Joseph S. Nye, Jr. — Diversifying American Power

Joseph Nye photo[By Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

The American National Intelligence Council projects that American dominance will be “much diminished,” by 2025. Many foreign leaders also suggest that American power has passed its mid-day. How would you know if these predictions are correct or not?

First, beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Nations are not like humans, with predictable life spans. For example, after Britain lost its American colonies at the end of the 18th century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain’s reduction to “as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia.” He failed to foresee that the Industrial Revolution would give Britain a second century of even greater ascendency. Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power. Even then, Rome did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed for all the fashionable predictions of China, India, or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threats to all states may come from modern barbarians and non-state actors. The classical transition of power among great states may be less of a problem than the rise of non-state actors. In an information-based world of cyberinsecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.

da Silva, Obama, Hu photo

“On many transnational issues, empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals.” Here, in 2009, the leaders of Brazil, the United States, and China work together, with others, to coordinate actions for global economic recovery.

At an even more basic level, what resources will produce power in the next two decades? In the 16th century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain
the edge; 17th-century Netherlands profited from trade and finance; 18th-century France gained from its larger population and armies; while 19th-century British power rested on its primacy in the Industrial Revolution and its navy. Conventional wisdom has always held
that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be that the state (or nonstate) with the best story will win. Soft or attractive
power becomes as important as hard military or economic power. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal.” Smart power means the combination of the hard power of command and the soft power of attraction.

In today’s world, power resources are distributed in a pattern that resembles a complex, three-dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar and the United States is likely to remain the only superpower for some time. But on the middle chessboard, economic power has already been multipolar for more than a decade, with the United States, Europe, Japan, and China as the major players, and others gaining in importance.

The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations that cross borders outside of government control, and it includes non-state actors as diverse as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets at one extreme, and terrorists transferring weapons or hackers threatening cyber-security at the other. It also includes new challenges like pandemics and climate change. On this bottom board, power is widely dispersed, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, hegemony. The soft power to attract and organize cooperation will be essential for dealing with transnational issues.

The problem for American power in the 21st century is that there are more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful state. Although
the United States does well on military measures, there is increasingly more going on in the world that those measures fail to capture. For example,  international financial stability is vital to the prosperity of Americans, but the United States needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Global climate change too will affect the quality of life, but the United States cannot manage the problem alone. And in a world where borders are becoming more porous than ever to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, America must help build international coalitions and build institutions to address shared threats and challenges. In this sense, power becomes a positive sum game. It is not enough to think in terms of power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish goals. On many transnational issues, empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of relevant power. The problem of American power is less one of decline, than realizing that even the largest country cannot achieve its aims without the help of others.


JOSEPH S. NYE, JR. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of The Powers to Lead and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

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