Paul Kennedy {"The End of Empire: Can We Decline as Gracefully as Great Britain?" Outlook, Jan. 24} raises some important questions about the political and economic transitions the United States is currently experiencing as a great power. As a scholar of international history, Kennedy understands the historical conditions that precipitated the decline of the British Empire. But the British experience has remarkably less in common with that of the United States than Kennedy suggests.

The principal cause for the decline of the British Empire was the rising tide of nationalism against British imperialism in the developing world, which made the maintenance of such an empire in the 20th century impracticable. The form of colonial imperialism preferred by the British was structurally far less adaptable than the forms of economic domination engaged in by the United States; the British Empire was therefore doomed long before the Somme.

Moreover, Britain never attempted to assume the role of guarantor of the West in the manner the United States has traditionally defined it. Britain's inaction in the face of fascist aggression in the 1930s was characteristic of British disinterest in acting as the world's policeman. And the Anglo-French postwar Sinai adventure certainly cannot be what Kennedy has in mind when he writes of "graceful decline," can it? These are clearly lessons of a failed policy, not examples to emulate.

Kennedy's articulation of the disintegration of a bipolar world is not new. It has been a recognizable feature of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Vietnam War. Indeed, it has been taught as academic orthodoxy in some circles for nearly a decade.

But the end of a bipolar world does not end U.S. commitments to its allies and trading partners throughout the world. Herein lies the crucial difference between the concept of British and American empires: the former was a colonial empire of political, cultural and economic subjugation whereas the latter is an empire based (theoretically) on free trade. The defense of this "empire" rests on mutual cooperation of allies and partners (however unequal they often might be), not on the subservience of the subjugated to their subjugators.

Without arguing the soundness of the present administration's fiscal policies (which in effect spread the cost of the U.S. defense budget to nations benefiting from it), it seems odd that Kennedy evinces the fiscal restraint of the British government as a desideratum for the current economic crisis. Britain's pre-Keynesian budget policies should serve as testimony to its postwar poverty and not, as Kennedy would have it, as a model for U.S. budget policies.

Perhaps the most important point Kennedy fails to adequately acknowledge concerns the fundamental structural differences between American and British societies. American society, whatever its inherent flaws, is a far more mutable institution with more resources of all descriptions than its British counterpart. It is arguably better equipped to meet the current crisis than Kennedy concedes.

-- William H. Kniep The writer teaches history at The George Washington University.