What will be America's power in the post-Cold-War world? Before the Persian Gulf crisis "declinists" argued that our position will continue to worsen. "Revivalists" believed our problems can be corrected and we will remain the leading power.
Six weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, a leading declinist, wrote: "The drop in Cold-War tensions has caused a reduction in the value many people put on military power . . . the one measure of power in which the United States has a clear advantage over other countries."The crisis has proved such thinking wrong. Military power was critically important in preventing Saddam from gaining control of 40 percent of world oil reserves and veto power over global economic growth. The crisis showed that the Soviet Union's superpower decline has not diminished the value of America's military card.
Still, force has been only half the answer. America's success in mobilizing an international coalition against Iraq rests on more than military force and shows we retain a broader range of power resources than any other country.
Our position in a post-Cold-War world rests on hard and soft power. Hard power is based on military and economic might. Soft power - the ability to co-opt rather than command - rests on intangible resources: culture and ideology. It was crucial to get our military's hard power to Saudi Arabia quickly. It was equally important to have the soft power to shape U.N. resolutions that defined Iraq's entry into Kuwait as a violation of international law, calling for sanctions.
If the United Nations failed to respond to such aggression, the prospects for international order would be weakened and the United States and others would face a bleaker future.
We cannot police the world alone, but if we do not take the lead, others are unlikely to do so.
Skillful crisis management, however, is only half the leadership challenge the administration faces.
Kennedy warns that empires in decline were able to use their militaries for massive projection of force: Spain in 1634 in the 30 Years War, Britain in 1900 in the Boer War. His economy analogy is faulty.
Spain was suffering an absolute (not relative) economic decline from 1620 to 1680. By 1900 Britain's economy had slipped to third largest in the world.
America, for all its problems, remains the world's largest economy, with the highest level of absolute productivity, and a constant share of world product for 15 years.
American decline, however, could occur through a long accumulation of political decisions favoring consumption over investment. Ultimately, our hard and soft power resources depend upon soundly addressing such domestic issues as the budget deficit, savings rate, educational system and condition of our cities. Military strength depends on a strong economic base. Cultural and ideological appeal depends on maintaining an open society.
President Bush has said the United States "has the will but not the wallet." The opposite is closer to the mark.
Politicians regularly use the deficit as an excuse to evade responsibility. The United States is rich but acts poor. Our problem stems not from inevitable economic decline but from 80s political choices that increased government spending while providing a tax cut.
The Gulf crisis, which has pointed up West Germany's and Japan's one-dimensional power, shows that the declinists have greatly exaggerated the rise of these countries and have underestimated U.S. strength in hard military and soft coalition-building power resources.
If, however, our leaders avoid real domestic reform and investment in the sources of hard and soft power, they may make the declinists' fallacious case come true eventually.