America has certainly taken a long and fast lap around the rest of the world in the past century. There is no question about it. The question that doesremain is whether or not America will keep at it or be passed up. In Joseph Nye’s book, Is the American Century Over?, Nye makes a vast array of points about America’s position on the world stage. He answers both yes and no, but still leaves it up to interpretation, because, after all, tomorrow is a mystery. It’s just a question of whether or not American past is going to be just history.
Nye starts the book with a poll regarding American’s power and the perception of it by its citizen. To summarize, in 2011 38 percent believed that America stood above all other countries. In 2014, only 28 percent did (1). Is that a sign of decline? It would certainly be the first to be introduced, but the first point lays out the groundwork for the argument of what the playing field looks like. The nineteenth century is said to be the time where the United States ruled as the largest industrial super power (2). In terms of “purchasing power,” China has already beat the US according to the World Bank (3). There are some real experts having a say in his book.
Purchasing power, however, is not everything. Power is the “ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants,” says Nye (3). There are three ways in doing this: coercion, payments, and attraction (3). Nye says that economic power should not be the only way of addressing who is the most powerful (4). Nye says that when a country has “major power resources,” it may also have low power conversion capability. He uses the demonstration of the 1930s to demonstrate this: the US had a good economy but it had an isolationist policy (4). In the 1930s, it was virulently isolationist (6). The US has also done at other times a lot for global balance of power, so therefore it gives it power (4).
Sticking with descriptions of the past, from 1945 to 1991 the world global balance of power was “bipolar,” as the US and the USSR competed for being supposedly unipolar (7). Some compare the US military power (as hegemon) to the nineteenth century British hegemony (8). If anything, with China and American competing, this would also a bipolar world, but the argument is that America will not be taking center stage.
Could America be following in the footsteps of Great Britain? It’s a point that Nye brings up (8). Critics point out that America hasn’t actually been a full hegemony though (11). It’s sort of living a lie by leading people to believe it is. Instead of calling it “American hegemony” it should be called “the American century” (14). Nye ends the next, second chapter by concluding that just because there are 100 year cycles (17), that doesn’t mean that it will prove to be true for every hundred years. History doesn’t repeat itself (18). Americans just have a long history of stressing about a decline (18).
Nye mentions relative decline and absolute decline (20). He also writes about other countries: Europe as a whole has a bigger economy (24), Japans population is shrinking (29), Russia, as a “one crop economy” is in decline (34), India will have more people than any country by the year 2025 (39), and Brazil has high corruption issues (43). He shares the other nations states as a way to help the reader know where other nations are at and where they are headed in connection to the US.
There is a strong emphasis on the rise of China, but it’s left room for a debate. There are certainly a lot of facts on the matter though. Nye says that China is lacking cultural industries that would compete with Hollywood or Bollywood (47). He also says that China’s “rise” is a misnomer, that recovery is more accurate (48). China also lacks a greater PPP (Purchasing power parity), but it is expected to surpass the United States soon (49). Its per capita income is only 20 percent of the US level. It will take decades to catch up (if ever) (50).
China’s trade is “larger but relatively less sophisticated than that of the United States or Germany (50). In the 2020s, China will probably be the world’s biggest economy, but not its most advanced (51). It’s authoritarian political system has shown an “impressive power conversion capability” which is why it has built impressive cities and high-speed trains (54). China also has the largest internet population (600 million users), but it has a lot of control associated with it (55).
China’s military is half that of the US, spending 2 percent of its GDP on it (56). China needs more soft power if it wants to look less frightening (59). The reason China does not have it is because it is assertive over its territorial claims involving its neighbors (60). “China,” says Nye, “makes the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power (61).
Nye also says that, “Only China can contain China” He says that a rising China throws its weight around and drives surrounding countries to seek to balance their own power (66). The US has more allies than China (67). China is also in favor of international institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (68). Nye acknowledges that “miscalculation are always possible, but conflict is inevitable” (69). The US still remains decades in front of China in military, economic, and soft power resources at the global level (69).
In Nye’s book, he points out that Rome did not succumb to the rise of a competing empire (71). He says that if America declines, it’s because of domestic reasons (71). America’s culture is “never static and critics often lament the ways of the current generation” (72). These culture wars and other’s that are quite obvious now could distract America to the point of not being able to focus on its foreign policy (73). On a more positive note, the World Economic Forum ranked the US 3rdout of 154 countries in terms of global economic competitiveness (78).
A concern would be that American people are in a lot of debt right now. The state is, as well to foreign governments (81). American’s do quite well in terms of education. 32 percent graduate from college (82). The US spends nearly twice as much on higher education as a percentage of GDP than do any of France, Germany, Britain, or Japan (83). Americans also “win more Nobel prizes than do citizens of any other country, and publish more scientific paper in peer-reviewed journals” (83).
The Constitution, as Nye accurately describes it, is based on the eighteenth-century liberal view that power best be pluralized and have checks and balances (87). Considering how much emphasis is now on federal government, this is in question and America could be moving away from its roots.
There are a few points that Nye shared regarding power shifts and global complexity. He said the two great power shifts that occurring right now are: power transitioning from West to East, and power diffusion from governments to non-state actors, a result of the information revolution that is occurring on a global scale (94). He says the shift of power to non-state actors is causing a lot of transnational issues. This includes financial stability, climate change, terrorism, and pandemics, which tends to make the ability of all governments ability to respond weak (95). He says that power is widely diffused, so it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, or hegemony (96). The nuclear age that we are living in is also a part of the debate regarding power (103).
The US ranks second after internet use, this means that cyber security is a threat (104). Nye says that the “information revolution could reduce the power of large states and enhance the power of small sates and non-state actors” (108). He says the information revolution increases the diffusion of power in this century (110). Nye says that it is changing in a way that makes the US not as likely to achieve many of its international goals while acting alone (111).
Nye concludes the book by saying that China will not necessarily surpass the US as the most powerful country (114). He says that it is likely that the US’s centrality will help create a global balance for power (115). America also faces issues like “debt, secondary education, income inequality, and political gridlock” (115). The real issue that Nye describes is not being overtaken by China or another country, but instead it will see itself face to face with a rise in the power resources of state and non-state actors (116). One of Nye’s conclusions is that America’s century continuing depends on a wide set of alliances and will increasingly do so in the new context of world politics (123). His final conclusion is that “the United States will need to make smart strategic choices both at home and abroad if it wishes to maintain its position (127).
Nye really does say it best. Moreover, many Americans associate immigration with the decline in America, but Nye does not talk much about it like that. Other than saying that non-state actors threaten the US, he leaves this up to interpretation. China may have more internet users, but they are subject to censorship. Another problem is debt. Although the US has more PPP, many American’s live paycheck to pay check or on credit. The cost of an educations is very high. Stratification is increasing. Nye doesn’t mention the polycentric alternative.
The specific theme is that America will not lose its greatness. With culture combined with politics, the United States remains to provide the best quality of life compared to other nations. It’s more eco-friendly than China and other countries in Asia. Our non-state actors can take credit for that, activism has strong roots in AmeriCAN culture, and because of the strong emphasis on smart power, the US has a good balanced compared to competing nations, like China, Brazil, India, and Russia, all whom are more authoritarian.
Nye, Joseph. 2015. Is the American Century Over?Malden, MA: Polity Press.
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