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Is The American Century Over?

By Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Global Futures Series, Polity Press
2015, Paperback, 146 pages


This short little volume is perhaps the best short read I know about our global landscape, its future trajectory and the implications for global geostrategic power shifts.  

A former Dean and now professor at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, Nye is no stranger to Washington foreign policymaking. Among other positions, he spent time on the State Department’s seventh floor. In short, he knows both the academic side (he invented the concept of “soft power”) and the hard realities of the practice of power diplomacy. 

As we all know, there is a furious, and often misguided, debate about the fall of America and the rise of China, Europe and a host of other nations and forces. Nye examines all of these arguments, citing and quoting authors who espouse one viewpoint or another. He brings considerable factual material and analytical skills to bear to see if the views match fundamental reality.

What we see in this book is a true concise tour de force examining the international context in which power is exercised, to what end and how it shifts (or does not) over time. While the emphasis is on the role of America the author’s true focus is on relative and shifting power – it is a dynamic look at the phenomenon rather that a static, unidimensional or simplistic expansion of existing, but shifting, trends. 

The first two chapters look at “The Creation of the American Century” and “American Decline.” I will skip the argument when the American Century may have begun because the several alternatives are all somewhat plausible and, in any case the heart of the matter is the often popular idea of American global decline. 

 Nye cites most of the arguments for “American decline” – and these citations alone are worth of price of the book, just to set the stage. He then gets to the real nitty-gritty of policies, resources, new actors and exercise of power that lie at the heart of American influence in the world. 

One quote sums up much of his argument here: “The short answer to our question is that we are not entering a post-American world.” Nye believes that in 2041 the United States will still have “primacy in power resources and play the central role in the global balance of power among states…” But he correctly notes that it is necessary to look at “a decrease in relative external power and domestic deterioration or decay.”

One key point he makes is that there is “no virtue in either understatement or overstatement of American power.” The hubris of a Bush II is not wise, and neither is “withdrawal from the world or nationalistic and protectionist policies that do harm.” He uses the rise and decline of Britain before the two world wars to illustrate how domestic decay (such as falling industrial productivity) reduced absolute power, but it was the rise of others that reduced the country’s  relative power.

Nye acknowledges that the American Century may change or end as a result of “relative” power decline because of the rise of others.  He looks at the relative power changes in Europe, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil. The latter has no chance to overtake America, but Nye thinks that China will be the chief competitor and even surpass America in economic growth and size.

But in the next chapter, on China, he also analyzes the country’s many problems and questions whether, in fact, it will stop the American Century in all areas of power. He looks at Beijing’s strategy and American responses.  He notes that Its military power is officially at a quarter of American by the measure of defense expenditure, but that there are programs that are “off the books” 

Nye believes that the American Century will likely continue, but it will not look like the past and will be more complex. The American share of the global economy will be smaller than in the past, for example.  But Nye does not believe in simple linear extrapolation of growth rates; he looks at multiple elements of power like military, economic, and soft power.

Nye notes, as some others have, that “transnational issues” are “not susceptible to traditional hard power instruments.”  It is here that diplomacy must work harder and smarter; but, frankly, we have not yet organized national foreign policy process and management structure, let alone training and assignments of those entrusted with decision-making to align with this new reality.

Nye states, as have President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, that the United States “cannot achieve many of its international goals acting alone.” This is a perspective that too many in America, and especially in Congress, do not understand. 

The key for Nye is: “The problem of leadership in such a world is how to get everyone into the act and still get action.” His is dismissive of those who equate military action with power, and points to the many global challenges where military might is of little use. He decries both those who overreact, resulting in the “waste blood and treasure as it did in Vietnam and Iraq,” and those who preach a form of total isolation from the world’s troubles. 

Nye concludes that our place in the world could be affected by our own partisan politics, and he is critical of the budget cutters who reduce funding for diplomacy and the military, as well as domestic needs such as education, R&D, and infrastructure that make our country great. He believes we need to grow and tax to accomplish these goals. 

While he believes the U.S. should intervene in key crises, Nye holds that the Washington should stay out of the business of “invasion and occupation.” He argues for the need to reinvigorate, reconfigure and reinvent international institutions to carry the work of addressing our most serious global challenges.

For those with an abiding interest in international issues this should be required reading as this book provides so many insights and much wisdom into the global dynamics of power and even more its significance. Not least its overview of the implications of these trends and how we need to deal with this new and changing world can be the basis for a lively debate about governmental policies, actions, and the role of our international institutions.  

We welcome your comments!

This post is a version of a book review published in the Foreign Service Journal of June 2015.

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