Paris. -- It is a military axiom that moral domination of the enemy is more important than material superiority. "There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man," William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in his memoirs. The psychological impact made upon the enemy and his commander is crucial in battle, giving one side ascendance, minimizing losses.
This is true in competitive international relations. Churchill's speeches, morally certain, impregnated with the imagery of justice and patriotism, were his most powerful wartime instrument. An austere rhetoric served de Gaulle in maximizing the influence of his nation at war, and in the political domination of post-Suez Europe -- compelling both the United States and the Soviet Union to take account of a state they would have preferred to ignore.
De Gaulle's tactics of surprise and measured provocation would not have succeeded had they not rested upon profound self-confidence and an unshakable conviction that France had always been and would continue to be a great nation. This equally was Churchill's belief about Britain, sustained by a British public conscious of its history and convinced of its destiny.
The American people always in the past believed with equal certainty in the destiny of the United States as a liberating force in human affairs. In the years that followed Pearl Harbor, and then in the Cold War, both American government and public were convinced that America's hour had come, of national fulfillment but also of national obligation to others.
This seriousness, this sense of disinterested purpose, were more important than American material power in giving the United States world leadership. America's certainty about its values, validated in its conduct, undermined the confidence of the Soviet Union's leaders and elites, contributing to their eventual abdication of communism -- and to all that has followed.
Whatever the mistakes Washington made in the postwar decades, no one failed to take the United States seriously. People might believe the Vietnam war a hateful error, or fight against American policy in Latin America, or Greece, or Africa, but everyone was compelled to respect the fact that these were the policies of a formidable nation which believed in itself.
That is now over. It is a change of fundamental importance to the United States and to the contemporary international system. It is an event that will be written in the history books our children study. In 1992 the United States ceased to be a great power.
Just a year ago commentators made much of the prospect for a American-led new world order. The United States was now the "sole superpower" and would impose a benevolent discipline on a disorderly world. That idea has vanished. The reasons are many, but they come together, and can be understood, in what we have just seen in American relations with Japan.
Americans were angry last week when Japan's parliamentary speaker called American workers "lazy and illiterate" and said the United States now was Japan's subcontractor. The appropriate American reaction should have been fright, not anger. When the leaders of a nation as important to the United States as Japan display contempt for it -- not rivalry, or competitiveness, or resentment, or anger, but dismissal and contempt -- then the end of America's world leadership has been announced. If there is no respect there is no leadership. And the Japanese are not alone. Many in Europe would say much the same things about the United States as the Japanese if they were to articulate what they really believe -- or what they really fear.
The immediate cause for this display of Japanese contempt was President Bush's deliberate transformation of his Far Eastern trip into an exercise in election-year domestic politics, making blustering demands that unearned favors be granted the United States by the Japanese government, Japan's industrialists and its consumers. The unspoken but unmistakable message was an admission on America's highest authority of Japanese superiority, and of U.S. inferiority.
The problem would be manageable were it simply the fault of the president. While Mr. Bush was in Japan, his Democratic presidential challengers in New Hampshire were cultivating voter support by making exactly the same implied admission of American default. They were demanding that Japan (and the Europeans) grant the U.S. trade concessions and blaming American industrial and trade decline on its successful competitors. By doing so they demonstrated that it is not the administration that is the problem, but the American political class -- and the American voter, who has wanted, and rewarded, the policies which gave us this crisis.
The national cost is much heavier than people seem to understand. Nations do not usually get second chances. If a nation has lost its moral ascendance, its earned respect, it does not easily claim it back. France still is not taken with entire seriousness in the world because of what it did to itself in the 1930s and 1940s. Britain on the other hand, however its policies may be criticized, has never lost the moral position it earned in empire as well as in two world wars. Argentina's generals in 1982 underestimated Britain's seriousness. Doing so proved fatal.
A presidential race that produces so frantic and irresponsible a sacrifice of national interest to electoral advantage, and so blatant a refusal to confront national responsibilities, puts the seal on America's brief tenure of world leadership. It reveals the American political system as now turned to the mendacious exploitation of popular emotion and selfish interest. No such country can lead others.
"The best of America was the best of the world," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1929. "France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter -- it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart." It was a willingness now gone -- to the bitterness of those who believed in it.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.