WASHINGTON — Year-end retrospectives on the United States have been hard to write and unpleasant to read in recent years. Americans have been brought up to believe that as a matter of course their country will always outdistance others through superior effort, higher morality or God's grace. Yet in the last decade America's record has been one of steady political and economic decline.
A small nation, Vietnam, defeated the United States on the battlefield. The only way America might have won was through a strategy of "bombing them back to the stone age," that, given the massive amounts of ordinance we dropped anyway, would probably have required the use of atomic weapons. In other words, the world's greatest industrial power was unable to defeat a small agricultural society if both used roughly the same kinds of weapons.
Economically, the world's largest economy found that it could not compete with the rising industrial giants of the developing world, particularly in Asia. It was not simply Japan that frightened the United States but new industrial powers like South Korea or Brazil. America, which accounted for over two-thirds of the world's industrial production in the early 1950s, now produces less than one-third and the trend is steadily downward.
Ronald Reagan was elected President in no small measure because he said that he would reverse these trends. And there is no denying that in response to his infectious optimism the country today feels better than it did in 1980. But the facade looks better than the reality.
Thus, the country joined the President in believing that the nation's triumph at the Los Angeles Olympics said something positive about the American character and system. But the number of U.S. victories would have been sharply reduced had the Soviet Union participated. Would Soviet victories have said something positive about the communist system?
The nation was awash with patriotism after the U.S. military conquest of Grenada. But the country's first military triumph since World War II took place against one of the smallest nations on earth and post-mortems suggest that the invasion succeeded in spite of a degree of military incompetence not seen since the United States invaded Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
The Reagan program has helped the country stand taller economically but the explanation is a fiscal crutch--massive deficit financing--that will soon be taken away. This month Congress passed and the President signed the Gramm-Rudman legislation that will impose a balanced budget on the country by 1991.
The only genuine U.S. triumph internationally in 1985--the year of Bitburg, terrorism and anti-U.S. protests in the Philippines and South Africa--was the President's genuinely impressive personal performance at the summit meeting with Mikail S. Gorbachev. But even that achievement had its hollow core. Nothing of substance was accomplished.
Yet it would be a national tragedy if like Mark Twain's cat, this country learned too much from its recent negative experiences. Twain pointed out that a cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again. Unfortunately, it will also not sit on a cold one when sometimes that might be useful.
Looking back on the past decade and even the past year, one is struck by how much the world is moving slowly into greater conformity with American ideals even if it is also progressively moving out from under U.S. control. Several years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry A. Kissinger, the most articulate members of the Nixon Administration, were depressing the country, lecturing about the diminishing number of democracies in the world. The only conclusion could be that the future favored America's enemies.
Not that there was no evidence to support such pessimism. The headlines told of the monstrous crimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia or Idi Amin in Uganda. More developed countries in Latin America were entering a new age of fascism. Even India, with more than a half-billion people, moved away from its democratic moorings. Pro-Soviet regimes sprang up throughout the Third World--Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan and all three countries in Indochina.
Compare the world today to the time Kissinger and Moynihan were developing their unique combination of Irish and German gloom. Greece, Portugal and Spain have adopted democratic regimes. India has returned to the democratic fold. Argentina and Brazil have abandoned military governments. Communist countries such as Mozambique have tried to reach out to the West.
China, with perhaps a billion people, is evolving a more humane political and economic system. Within Eastern Europe the ideals of freedom and self determination attract popular hopes.