Age Of Malaise -- Has The United States Slipped In World Standing?

WASHINGTON - Malaise is back. At this time of wondrous American triumph, the political psychiatrists have America on the couch. Diagnosis: depression. All over the world, everything is going our way, says the New York Times in its lead ``Week In Review'' article. ``So then why doesn't it feel better?''

Because while the whole world is in bloom, we are in decline, it seems. Washington is ``in eclipse,'' a historical backwater, writes one eminent commentator. ``American wealth, influence, prestige and power are all declining,'' says another. ``We have lost our ability to control major events.''

Have we?

Wealth. In 1950, the peak of the Golden Age from which the declinists say we have slipped, American gross national product was $1.6 trillion (in current dollars). GNP today is $5.5 trillion. If you want to measure individual welfare, per-capita GNP is now more than twice what it was in 1950.

But what about Germany and Japan? Well, what about them. Economist Herbert Stein points out that America's GNP is 2 1/2 times Japan's, 5 times Germany's. In both Japan and Germany, per-capita GNP is only 75 percent of ours. For all their legendary productivity, adds The Economist, it still takes Japanese workers an hour to produce what an American can produce in 31 minutes.

Are we relatively less wealthy? Well, yes. But all that means is that in 1950 the world outside the U.S. was postwar rubble. For a short while, our allies were abnormally poor. Things have now normalized. That does not change the fact that the average American is today twice as wealthy as he was during the alleged peak of 1950. To feel poor nonetheless just because our friends who were utterly destitute back then are now also enjoying prosperity - a lesser prosperity, mind you - is malaise born of nothing but envy.

Prestige. In the middle of the Czech revolution, a worker stands up at a rally outside some godforsaken party-run factory and begins reciting the American Declaration of Independence. In the Soviet Union, an entire political system is being junked in favor of a presidential system modeled on the U.S. and France.

In Panama, 86 percent of the people say that the U.S. liberated them. In Nicaragua, the pro-U.S. opposition scores a landslide against an entrenched communist political machine. From Seoul to Santiago, from Managua to Moscow, the whole world is dying to emulate the free market and free politics embodied by the American system.

In 1950, in short, American values and prestige were ascendant in half the world. Today the other half has come around.

Influence and power. If we measure the actual (absolute) power that the United States can bring to bear on any spot on earth, the United States is infinitely stronger than it was in 1950. But the declinists insist that the real measure of power is relative power.

Relative power? Our great adversary, our only military rival, our nemesis on every continent is in collapse. His empire has disappeared overnight. It is quite possible that in this decade he may not even survive as a nation. If relative power is the real measure, then American power is now greater than ever because there is today no other power in our league.

In a rare lapse into truth, Andrei Gromyko once defined a superpower as a country that has a say in every corner of the globe, and without whose say nothing truly substantial can be achieved in any such corner. That was 15 years ago. There were two such superpowers then. Today there is only one.

Lost our ability to control major events? In Namibia, American involvement was absolutely critical to bringing a regional settlement. In Afghanistan, American aid was the crucial factor that turned the tide of battle against the Soviet Union.

In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy unilaterally took control of the waters of the Gulf, a development that ultimately helped persuade Iran to sue for peace in the Iran-Iraq war.

In corners less far-flung, American influence is even more decisive. Consider Central America. It had become commonplace to say that, like the U.S.S.R., the U.S. could no longer control events in its back yard. Manuel Noriega and Daniel Ortega would contradict that.

In case the depressives haven't noticed, even our great Soviet adversary is now maneuvering to try to re-enter the international economic and political system established and led by the U.S. since World War II. We are, in fact, more hegemonic in the world in 1990 than in 1950, when half the world was not just closed to us but at virtual war with us.

Decline theory, implausible enough before the Revolutions of '89-'90, is now quite ridiculous. Yet it grinds on undeterred. Today (March 11), Lithuania is due to declare its independence. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Panama, Nicaragua. In the measure of relative power so preferred by the declinists, in just six months all of these have been lost by No. 2 or acquired by No. 1 or both. At what point do the declinists admit error? When McDonald's comes to Moscow?

(Copyright 1990, Washington Post Writers Group)