May 10, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd 

The American people are wading through another one of those decennial doldrums, when we question our place and purpose in the world. For instance, the Los AngelesTimes and Bloomberg News recently published poll results revealing that more than six in ten Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. This comes on the heels of a Gallup poll indicating that 54 percent of the country is dissatisfied with America’s position in the world.  

Our neighbors are picking up on our despair. From the perspective of The Guardian newspaper in Britain, “A string of foreign policy setbacks has highlighted growing flaws in Washington’s long cherished assumption of international primacy.” Gazing across the Atlantic and the Pacific, Howard French of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune concludes that “American influence over China has peaked, and may have entered an era of long-term and perhaps accelerating decline.” He worries about “the declining moral influence of the United States” over Beijing. 

Yet history reminds us that even when the doldrums set in, even when the US appears to be in decline, it has an uncanny ability to surprise the doomsayers at home and abroad. 

Consider America’s ebbing power in the aftermath of World War II. As historian Derek Leebaert writes in The Fifty-Year Wound, just a year after the end of the war, the Army had just 12 battle-ready tanks in Germany. US forces in the Pacific were equally under-equipped and under-prepared, as Leebaert details: Each division of the Eighth Army was a thousand rifles short, the Fifth Air Force still had no jet fighters in 1949, and there were just 500 US soldiers based in Korea. Thus, as world war gave way to cold war, “The United States neither looked nor felt ready to contain anybody,” as Leebaert observes. 

Worries about America’s decline mushroomed as the Cold War began in earnest, when “we lost China,” when communist forces rolled through Korea, when Chinese “volunteers” pushed MacArthur’s troops back across the 38th Parallel. Indeed, the bloody interplay between the US and communist China throughout the second half of the 20th century calls into question the notion that America has ever had any “moral influence” over the People’s Republic. 

As the 1950s wore on, Sputnik rocketed into orbit and Moscow bludgeoned Hungary into submission. The US had no answer for either.  

It was in those halcyon days of the New Frontier, as Leebaert reminds us, that The New York Times predicted Soviet industrial output would exceed America’s by the end of the 20th century. In fact, the CIA surmised that the Soviet economy would be three times larger than America’s by 2000. (Today, the doomsayers and declinists substitute the PRC for the USSR.) 

Even during Kennedy’s Camelot, it looked as if the US had fallen fast and hard from its World War II perch. What else could be said of a superpower that couldn’t oust a petty Third World dictator 90 miles off its coast?  

A decade later, the world witnessed what historian Paul Johnson calls “America’s suicide attempt” in Vietnam. After the war, the United States appeared to be in a geopolitical freefall. While Washington retracted and retreated, Moscow’s proxies descended across the Third World. Coming on the heels of Vietnam, détente itself was arguably an expression of American weakness. It’s no wonder that a 1976 survey unearthed by Leebaert reveals that Americans wanted “to be Number One once more.”  

Not long after Iran’s unchallenged takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, Paul Kennedy was laying out in grim detail how the United States was tumbling inexorably toward an inevitable collapse. He explained how “the American share of world power has been declining relatively faster than Russia’s over the past few decades;” predicted that US defense outlays and commitments were unsustainable and were pushing the United States toward the same “imperial overstretch” that undid earlier powers; and concluded that America’s capacity to carry its postwar “burdens is obviously less than it was several decades ago.” 

Of course, it was the Soviet Union that soon collapsed under the weight of empire. 

Even in the 1990s, America’s footing was uncertain. For all its power, Washington was growing increasingly allergic to post-Cold War challenges.  

In Europe, two successive US administrations seemed helpless to stop the vivisection of Bosnia. In fact, as the Balkans hemorrhaged, French President Jacques Chirac concluded that “the position of leader of the free world is vacant.” (When the US finally intervened in the former Yugoslavia, it came four years too late for perhaps 200,000 Bosnians and Croats.)   

In Africa, disorganized clans were able to chase the mighty US military out of Somalia. The US then averted its gaze from Rwanda’s machete massacre. 

In Asia, North Korea crashed into the nuclear club; India and Pakistan shook the subcontinent with a spasm of nuclear tests; and China conducted a reckless foreign policy of gunboat diplomacy in the Taiwan Straits. 

Even in America’s backyard, Washington dithered over how to remove a pip-squeak junta in Haiti. “Rarely,” as historian David Halberstam recalls, “had the United States looked so impotent.”  

In each instance, the US played the role of a spectator or prisoner to events.  

Yet by the end of the decade, French politicians had promoted the US from the ranks of superpower to “hyperpower.” By 2002, between the lightning wars of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, British scholar Timothy Garton Ash concluded that America had “too much power for anyone’s good, including its own.” When US forces knifed into Baghdad and decapitated Saddam Hussein’s regime in the span of three weeks, the consensus was that US power was in ascendance.  

But then, as liberation gave way to looting, and looting to “a long, hard slog,” the US was suddenly overstretched and in decline—right back where it supposedly was in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, early ‘60s and late ‘70s, mid-‘80s and mid-‘90s.