The New York Times

by Tom Switzer

"When we see the world in which we are about to move, the United States no longer is in the position of complete pre-eminence or predominance [and] that is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it can be a constructive thing. ... We now have a situation where four potential economic powers have the capacity [to] challenge [the U.S.] on every front."

So said Richard Nixon, 40 years ago today. Addressing media executives in Kansas City on July 6, 1971, the 37th president predicted "in 5 years, 10 years, perhaps it is 15, but in any event within our time," America's global hegemony would be replaced by a multipolar world, in which the United States, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, Japan and China would be leading powers.

Not only had the Soviets matched U.S. military might, the old cold warrior conceded, but Japan and Western Europe were competing vigorously with U.S. companies for markets. The American Century had ended.

"I think of what happened to Greece and Rome, and you see what is left — only the pillars," Nixon concluded somberly. "What has happened, of course, is that the great civilizations of the past, as they have become wealthy, as they have lost their will to live, to improve, they then have become subject to decadence that eventually destroys the civilization. The U.S. is now reaching that period."

Imagine if President Obama or leading Republicans today welcomed the end of U.S. pre-eminence and the rise of global multipolarity. The American body politic would denounce them as declinists, defeatists, perhaps even un-American. Yet Nixon's speech sparked no outrage in July 1971.

Nor was it an isolated incident. A few months later, he told Time magazine: "I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other. ..."

Nixon's agenda reflected his nuanced world view: détente and arms control with the Soviets; the Guam doctrine in 1969 that emphasized limits to U.S. power; the abandonment of Bretton Woods in 1971, thereby canceling the direct convertibility of the dollar to gold; and rapprochement with China. (As Nixon spoke on July 6, his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was secretly en route to Beijing to complete plans for the first presidential visit, which Nixon announced on July 15.)

Here was Nixon, a longtime champion of a Pax Americana, acknowledging what no president since has been willing to acknowledge: that we live in a plural world and that U.S. power is past its apogee.

Instead of looking at the post-Vietnam world through the prism of American exceptionalism, Nixon and Kissinger envisaged it as an emerging multipolar system to be structured and regulated by a balance of power à la 1815 Congress of Vienna, the subject of the latter's doctoral dissertation.

"It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises," Nixon declared in language more reminiscent of Metternich and Bismarck than Truman and Kennedy.

The distinguished liberal journalist Walter Lippmann had spent much of the 1950s and 1960s railing against Nixon's strident anti-Communist views, but he caught the significance of the new Nixon. "His role," Lippmann recognized in 1973, "has been that of a man who had to liquidate, defuse, deflate the exaggerations of the romantic period of American imperialism and American inflation. Inflation of promises, inflation of hopes, the Great Society, American supremacy — all that had to be deflated because it was all beyond our power."

Reading the article in his White House daily briefing, Nixon noted: "Wise observation."

Of course, Nixon's prediction about the end of U.S. global predominance was premature. And his assessment of Soviet military power was exaggerated. But he did recognize the limits to the U.S. role as world policeman in a multipolar system that is starting to become more evident.

Bloodied by quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, crippled by a $14 trillion debt and near-double-digit unemployment, shattered by swelling home foreclosures, the United States is struggling to impose its will and leadership across the globe. Meanwhile, the rise of China, India and Brazil, taken together with the formidable presence of Japan and the European Union, suggests that power is becoming more diffuse.

In the past two decades, the accepted wisdom in Washington has embraced several expressions about the U.S. place in the post-Cold War world, from "indispensable nation" and "sole remaining superpower" to "benign hegemony" and "A New American Century."

Richard Nixon recognized the perils of such grandiose visions. For U.S. foreign policy, the key word was not "and" but "or," and the key question was not "how" but "why." Democrats and Republicans could do worse than reflect on Nixon's remarks 40 years ago.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, Australia.