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A Delusional View of U.S. Dominance

April 29, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Real estate developers are not usually modest people. Neither are magazine or newspaper publishers.

Mortimer B. Zuckerman happens to be all of these. Starting as a real estate mogul in Boston and New York City, he has emerged as chairman of U.S. News & World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News.

Now, Zuckerman seems to want to become both America's leading seer and its top cheerleader. In the lead article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, Zuckerman tries to argue "why we [the United States] will remain No. 1" in the world for the next 100 years.

In an article titled "A Second American Century," Zuckerman points to the recent strength of the U.S. economy, and the weaknesses in Europe and Asia, as signs of permanent change in the world.

"Ignore the Cassandras," Zuckerman tells us. "This is not a transient prosperity, but one that derives from a series of structural advantages that today only America enjoys." He rhapsodizes over America's spirit of entrepreneurialism, its management culture; he thinks the low rate of inflation is self-perpetuating.

"If anything, American business should widen its lead over the rest of the world," he says. "France had the 17th century, Britain the 19th, and America the 20th. It will also have the 21st."

(This raises the question of who won the 18th century, an issue philosopher Zuckerman doesn't address. Britain might be a candidate, of course, except for a few minor difficulties, one of which was us.)

What are we to make of views such as Zuckerman's? They are a sign that America now stands at a moment of truly remarkable self-delusion. The current prosperity, pleasing as it is, seems to have caused some of us to lose a sense of proportion.

"This is like the boosterism of the 1920s," says historian Warren B. Cohen. "Back then, people were saying that America's prosperity was going to go on forever, that it was the result of new technology and other lasting changes. [Zuckerman's article] is the sort of thing Calvin Coolidge or Herbert Hoover would have written in September of 1929."

There has been, for some time, an interesting debate among economists about whether the recent improvements in the U.S. economy--lower unemployment with low inflation--are temporary or reflect more lasting, structural changes.

But to jump from this rather arcane discussion to a sweeping conclusion about what will happen in the world over the next century is a breathtaking leap--one that represents not only faulty logic but questionable economics, history and foreign policy.

On the economic front, the response to Zuckerman's euphoria is laid out brilliantly by Paul Krugman in the same issue of Foreign Affairs. He demonstrates that America's rapid growth over the last year reflects mostly a favorable turn of the business cycle, rather than any revolutionary change in the structure of the U.S. economy.

"The current sense that the United States is on top of the world is based on a huge exaggeration of the implications of a few good years here and a few bad years elsewhere," writes Krugman, an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As for foreign policy, the idea that the next century will "belong" to America rests upon the assumption that there will be no far-reaching changes in the international system over the next century--and that the rest of the world will rest content under U.S. domination.

This is the most troubling aspect of Zuckerman's article. He seems not to realize that the world today operates under institutions set up under U.S. leadership at the end of World War II--institutions that have contributed to American prosperity, but which may not survive in their current form.

If the author of "A Second American Century" looked around Washington today, he would find signs of future trouble. At the moment, Congress is holding up contributions to the International Monetary Fund, thus jeopardizing its operations. The United States is not making its payments to the United Nations, either.

Yet the IMF has helped shore up the economies of countries that buy American products. And the U.N. has provided international legitimacy for American-led military operations, such as the Gulf War. It is ironic that the United States may gradually succeed in tearing down a system from which it has so clearly benefited.

Then, too, Zuckerman seems to take it for granted that over the next 100 years, no other country or group of countries will emerge to challenge the United States.

He blandly assumes that Europe will remain divided, that Russia will remain in its current weakened position, that China will always be delighted with the U.S. presence in Asia, and that America will continue to have access to as much oil as it needs from the Middle East.

But we are already seeing signs of change in the relations among the world's leading powers. Just recently, Russia, France and China teamed up to thwart U.S. policy toward Iraq. That may have been a more telling indication of the way the world is heading than any of the recent economic statistics.

The only thing we can count on over the next century is that there will be surprises. The good times America is now experiencing don't tell us anything about the next 100 years. Zuckerman no doubt knows the value of real estate. But in the world of ideas, he just bought the Brooklyn Bridge.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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