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America’s True Power

May 2024
14min read

At a time when many are concerned by the nation’s loss of the unassailable economic position it occupied just after World War II, one historian argues that our real strength—and our real peril—lie elsewhere

We know more about sickness than about health. This is as true of medicine as it is of history, and as true of the condition of a nation as it is of a person. Moreover, the diagnosis must proceed not only from symptoms but from retrospect. For the diagnosis of a patient, some kind of knowledge of his medical history is fundamental.


We know more about sickness than about health. This is as true of medicine as it is of history, and as true of the condition of a nation as it is of a person. Moreover, the diagnosis must proceed not only from symptoms but from retrospect. For the diagnosis of a patient, some kind of knowledge of his medical history is fundamental.

The present interest in Professor Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which was the subject of an interview with Kennedy in the September/October issue of American Heritage, is a symptom of concern with the health of the United States. (The tendency to take the temperature of this nation is a not infrequent American inclination.) Kennedy’s interest was directed to a comparison with previous great empires: What happened when the conditions of their power in the world had changed? There is nothing wrong with this. Yet there is, I believe, room for the presentation of a different perspective. Paul Kennedy has proceeded from a perspective that is defined principally by conditions of American economic power and from a consideration that concentrates heavily on the decline of that power at present. His comparisons with the declines of other great empires depend on his illustrations of such generally economic conditions.

We are now approaching the end of the twentieth century, which has been the American century in the history of the world, as the nineteenth century was largely the British, much of the seventeenth century the French, and at least half of the sixteenth century the Spanish.

But the actual causes of this pre-eminence were much more than “economic power.” There was a definite shift in American sentiment even before 1898, when the Spanish-American War made the United States a true world power, dominating the greatest oceans. During the nineteenth century Americans were convinced that their national destiny lay in the fact that the New World was different from the Old. Sometime around 1890 this conviction was transforming itself into something else, into a view of the world that is still widespread, though there are signs of its fading: that the United States was the advanced model of the Old World. This idea was in the minds of the learned American imperialists of the Theodore Roosevelt kind, but it already appears in our rhetoric well before 1898. Here is but one example: In 1876 the great Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was dedicated to machinery, celebrating the unique American achievement of mechanical progress. By 1893 the celebration encompassed history itself; the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was opened by Chauncey M. Depew with the words “This day belongs not to America, but to the world. … We celebrate the emancipation of man.”

This change in the perspective of American destiny corresponded to the actual historical relationship of the Old World and the New. In the nineteenth century the main events of European and American history were different. In Europe these were the revolutions of 1820, 1830, and 1848, the unification of Italy and of Germany, the Franco-Prussian War; in the United States they were the westward movement and the Civil War. There is some relationship between these events, but not much. It is in the twentieth century that the greatest events in the history of Europe and of the United States coincide.


The two greatest events of the twentieth century were the world wars—for Europe as well as for the United States. They are the two enormous mountain ranges that even now dominate the historical landscape. They formed the main configuration of the world in which we still live. The communist revolution in Russia, the atom bomb, the end of the European colonial empires—all these developments were consequences, not causes, of the two world wars, and none of them compare in magnitude.

In the United States there was an entire generation whose most traumatic experience was the Depression, but with all respect for their tribulations we must recognize that the Depression and the consequent reforms of the New Deal (which —again, all respect for Franklin Roosevelt’s verve notwithstanding—were well-nigh unavoidable in the long run) do not compare to the consequences of the two world wars. In any event, that generation, and its memories, are now largely gone. What is not gone is a world situation, largely unchanged since 1945, in which the two superpowers of the globe are the United States and the Soviet Union. That has been the consequence of the Second World War, affecting not only the course of the American ship of state but the entire governmental and industrial and military structure of the nation—even though fewer Americans lost their lives in that war than people of any other major country of the world; even though the United States, alone among the major participants, was physically untouched by war; and even though the United States emerged as the only prosperous nation among all the warring powers.

This brings us to an interesting question. Was the zenith of American power the year 1945? Or was it 1918, the end of the First, not of the Second, World War? There are few stirring scenes in the entire history of the United States that compare to that shining September morning in 1945, with the American fleet at anchor in Tokyo Bay. At that time the United States had not only a near-monopoly of economic and financial power in the world but the monopoly of the atom bomb. Yet it was in 1918 that young girls in Europe threw roses at Woodrow Wilson’s feet; that the financial center of the world had passed from London to New York; that the American dollar replaced the English pound as the prime money of the globe. In 1918 the United States and Britain and France were able to defeat Germany without Russia. In the Second World War they were not. In 1945 the United States had to share the victory, at least in Europe, with the Soviet Union, and the division of Europe was the result.

So what was the peak of American power in this American century: 1918 or 1945? It is a moot question, debatable by historians. What is not debatable is that by 1989 these exceptional pinnacles of American power are behind us. A certain decline of American power has begun—probably long before its present intellectual recognition. What people are now discussing is the meaning of this decline. The question I wish to raise is somewhat different. It is not what is the meaning of decline; it is what is the meaning of power.

Let me begin with the obvious. In terms of the gross national product, of the energy output, and, of course, of the mass of nuclear and other weaoons that the United States possesses, our power is immeasurably greater than it was in 1945. Yet we know that the United States is not as powerful as it was forty or more years ago. This obvious and simple recognition suggests in itself that “power” is a relative term, not an absolute category; that numbers are, most often, an insufficient illustration of it; that it is a matter of quality, not only of quantity.

Less obvious—but, in a subtle way, very much related to this awesome topic—are the inflation and the occasional perversion of the very word power itself in modern American parlance. We have, for example (unlike in English English), gradually adopted the word power as if it were synonymous with electricity (“The power is off” or “The power is on”), despite the fact that in the physical world there are many kinds of power that have nothing to do with electricity and despite the grave vulnerability of any man-made system whose functioning depends on the generating of electricity from great distances. During the last few decades we have, too, acquired the habit of rather thoughtlessly using the word power in all kinds of senseless ways: “power breakfasts,” for instance, and, in an even more puerile manifestation, “power necktie.”

I am a historian, not a grammarian. What concerns me is the subtle but decisive conjunction of power with something for which I can find no better word than prestige.

No simple definition of prestige will do. Yet we all know what prestige represents—or, rather, how it functions. Prestige is the nonquantifiable substance of reputation. Like everything material in this world (a fact habitually ignored by economists), the very worth of a thing, whether an ounce of gold or the price of a stock at any moment, is not only conditioned but determined by what people think it is worth. The substance is mental, not physical. Whether in the case of a man or of a corporation or of an entire nation, power is unavoidably combined with prestige. The effects of that prestige are longer-lasting than are the effects of power. A nation with a considerable accumulation of prestige—and that prestige involves such intangible and even indefinable elements as decency and honesty and courage and morality and manners—will be able to withstand an erosion of its actual power better, and longer, than a nation whose prestige—very much including its civilizational and cultural prestige—is low.

A nation with a considerable accumulation of prestige will be able to stand an erosion of its actual power better, and longer, than one whose prestige is low.

It is all very true that (as, among others, Professor Kennedy has shown) the economic power of Great Britain was in decline by the 188Os. Yet the prestige of Britain as the greatest world power was such that even in 1914 the kaiser would not have gone to war had he known with certainty that the British would come in against Germany, and as late as 1940 Hitler shied away from invading Britain because of his respect for a nation that was less powerful than it may have seemed. In that crucial year of 1940, Britain appeared as the greatest power confronting Hitler. That appearance was presented to the world by Churchill’s words, and whatever the material realities were, that appearance, consisting of intangible elements, was no less real.

In sum, what exists and what happens are inseparable from what people think exists and what they think happens. These two things are not identical, but they are inseparably combined, and they remain so for a very long time—though not forever.

The American century, too, has been the result not merely of American power but of American prestige. The idea of America had inspired European radicals and liberals since 1776, yet for various reasons the emulation of the American example was limited. Except for the short-lived constitution of the Second French Republic in 1848 (which Tocqueville helped draft), American political institutions were not adopted in Europe during the nineteenth century. In Japan and China the adaptation of certain American institutions began only toward the end of the nineteenth century, while in England and Europe the upper classes, although increasingly respectful of American money and power, were disdainful of American habits and manners. All this changed toward the end of the First World War, when America suddenly became chic. The full flowering of the American century began at the latest in 1918—and not only because of the then unique (though quickly evanescent) reputation of Wilson, not only because of the victorious end of World War I, and not only because of the golden coronation of the dollar, king of the moneys of the world. The Americanization of the world had begun. American inventions, products, manners, habits, and art spread across Europe. American worries and American popular music inundated the globe. American literature had come into its own. All this happened in a decade which was one of American “isolationism,” but that, like Prohibition, gangsters, and the Ku Klux Klan, did little to diminish American prestige among the masses of the world.

The American Depression hurt the image of America abroad not at all. The Americanization of the world went on in the thirties as it had in the twenties. Then it continued without cease through and after the Second World War, after which the economic and social structures of entire nations became Americanized; their governments adopted American practices of giving easy credit to the masses, of pay-as-you-earn income tax, of universal education. It may be said that while before 1945 the imitation and the adoption of American things and habits and enjoyments were practiced mostly by the middle and upper classes, during the last forty years this has happened among the masses. The Americanization of the world has become visible and palpable everywhere—even (and sometimes especially) among nations that, at least until recently, have proclaimed themselves to be enemies of the United States. On a mundane level it is evident in T-shirts as well as in airplane language, in fast-food outlets as well as in American management jargon. When, in the 1970s, the division between communist Russia and China deepened, the Russian government, after profound deliberations, chose the franchise to produce and to distribute Pepsi-Cola to their thirsty millions, whereas the Chinese had chosen Coca-Cola. It is true that this kind of American exporting has developed at a time when the quantity and the quality of more substantial American articles of export (automobiles, for example) have declined. But we must also remember that until the Second World War the dependence of American industry on exporting American products was minimal.

The American defeat in Vietnam neither halted nor even slowed this kind of popular Americanization. Nor has the recent deficit or the decline of the dollar affected the respect for American power. Moreover, in the late 1980s the United States seems to have won the Cold War, or at least that perception of the Cold War that sees it as a contest between American capitalism and Russian communism. In sum, the erosion of American economic power has not affected the prevalence of American prestige. Until now.


Among many other related phenomena, I find it significant that now, when the entire globe has become tied together through a personally dialable system of international telephony, the code number of the United States is 1.

But I also find it significant (and ominous) that not many years ago a President of the United States (Richard Nixon) felt compelled to declare, repeatedly, that the United States was still number one. For apart from the cheap and puerile vulgarity of the phrase, it is not difficult to detect an uneasiness of self-confidence in the compulsion for such an assertion.

One of the great errors of our times is the mistaking of the speed of communications for the movement of ideas. The first has become incredibly fast, while the second is—sometimes incredibly—slow. Contrary to the accepted assumptions, evident in the rhetoric of public figures, we do not live in a world of breathtaking great changes. More than forty years ago, in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers of the world. So they are now. (Compare this with how the world had changed less than thirty years after the end of World War I; another world war had come and gone, transforming it. Or consider how the world had changed forty years after Napoleon.) There has not been much change in the American perception of the world and of the dangers threatening the United States either. But this is exactly why a devolution of American power began: because of ideas that became stagnant, while “communications” became ever more rapid.

The idea that the United States must prepare for the eventuality of a Third World War, and that such a war could only occur with the Soviet Union, since the leaders of the latter aim at the destruction of the United States—this idea governed the course of the United States forty years ago as it still largely does today. When forty years ago the Iron Curtain was coming down in Eastern Europe and the presence of Soviet armed forces there cast a shadow over much of an impoverished and unsure continent, there was every reason for the United States to recognize that its national interest called for a commitment to the preservation and the defense of Western and Southern Europe and of Japan. Since that time anticommunism has become equated with American patriotism, and a gigantic American military-industrial complex has grown up, with enormous and burdensome effects on the national economy as well as on the national mentality. When, in 1956, Section Nine of the Republican party platform called for nothing less than “the establishment of American air and naval bases all around the world,” and when that party was still called “isolationist” by some of the liberal commentators, this already then, more than thirty years ago, suggested that the categories of the national political discourse had degenerated into senselessness. This has gone so far that nowadays we accept the application of the adjective conservative to people whose ideas about the desirability of American political and military involvement in the affairs of some of the farthest parts of the world (and, indeed, in the spaces of the universe) could hardly be more extreme and radical.

It is not the gradual and deadening accumulation of vested corporate interests but the accumulation of seemingly popular and profitable but, in reality, outdated ideas that makes all necessary corrections in the course of the giant American ship of state increasingly difficult. Among other matters, they are the obstacles to the necessary recognition that the Soviet Union does not now threaten the United States proper and that, indeed, the interests of these two great powers have begun to coincide, threatened as both of them are by fanatical and surging pressures from the so-called Third World.

Meanwhile, the functioning of many of the institutions of the United States—from its executive and legislative institutions through its corporations to its universities and schools—shows severe symptoms of arteriosclerosis because of their bloated administrative bureaucracies. Forty years ago one of the great advantages of the United States over the rest of the world still resided in the condition that the life of this young and energetic nation was impeded by bureaucratic practices to a much lesser extent than that of the ancient nations of the Old World. Now it seems as if in the United States the age of democracy may have devolved into an age of bureaucracy, and not only in “big government,” as President Reagan so mistakenly believed (or pretended to believe, at a time when his own staff in the White House was ten times larger than that of Franklin Roosevelt’s at the peak of World War II).

The much-vaunted Knowledge Explosion and the Information Revolution are superficial phenomena that have nothing to do with the movement of ideas and minds. Information, especially mechanized and selected and “programmed” information, is one thing; understanding and wisdom are quite another. What is clear is that the meaning of the symptoms of the American decline of power as well as the very idea of material “progress” must be rethought.

The American defeat in Vietnam did not slow the Americanization of the rest of the world. Nor has the deficit affected the respect for American power.

It is no longer the physical and economic condition of American “power” but the condition of its more substantial ingredient—American prestige and moral force—that is at stake. It is bound to become increasingly questioned in a world that faces the spectacle of a series of American Presidents, leaders of the so-called free world, whose ignorance of that world is more and more apparent. During the forty years of confrontation of the United States with the Soviet Union there was no American President whose prestige among the majority of the peoples of the globe was not greater than that of his Soviet counterpart—until now, when the reputation of Mikhail Gorbachev has risen above that of Ronald Reagan (with no promise of a turnabout under his successor). That this happens at the very time when, on another level, the reputation of the American economic system has won the contest of the so-called Cold War, should remind us of the unpredictability of history and of the fact that the prestige of a nation, unlike its quantifiable power, is a very complex thing.

It should remind us, too, that it takes greater character to carry off good fortune than bad. American generosity to the world has been forthcoming. But now the time has come to prove if that habitual generosity with the nation’s material wealth can rise to the higher level of a magnanimity that is essentially an issue of mind. This involves two matters. The first is the necessity of recognizing that the United States no longer represents a unique political system. When Tocqueville wrote his classic two volumes one hundred and fifty years ago, entitling them Democracy in America, the United States was the only democracy in the world. Now we have British, Irish, German, Japanese, Scandinavian, and other democracies whose political constitutions and liberties are comparable to those of the United States and whose masses have—unlike even forty years ago—living standards very similar to those of Americans.

The second mental reform that Americans must undertake is that of a radical extension of their knowledge of the world (perhaps beginning with the now almost nonexistent teaching of geography in their schools). The right to learning and the knowledge of the world of the American people have lately been grievously shortchanged by their educational and informational bureaucracies. Nothing is inevitable in history. But the more ignorant people are, the more unavoidable a malign fate is. The American century will someday be gone. But the universality of American prestige will decline too —unless the habitual willingness of American hearts leads to a willingness of American minds to rethink and reform some of the habits and institutions that have made the power of the United States muscle-bound and its prestige vulnerable in the eyes of serious people around the world. For even though perception is a component of reality, prestige is something deeper and more enduring than image. It is more precious than material power. When wealth, when material power go, they can be recovered. When prestige goes, it is irretrievable.

This nation was created at the peak of the Modern Age, two hundred years ago. During its first century many of its people thought that its destiny was to escape from the history of the past. During its second century many Americans recognized that toward the end of the Modern Age they have become the representatives and the guardians of the heritage of much of Western civilization. For more than one hundred years after the creation of the United States most Americans saw themselves as representing something that was the opposite of the Old World and its sins. Then this vision changed. The United States was the advanced model of the Old World, and perhaps of the entire world. Neither of these visions is meaningful any longer. Will the American people have the inner strength to consolidate and to sustain the belief that their civilization is different not only from the so-called Old but from the so-called Third World, and not merely its advanced model? Two hundred years after the launching of the United States, this ought to be the question.

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