Fading Superpower


January 04, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

At this time last year we were celebrating America's survival as the world's only super-power, the Soviet Union having gone isolationist in a prelude to self-destruction.

The U.S. had put together a most unlikely alliance and would soon bomb Baghdad, leading to the 100-hour land battle, after which it was briefly fashionable to call the United States the most powerful nation that ever was.

That was the perception that helped the United States to assemble the Middle East peace conference in Madrid. As matters stand, the opening ceremony was its high water mark. The conference is not assured of substantive success.

What looms this year is a set of international problems for which the United States is not the solution. Even more, a set of games in which it is not a decisive player.

The Yugoslav war of Serb against Croat is perfectly dreadful. The United States is not deeply involved in quelling it. The European Community is. Germany, flexing its European pre-eminence, is forcing the EC into a pro-Slovenian, pro-Croatian, anti-Yugoslavia posture. France and Britain are not happy, but are dragged along. The immediate prospect is independence for Bosnia-Herzgovina, secession of that republic's Serbs and a wider war. But if a solution is imposed from outside, whether through United Nations or EC machinery, it will come through German influence and economic power, not American.

Potential chaos in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States is a larger matter. The future arrived Thursday, when Russia traumatically freed prices on most goods.

Virtually all Russians and anti-Russians believe in American power as a result of decades of state propaganda demonizing Washington. The U.S. has a reservoir of goodwill or respect in the former Soviet Union. But it's money that counts there. The U.S. will not come to the aid of Russia or of Ukraine. Germany might, if can borrow funds to do so, most of its own going to investment in East Germany and neighboring countries. Germany is raising its interest to attract the funds, while the U.S. is lowering its own in hopes of jump-starting its dead economy. If you were an oil sheikh or Pacific financier with money to park, you would go to the higher interest rate.

A Ukraine of German economic penetration, which may be in the offing, would create an economic map of Europe looking suspiciously not unlike Hitler's empire in World War II. Americans may not see it that way, but older Europeans will.

With freedom or peace coming to countries in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, the already-debt-ridden world is ripe for development but is gripped by a capital shortage. The U.S. does not have a capital surplus. Japan, Germany, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia (less than before) and South Korea do. Germany's is ear-marked for East Germany and Eastern Europe.

The crazy relationship between the two heavily armed Koreas is one problem where the U.S. does have a key role to play, principally by maintaining air squadrons and troops in South Korea longer than it planned.

Elsewhere in Asia, where economic power is the answer, Japan is the answer-man. For years it had no foreign policy, then only a commercial policy. Now it will start to have opinions. Japan will become increasingly dominant in south China, the hinterlands of Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Japan is indifferent to Beijing's human-rights record and the local society is indifferent to Beijing's authority.

What will change, at least in appearance, will be the U.S. relation with Japan. We fought the Gulf War to assure its access to oil. Japan is run by weak governments trying to mediate between two stronger powers, the U.S. government and Japanese industry. But without Russia as a threat, the U.S. and Japan do not need each other in the same old way. As a result, President Bush is casting it in a new role. It is what he is running for president against -- the Willie Horton of 1992.

Mr. Bush, whom the Japanese have seen as their principal friend in U.S. politics, was vulnerable to the protectionist Japan-bashing of Democrats and such Republicans as Rep. Helen D. Bentley. An astute politician, he is pre-empting their attack. President Bush can be counted on to be very tough with Japan until November. American military strength is no longer where he is coming from. American economic weakness is.

The United States is the world's biggest debtor with the worst trade imbalance. That is why it is not the superpower it seemed to be one year ago. It has not fallen like the Soviet Union, but the arms race which destroyed one weakened the other. Unless the United States lives within its means, it will get weaker. But there is something to be said about living within your means: It is bad politics, especially in an election year. And it is arguably not such good economics in a recession. If the nation's problems and growing international weakness can be solved, the best chance to initiate the solution is the first year of the next presidency, probably the Bush second term.

L Listen for debate in 1992. Hope for positive action in 1993.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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