When was the apex of American power?
February 22, 2011 10:05 AM   Subscribe

When was the apex of American power? [Or: When did American power begin to decline?]

I once joked in the blue that American power had peaked with the release of Rocky IV. But now I wonder whether our decline started with the formation of OPEC - or even the Tet Offensive.
posted by Joe Beese to Law & Government (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Power in what? This is chat filter-y.
posted by quodlibet at 10:07 AM on February 22, 2011

Power in what?

What are the usual ways that a country projects power? Guns and money.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:10 AM on February 22, 2011

What's definition of American power are you working from?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:10 AM on February 22, 2011

Lunar landing...
posted by notyou at 10:13 AM on February 22, 2011

Guns, money, and world domination. I'd say when they discovered that the USSR had developed the bomb.
posted by Melismata at 10:17 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is begging the question

If you mean "There is no evidence that American power has peaked", "Not yet" is an acceptable answer.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:20 AM on February 22, 2011

Guns and money.

America still has more guns than anyone else (and more military by far) and is still the financial capital of the world. Has America reached a tipping point on either of those fronts? Probably not.
posted by The World Famous at 10:20 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Somewhere between 1945 (when the US accounted for something like 50% of world GDP and had a nuclear monopoly) and 1949 (when the Soviets tested their A-bomb). Remember that "power" is relative to what other nations possess.
posted by chengjih at 10:24 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Charles Krauthammer called it in 1990. I think he was right. (Sorry, can't find the full text).
posted by BobbyVan at 10:27 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Consider this: There have been many peaks, and long plateaus that themselves form a peak of sorts. Moreover, guns and money don't always go together. Military spending can fall and money can go up.

* 1945-49
* 1963, immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis
* 1992 - 2000, the long Clinton boom

But my suggestion would be ... drumroll ... 1989 to mid-1992. To whit:

- Invasion of Panama
- Desert Storm
- Fall of the Berlin Wall
- Fall of the Soviet Union
- Just prior to the 1992 recession that carried Clinton into the presidency
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:29 AM on February 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

You must remember that any empire has both a military AND an economic zenith. I believe the beginning of the end was September 11, 2011. This is when UBL used terror in an attempt to get us to bankrupt ourselves. It worked. We are well into the decline, and we could very well die on the same hill as the Soviets did (Afghanistan).
posted by brownrd at 10:42 AM on February 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

As far as the perception of other nations goes, 9-11 was when the US was shown to be vulnerable in a way that had never been demonstrated before.
posted by Shohn at 10:43 AM on February 22, 2011

We're at its height, if compared to other countries. Our competitors are either in serious and irreversible decline (Russia) or works in progress who have a lot of development left to do (China, India). There is no other national entity or alliance who can tell us what to do, or limit what we do with our power... I don't think there's been a superpower like this since the Mongol empire.

The problem is, we're pretty crummy at conquest. We can do it if we gotta, but the last time we had any fun with it was when we took the Philippines from Spain. This current round of adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan will leave a long and lingering sour taste in our mouth, and curb enthusiasm for projecting power abroad even further.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:55 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

We live in an increasingly multipolar world. This means that America can be both rising and falling at once, depending on which indicators you're looking at and which indicators of the other world powers you're looking at.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:36 AM on February 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

When American free trade supporters gave China the keys to the world economy.
posted by Ky at 11:38 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I left a note with my will predicting that future historians looking for a single point in time will use August 9, 1974 - the resignation of Richard Nixon from the Presidency of the United States. Perhaps that point doesn't mark "the beginning of the end" of the US' global domination, but it does mark the turn of the cultural and political tide. Before that day, we were the "Get it done" guys who "won World War II" and put a man on the moon. Maybe we lost our confidence; maybe we just woke up to the fact that we were never really who we thought and told ourselves we were. Regardless, America's never come back together. In fact, at the hands of kingmakers like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, we've been purposefully driven apart.

That's not to say there haven't been high points since then - Reagan is well regarded; Clinton almost salvaged the American economy. But a George W. Bush certainly provides a negative balance to Reagan's legacy, and then some. Even the Great Hoper and Changer has turned out to be a Not So Mucher. Reagan and Clinton look more and more like sites seen along a general downward ride.

Maybe I'm wrong - regardless, I probably won't live to see how it all plays out, because it's a longer game than I have time for.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 12:08 PM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

American power? You probably need a better perspective than "guns and money". A peak of influence isn't necessarily defined in terms of those entities. I think the peak of America's global influence was pre-Sputnik and post WW-II.
posted by JJ86 at 12:11 PM on February 22, 2011

I agree with the wikipedia POV "After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that ended the Cold War, the post-Cold War world was sometimes considered as a unipolar world, with the United States as the world's sole remaining superpower".

Those were heady days for neo-cons, who felt their world view had been validated. It was supposedly a victory for the USA, and free-market enterprise.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:34 PM on February 22, 2011

...until China took over those free markets.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:41 PM on February 22, 2011

Lunar landing...

or, when the last three landings were canceled, IMO.
posted by Rash at 1:16 PM on February 22, 2011

I say the apex of American power was the basketball Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.
posted by found missing at 1:27 PM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think from 1945 to 1949 is the logical answer given the parameters of what is a truly silly question. We possesed a technological advantage over the rest of the world that is unparalleled in history. Even in our greatest moments of might thereafter, our entire nationstate could have been anihilated over a mere spat.

With that being said, I think the question becomes much more layered and interesting when nuclear detante is added to the equation.
posted by Hurst at 1:30 PM on February 22, 2011

I've seen charts that mention how the current dollar is pennies on the 1967 dollar. 1967?
posted by notned at 1:31 PM on February 22, 2011

I've seen charts that mention how the current dollar is pennies on the 1967 dollar. 1967?

The 1967 dollar was also pennies on the 1800 dollar, so maybe that's not a good way to call it. Anywho, this isn't really a fair question, I don't think - historical processes by which we judge power and primacy and whatnot operate on too big and too wide a scale for this question to be properly answerable. Ask when the power of the Roman Empire started to decline and you'll get a host of answers, probably stretching over two or three hundred years.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 2:44 PM on February 22, 2011

Our domination of the world ended with the Soviet Union. After that, everything that helped us win the Cold War quickly became irrelevant.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:02 PM on February 22, 2011

Depends on how you mean "decline". Do you mean relative decline? For example, China is certainly more powerful than it used to be, so American power has declined relative to China.

But that is, in my opinion, a rather short-sighted view. To use the same example, China has internal problems that far surpass the doom and gloom of all but the most dire American critics. These problems will catch up to both, but the day of recoking will almost certainly be worse for China. (Same likely goes for the graying and debt-ridden states of Europe and Japan.)

Force projection is determined by naval power, and will be determined by a combination of naval and near-Earth space power in the future. The United States navy is unassailable; and will be for some time and it will probably lead in space power. This, to an extent, locks in American dominance for a while.

While there are huge strucutal problems in the United States with debt, fossil fuel dependence and possibly unsustainable foreign adventurism, these won't actually affect American power until they hit.

So, you could say that 1945 - 1949 and 1991 - 2001 (or earlier depending on when you consider the rise of the China to superpower status) were both an apex. But the United States did not go into "decline" when Russia got the bomb-- other nations have just inched closer faster. And this has had only a little effect- American standard of living is more or less unchanged, it's military, even overstreched, could not be defeated by any power and it's cultural power is awesome.

tl;dr: Not yet.
posted by spaltavian at 3:15 PM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Interesting question.

If we take power to mean your ability to impose your will on other people, it's partly dependent on material factors ("guns and money"), but a great deal of it is psychological: it depends on the consent of other people, which in turn depends on how the US is seen by the rest of the world. Louis Halle, explaining in The Cold War as History why the US could not use its nuclear monopoly in 1945-1949 to rule the world (by attacking the Soviet Union preemptively, for example):
... real power is always something far greater than military power alone. A balance of power is not a balance of military power alone: it is, rather, a balance in which military power is one element. Even in its crudest aspect, power represents a subtle and intimate combination of force and consent. No stable government has ever existed, and no empire has ever become established, except with an immensely preponderant measure of consent on the part of those who were its subjects. That consent may be a half-grudging consent; it may be a consent based in part on awe of superior force; it may represent love, or respect, or fear, or a combination of the three. Consent, in any case, is the essential ingredient in stable power--more so than physical force, of which the most efficient and economical use is to increase consent.

By using physical force in such a way as alienates consent one constantly increases the requirements of physical force to replace the consent that has been alienated. A vicious spiral develops that, continued, ends in the collapse of power. If the Government in Washington had undertaken to use the atomic bomb to control the world it would surely have ended by incurring the fanatical hostility of the world's peoples, with incalculable consequences. It would have found itself trying to dominate the world by terror alone; it would have found itself driven to ever greater extremes of ruthlessness; and the requirements of a totally ruthless policy would, at last, have compelled it to establish a tyranny over the American people as well as over the rest of mankind. At some point early in this progress, however, it would have fallen and been replaced.
I'd say that the Gulf War (1991) was a high point in US power. With the Soviet Union out of the picture, the US was able to put together a broad coalition and easily defeat Iraq. Compare this to the Korean War (1950-1953), during the early Cold War, which ended in stalemate; or to the invasion of Iraq (2003), when the US couldn't convince some of its closest allies--Canada, for example--to participate in the war.

My sense is that the US is overstretched: it can't sustain its current reach with its economic base. It's going to have to scale back at some point to focus on its internal problems, letting other countries take on a greater role in maintaining the status quo, and giving up the neo-conservative fantasy of dominating every region of the world. (See the 1992 Wolfowitz Doctrine.)

In the shorter term, the George W. Bush administration did a great deal of damage to the image of the US in the eyes of the world, one of the foundations of US power, by launching a preventive war ("suicide for fear of death"--Bismarck) in Iraq and by torturing prisoners. Taking a longer-term perspective, though, the US was able to recover from the fiasco of the Vietnam War, so it's possible that the damage done by Bush will be temporary.
posted by russilwvong at 3:16 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

An additional wrinkle to this question is the fact that we are living in an age where the primacy of the nation-state has been entwined with the primacy of the multinational economic region and the multinational corporation. It's difficult to compare the US to the EU, but it's more or less impossible to compare the US, in terms of power, to the top handful of corporations in the world. It would be sort of like trying to weigh the various powers of Europe's nations in the early Renaissance, but without ever considering the influence of the Church.

I don't think this question is silly or chatfilter, as some have suggested: I just don't think it has any particularly clear answer, because "power" is a fuzzy idea without any single number of merit. The only good answers you can really get will be various bits of discrete perspective, such as America's relative economic power or America's military might or America's standard of living or America's cultural influence or how much the world pays attention when the President says something.

I do still stand by my statement that the world is more multipolar nowadays - I think the main thing about the US's "decline" is the fact that the US is no longer so clearly the world's single uncontested hyperpower, although rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:25 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm also going to go with the "Not yet" camp.

Military and politics-wise, we can have people disappeared and extradited from several countries around the world, with their governments' assistance, even.

Economy-wise, we're technically doing great, provided your measures are corporate profits and/or military spending, and not, say how many people are without houses.

If anything provides the tipping point, in the long run, I expect it will be multi-national unions and agreements like the EU and other groups that are looking to line up- when countries have choices for trade and defense, the US will start seeming less and less like a choice to work with. Whenever we hit that point, we'll lose the support (economic, political, etc.) that keeps propping us up internally for our consistent lack of investment in infrastructure.
posted by yeloson at 3:34 PM on February 22, 2011

Zen implies that decline begins at birth.

My personal opinion is that the real wheel finally turned when GWB was re-elected in 2004. That's when the rest of the world stopped caring what the most powerful nation on the face of the earth thought.
posted by ovvl at 7:01 PM on February 22, 2011

The answer depends on how you look at it. A case could be made for either of two answers, I think.

1) Summer of 1945.


2) Today. (Or possibly; it hasn't happened yet).

Certainly I don't think one can make a very good argument that it occured any time between those endpoints.
posted by Justinian at 7:38 PM on February 22, 2011

I don't know what the date was, but I think it happened when Americans no longer took heed of Kennedy's words. "We do these things... not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Somewhere along the way, you stopped doing the hard stuff, and stuck with the easy.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 3:36 PM on February 24, 2011

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