Is the American century over?
Published on June 05, 2016

Is the American century over?

Is the American century over?

The book, ‘Is the American century over?’, has been written by Joseph S. Nye, who is known as one of the distinguished Professor of International Relations. Nye is teaching at Harvard John F. Kennedy School of government and is a former dean. He has written several outstanding books including, Understanding international conflicts- An introduction to theory and history, Soft power- the means to success in world politics, The future of power, Power and interdependence, Presidential leadership and the creation of an American era and his latest release Is the American century over? He has coined both the terms ‘soft power’ and ‘smart power’. Soft power is the power to practice what you want by means of attraction or persuasion. Hard power is the power to practice what you want by way of threat or compulsion. Smart power is the combination of both hard power and soft power. According to Nye, the country’s soft power lies primarily on the three foundations - its culture, its administrative values, and its external policies. In the book, he assumes that the aggregation of all the three dimensions of power (economic power, hard power and soft power) is essential for the nation for its eminence.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, America has been foreseen as the pre-eminent power in a unipolar world. America's power has significantly risen over the century. In addition to that what is remarkable in the present times is the fast developing of a group of countries like China and India which are foreseen to be important actors in shaping world politics. The significant rise in the economic growth of these countries has a potential on impacting power and governance in world politics. Few observers have considered the rising power of china as a serious threat to America's position. Is China going to supersede America? Is China-America war inevitable? Joseph Nye empirically answers such vital questions that have been at the heart of contemporary international politics. 

Joseph Nye skillfully argues that America's pre-eminence is going to last for many more decades. Nye believes that no country can dominate the world forever, but brings power comparison into action which subtly favors his argument.

The book talks in length about when did the American century begin and also discusses the relative decline of American power. The possibility of alliance among significant powers is the only option that could result in surpassing of American power. Nye believes that no one country may surpass the United States, but alliances among other states may put an end to American preeminence and its ability to maintain an international order. Is major power alliance feasible? Nye is deeply skeptical of such alliances that will surpass America's power capabilities. The author also compares America with significant competitors like Europe, Russia, Japan, Brazil, China, India among others.

 Joseph Nye notes the end of the nineteenth century as the possible beginning of the “American century” and during the nineteenth century America became the world’s greatest industrial power and attaining its peak by the twentieth century. He further compares contemporary America with the imperial Britain (Pax Britannica) and examines the difference between relative power resources. He says Britain was not as prominent as the United States is today. Joseph Nye, who has been interpreting from the last two decades that the United States will hold its top spot as the world’s dominant power also invalidates the termination of the American era absolutely. However the current debate is indirectly based on the rise of china, which he predicts as the possible threat to the American powerful dominance.

In the later part of the book, Nye dissents the absolute fall of the American century nonetheless relative decline may occur due to the upgrade of the rest or formation of alliances he envisions possibly may put an end to American preponderance. Nye also  argues that significant actors like Europe, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil are still lagging behind the United States in terms of both hard and soft power. But is there any candidate gearing up to set an end to the American prominence? Considering whole Europe as an economic competitor of US, Nye looks at other aspects of power which strictly speaking favors the latter end. The author highlights the fiscal crisis in Greece along with the challenges that EU faces in terms of political and social-cultural cohesion. Being a non-nuclearized country, Japan three decades back was seen as a growing threat to American dominance. In the last two decades, its economy has severely suffered and it has been surpassed by China. The Author believes that Japan lags far behind in decisive power indices and therefore highly unlikely could it challenge the America’s power positions.  He is pessimistic of Japan-China coalition towards America because of territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the scars of 1930’s war.

Unlike former Soviet Union, Nye views Russia less capable of projecting power across the globe. However, it has effectively used force against its neighboring states which Nye believes has resulted in decline of Russian soft power. Also ideology of anti-liberalism and Russian nationalism is a poor source of soft power.  Although China and Russia have cooperated closely with United Nations Security Council and taken similar positions, Nye feels serious obstacles in the cropping up of a coalition of China –Russia   against America.  The geopolitical tussle between the two along with the liberal international order that has greatly facilitated the rise of China would in Nye’s view elude such coalition. Brazil is economically unsuccessful thus is out of the way. Talking about India Nye says, although India is militarily capable and has good source of soft power and being the largest democracy is still battling internally with poverty. In Nye’s perception Sino-India coalition is less challenging for America’s pre-eminence.

Reacting to the important equation of today's world order-the rise of China, Nye maintains China will soon outpace if measured in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) (depending on the value of currencies). He argues that surpassing of China as the world’s biggest economy, according to the World Bank unit does not mean the death of the American primacy. China has very few alliances while, the United States has well brought off orbit with its alliances and has around 60 treaty allies.  Nye observes that India and Japan do not want China’s preponderance in the Asian region as it will destabilize the regional balance of power. Thus China is yet to go along in diverse sectors. Chinese soft power resources are still lacking behind and thus China still falls behind the United States. China faces serious challenges from its troubled domestic setbacks, underdevelopment, rapid urbanization and lack of technological and scientific institutions. Therefore, Nye analyzes the one-dimensional growth Chinese soft power and its short term benefit which in longer run has limited influence. Nye thus explains American dominance is likely to remain, but it will not be same as in the hereafter.

Nye also discusses the issues that America as a society and the nation as a whole faces; cultural cleavage, slow growth rate of the economy, inequality, political gridlock and others. Mentioning the recent shale revolution along with Americas lead in the production and use of information technologies, he seems far more optimistic in the continuation of America’s preeminence in the future, thus the absolute decline of American century may not happen, but if the economy fails, it can lead to failure of both hard and soft power of America. He predicts that America is likely to continue as the most powerful state because of its internal potential and has geographical advantage as well.

 Nye notes two major power shifts  in today's world-‘power transition’ and 'power diffusion’ due to global interdependence and interconnectedness. Transition of power is taking place among states from west to east, and diffusion of power from states to non-state actors. While discussing the complexity of power and globalization, he highlights transnational issues like climate change, terrorism, and financial stability whose only solution he believes is in the cooperation of the other Nation states with America. He denounces the consequences of any power transition on American dominance.

Joseph Nye interprets that the American dominance is likely to continue in the coming years and there is no final stage of it. As he said “If the American century is to continue, it will not be enough to think in terms of American power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals which involves power with others”. He openly debates the rise of China in this book, but in addition he does not agree with the concept of the neither decline of the United States nor decline of American resources, but rather the rise of everyone else.

Joseph Nye precisely analyzes the future of global order.  The way he has presented empirical data and facts, does not only build the argument, but also helps the reader to understand America's position  in a world that is increasingly becoming multipolar.

-         Ambreen Yousuf is a Research Scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia New Delhi.

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