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The US in decline?

TALK of decline in United States power and influence is now in fashion. Indeed, one book on the topic is a best seller. Is an overextended US repeating a historic pattern? Or is the picture overdrawn? Compared with the early postwar years, there has clearly been a relative decline in US predominance. The US share of global GNP is probably only one-fourth instead of half, as it was 40 years ago - largely because of the recovery of Western Europe and Japan, and the growth of some developing countries. It reflects one of the great successes of postwar policy. In nuclear strength the Soviet Union has achieved parity with the US. But even President Eisenhower saw that as inevitable.

Some of the talk about a loss of US ``hegemony'' seems to envisage a bygone era when the US could unilaterally call the tune for its allies and others. But there never was such a day. At the zenith of US primacy, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were keenly aware that to be effective, the US required cooperation with other states to advance jointly shared interests in prosperity and security. That recognition was at the core of the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the many other agencies for working together. US leaders took the initiative in developing consensus and common action; they did not attempt to dictate unilaterally. The wider diffusion of power and increasing interdependence have greatly enhanced these imperatives. Still, there are other grounds for concern on both counts.

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The economy has been gravely weakened by the fiscal binge of the Reagan years. The rapid expansion in defense spending, plus the refusal to impose taxes sufficient to balance the budget, has produced the huge budget deficits, the enormous domestic and foreign debt, and the staggering trade deficit. Much of our industry has become uncompetitive or was crippled by the overvalued dollar. To restore the economy to healthy vigor will demand political leadership of a high order.

The US has also lost influence. It no longer enjoys the standing or respect it formerly had. But the causes lie less in a decline in our power than in the quality of our leadership. The mismanagement of the economy has been matched by the ineptitude in the making and conduct of our foreign policy. We seem unable to define our interests and priorities sensibly or clearly or to pursue them with consistency.

The erosion of confidence started with Vietnam and has continued since. It has reached its peak under Ronald Reagan with examples such as Lebanon and the Middle East, the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reykjavik, the Iran-contra fiasco, and Nicaragua. The character of the President, ideological advisers, the inadequate policy process, and executive-congressional conflict all contribute to incoherence.

Managing the global economy, relations with the USSR, and regional and other issues will require extensive cooperation and adaptation, especially by the advanced democracies. The European nations and Japan can properly be expected to assume a larger share in defense and economic affairs. But such a shift will at best be gradual and must be handled so as not to injure the framework of cooperation. US leadership will continue to be essential, but it will have to be consensual and clearly based on shared interests.

Thus the challenge is basically a test of our political system. The electorate does not appear to grasp the gravity of our situation. And George Bush plays it down. Will the voters have the maturity and judgment to choose and support an administration with the capacity and courage to rebuild the economy and restore confidence in our leadership?

To do so, the President and Congress will have to:

1.Cure the budget deficit.

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2.Create the basis for reinvigorating the economy, by stimulating saving and investment, by fostering research and development, by improving education, etc. 3.Develop coherent policies and reliability as a basis for alliance cooperation.

Mr. Bush and Michael Dukakis have their limitations. But both seem to be much more middle-of-the-road than Mr. Reagan, and even Bush should be less likely to choose ideologues as principal advisers.

Which of them better understands our predicament and what it demands, and has the political courage and capacity for leadership necessary to cope with the grave problems and restore confidence? That is the critical question that the coming campaign should help us answer.

Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for over 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.

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