THE NEXT CENTURY
A short (224-page) series of low-key essays that offer random reflections on America's recent past rather than any systematic appreciation of what's in store for the country. Drawing on his experience as a globe-trotting journalist, Halberstam (Summer of '49, etc.) leaves little doubt that the US is losing a substantive measure of its socioeconomic power and geopolitical influence. Early on, for instance, he cites a contemporary's wry comment: "The Cold War is over; the Japanese won." In surveying the convulsive events in Eastern Europe and harking back to Vietnam, moreover, the author concludes that the threat posed by Communist states in the post-WW II era was more real than imagined; he fears, though, that the resources and emotional capital committed to keeping ideological enemies at bay proved unduly costly. In the meantime, Halberstam observes, Japanese manufacturers have been outhustling their stateside competitors in consumer as well as industrial markets where success now depends on advanced technologies, leaving a free press and freedom of speech as "the last great American export." Among other causes, he attributes the decline in US commerce to psychological factors (notably, a growing sense of entitlement on the part of a spendthrift populace) and a deteriorating educational system. The author also charges that the increasingly ubiquitous medium of TV has fostered a sound-bite culture that trivializes political debate and effectively precludes "thoughtful civility of discourse." But beyond the implicit suggestion that America had best get a grip on itself, Halberstam makes no specific proposals for renewal of the nation's putatively flagging fortunes. State-of-the-union jottings that, while sporadically analytic, afford a less than coherent perspective, owing mainly to their limited focus and oddly enervated tone.