Looking Back to the Future

SYNOPSIS: Critical review of a book that avoids hard thinking and sells conventional wisdom as profound and new

A Cold Peace: America, Japan, Germany, and the Struggle for Supremacy.

By Jeffrey E. Garten.

277 pp. New York:

A Twentieth Century Fund Book/

Times Books/Random House. $22.

In 1988 Jeffrey E. Garten, a former State Department official, was asked to write a paper on the future international roles of Japan and Germany. His response was refreshingly unusual: a one-act play about a Camp David retreat in which imaginary American officials discussed in frank language their concerns and fears about our allies-turned-rivals. Alas, in Mr. Garten’s book-length effort to address the same issue, the freshness of this escapade has been lost. “A Cold Peace” is a sensible book; but although it repeatedly claims to challenge old assumptions, it is in fact solidly conventional.

The basic thesis is similar to that of a number of recent volumes. The postwar era of a grand Western alliance led by the United States is coming to an end, both because of the conclusion of the cold war and because of the continuing erosion of American economic dominance. The next decade will therefore look more like the world before 1939, in which a number of major powers with no strong leader dealt messily, and unsuccessfully, with problems of competition and cooperation. Mr. Garten, who is now a managing director of the Blackstone Group, an investment bank, does not offer any apocalyptic vision; he simply argues that conflicts over trade, industrial policy, military budgets, the environment and so on will lead to frosty relations among the major powers—the “cold peace” of his title.

The key distinction of “A Cold Peace” is its insistence on examining Germany, rather than the European Community, as one of the three chief players. There is a lot to be said for this focus, even aside from the literary symmetry of treating as a matched pair two nations that were our main World War II enemies, have been the great success stories of postwar reconstruction and have now become our biggest rivals. As Mr. Garten wisely points out, it has yet to be seen whether Germany will really allow its national autonomy to be seriously submerged in a European whole. And by concentrating on the specifics of German institutions, Mr. Garten can stress the differences between Germany’s “social market economy” and the United States’ “Darwinian” capitalism, which are in their way as striking as the differences between ourselves and the Japanese.

All this is reasonable enough. But Mr. Garten tries to make his thesis seem startling as well as reasonable by contrasting it with the assumptions that an unspecified “we” are supposed to have held until a year or two ago—as in “we thought that after the cold war, America, Japan and Germany would be close partners in all endeavors.” Who thought that (aside from Presidential speechwriters)? Scenarios of economic and even military conflict among the capitalist nations have been a staple of both intellectual discussion and popular entertainment for a decade. Surely a reader would be much more startled nowadays by someone who argued that in the year 2000 we and the Japanese will be the best of friends.

Mr. Garten’s tendency to treat commonplaces as if they were revelations is, unfortunately, characteristic. Indeed, his book is notable for how rarely it questions conventional wisdom. The discussion is relentlessly eclectic, an encyclopedia of currently popular arguments about everything from exchange rates to trading blocs, and it often misses the cases where those arguments are very likely wrong.

A typical—and also crucial—example is the book’s treatment of German power within the European Community. Mr. Garten asserts that German dominance is inevitable given its economic muscle: “A united Germany began its existence with 28 percent of the community’s G.N.P.” This sounds impressive, until one realizes that France has 22 percent of the community’s G.N.P., or that the United States still accounts for about 35 percent of the G.N.P. of the industrial world, while our closest rival, Japan, has only 16 percent. The point is that the sources of current German dominance of European monetary affairs are more subtle, and also perhaps more fragile, than a simple matter of economic might.

Another example is the discussion of currency blocs, in which Mr. Garten asserts that “America has derived great benefit from having the world’s most powerful currency” because we “could print dollars with little discipline on the amounts, knowing that everyone would want to hold greenbacks.” Actually few people outside the United States, other than drug dealers, want to “hold greenbacks,” and the United States has derived only trivial benefits from the dollar’s currency role. It need shed no tears as that role is eroded.

The range of Mr. Garten’s book is clear testimony to the breadth of his experience and reading. One only wishes that “A Cold Peace” showed evidence of hard thinking as well.

Originally published, 7.19.92