’s troops (Japan in 1904, Germany in 1940 and China in 1950) – all these factors and many more played their part. But whether one accepts all Kennedy’s hypotheses or not, his study will long remain a standard source of reference.