In 1952, when the US was at the very height of its power, General Douglas MacArthur – hero of the Republican right since President Harry Truman relieved him of his command in Korea – warned fellow Americans of "our own relative decline, our inability to conserve resources, the rising burden of our fiscal commitments, an astronomically rising public debt mortgaging the future of our children."
Eight years later, Democrat John Kennedy, campaigning against Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon, spoke of his alarm over the "missile gap" between the US and the USSR. The gap mysteriously disappeared once Kennedy was elected. Doubts about American power did not surface again until the Watergate scandal in 1974 and the US defeat in Vietnam.
The US clearly lost ground in the 1970s. Nations destroyed by war a generation earlier had recovered and had become serious economic competitors. The "American challenge" of the 1960s gave way to the "European challenge" and the "Japanese challenge". The superpower appeared to be sinking under the burden of its own weaknesses: dollar crises, inflation, trade deficits. The Islamic revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Washington‘s loss of influence in international organisations, all conspired to create an atmosphere of gloom and despondency. Until 1980, when Ronald Reagan emerged to save the day with his war-cry: "America is back!"
"Back", but not for very long… At the end of Reagan’s second term, the sharp rise in public deficits and debt (the US was in net debit to the rest of the world in 1985-86) prompted renewed talk of "decline". Historian Paul Kennedy’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, published in 1987, included a chapter added at the last minute – on the United States. Following the chapters on the Ming dynasty, France under Louis XIV, the British empire…
George Bush senior sought to emulate Ronald Reagan. In a major campaign speech, delivered on 18 August 1988 at the Republican Convention in New Orleans, he gave this reply to Paul Kennedy and his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis: "What it all comes down to is this: my opponent’s view of the world sees a long, slow decline for our country, an inevitable fall mandated by impersonal historic forces. But America is not in decline. America is a rising nation. I see America as the leader, a unique nation with a special role in the world. This has been called the American century because in it we were the dominant force for good in the world. We saved Europe, cured polio, went to the moon and lit the world with our culture. Now we are on the verge of a new century. I say it will be another American century."
Since then, every US military success (the Gulf, Iraq), every financial bubble has renewed the myth of the superpower or "hyper-power". And every military mess (Iraq again), each economic or social crisis has lent new strength to MacArthur’s gloomy prognosis.
Translated by Barbara Wilson