The end of the 1980s gave rise to many thoughts about the decline of the United States of America. In 1987, Paul Kennedy’s theory of a certain inevitable ending for all great powers was often applied to the USA. Furthermore, former US Secretary of State and 1973 Nobel Prize winner, Henry Kissinger, argued that America’s Cold War success was “far more costly for the USA than it could have been.” Only about a decade later, at the end of the 1990s, however, Henry Luce’s vision of the USA as a world power experienced a sort of renaissance since 1941, when this vision first arose. Below, I would like to take a closer look at this transformation of perceptions of the United States.
In the late 1980s, “declinists” were certainly not short of incidents proving their rather pessimistic outlook on America’s future. In the process of naming some of them, I would like to start with the 1970s, where the US retreat from Vietnam, 58,000 dead American soldiers, and defeat by a Third World country portrayed a great surrender of American power to a communist country. The sentiments of grief, anger, and regret over Vietnam influenced the following years immensely and was also an incentive to a less muscular foreign policy. Furthermore, President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 due to his “abuses of governmental power” in the Watergate scandal caused a lack of confidence in American politicians and symbolized the ending of a presidency often referred to as imperial. When Shiite suicide bombers killed 241 US Marines in Beirut in 1983, during the Lebanese civil war, and forced a US military retreat, talk again started of the decline of American power in terms of “imperial overstretch” leading to the definite ending of the great power of the USA – to apply Kennedy’s theory.
From an economic point of view, the USA was definitely weakened after the Wall Street crisis of 1987, which happened during a period of increased military spending, cuts in sectors such as education, and heavy job losses in the manufacturing industry in Ronald Reagan’s administration. These and other events led to high unemployment and devastated communities across the country. At the same time, very different developments could be observed in Japan: the Japanese economy was rapidly growing stronger, causing fear among Americans. Especially strong was the fear of Toyota being successful in the competition with the American car industry, and the possibility of Japan buying up assets.
Moreover, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 caused a feeling of uncertainty in America. The USA feared that if the USSR came to an end, it would no longer able to clearly define a concrete enemy and had to wonder about what other system other than communism may rise as a new rival. Furthermore, the likelihood of a unipolar system gave rise to thoughts of a possible breakdown of stability for the USA as well as for the global system. Henry Kissinger argued at this point that in order to keep a secure international environment, a balance of power would have to be created among the ex-communist states.
The sudden end of the Cold War in 1991, however, turned out not to be as insecure a state for the United States as feared and the term “American Century” was used frequently. Reasons for this change were many. Former communist states proved themselves to be willing to integrate into a democratic world in wide parts of Europe which can be seen in the growing importance of the European Union and the raising optimism in that region. Furthermore, Japan experienced an economic meltdown with a long zero-growth period in 1993 and was no longer seen as the dominant threat to the US economy.
 Paul Kennedy. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Vintage, 1987.
 Patrick J. Garrity. How To Think About Henry Kissinger, On Principle, June 1997.
 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRAMPA) of 1974, 44 U.S.C. § 2111, Sec. 104 (a)(1) .
 Kennedy, Great Powers.
 Garrity, Henry Kissinger.