Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Joseph Nye on American Power in the 21st Century

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye's work, especially his book Soft Power has much influenced my own thinking, and figures prominently in The End of the American Century. His ideas have directly or indirectly influenced the Obama administration, as reflected in Secretary Clinton's use of the term ''smart power.'' Both the rhetoric and actions of the Obama administration add substance to the concept.

Professor Nye's essay, "American Power in the 21st Century," is featured on the website of the China-U.S. Friendship Exchange, as a "comment" on my own "dialogue" there about The End of the American Century. This response to Nye's essay appears on that same site this month.

Professor Nye has long argued that power is multidimensional, that military power is increasingly irrelevant or dysfunctional, and that achieving foreign policy goals now rests on persuasion and cooperation as much as anything. I agree with him on all of this, and his marvelous formulation in this essay that ''on many transnational issues, empowering others can help to accomplish one's own goals.''

But I disagree with him that ''American power in the twenty-first century is not one of decline'' and the difference lies mostly in how we view America's domestic record. In Soft Power, Nye identifies many elements of American soft power, including its economy, culture, values, and global image. But as I show in my book, the U.S. has lost ground in virtually every domain of such soft power, while also losing strength and credibility with its military power and its global reputation. Meanwhile, other regions or powers, like China, the EU, India and others have gained global soft power influence, often at the expense of the U.S.

The U.S. economy and standard of living, since World War II a source of envy and admiration worldwide, is no longer much of a model or aspiration for others. Its astounding growth over the last two decades, it turns out, was a hollow shell, built on ballooning levels of household and government debt. The current economic downturn-still not finished by a long shot-is bringing the United States back to a more ''natural'' economic position, much lower than before. Even before the current crash, by many measures more meaningful than GDP/capita-like quality of life indices-the U.S. was nowhere near the top of the global list.

While growing the economy, based mostly on increased consumption, the U.S. neglected health care, education, investments, R&D, and infrastructure, and allowed increased levels of poverty and inequality. On all of those measures, the U.S. fares poorly in comparison to other developed countries.

Global opinion surveys conducted by Pew, BBC and others show little enthusiasm in other countries for ''American-style democracy,'' for American ways of doing business, or for the spread of U.S. ideas and customs. Though global opinion about the U.S. has improved somewhat with the election of President Obama, far more people worldwide continue to see U.S. influence on the world as ''mostly negative'' rather than ''mostly positive.'' On this scale, among 15 countries, the U.S. ranks 10th, below Germany, Britain, Japan and China, according to a recent BBC poll.

While American culture remains popular in many places (though not, by all means, all), it is difficult to see how global infatuation with ''Desperate Housewives'' can help solve problems like terrorism or global warming. As Professor Nye notes in his first paragraph, even some of our closest allies now believe the era of U.S. global leadership is over. Even more emphatic assertions of that belief have come from leaders in China, Brazil, Peru, Iran and elsewhere.

American decline is not necessarily a bad thing, though, given the increasing interconnectedness of countries and global issues. It will be easier for the United States to interact cooperatively with other countries-and for them to deal with Washington-if the U.S. is not so dominant and domineering. President Obama has adopted a much more conciliatory and modest approach to other countries-viz. his speeches in Ankara and Cairo-and this befits a country that has less reason to crow about its superiority and exceptionalism. As Professor Nye points out, most of the big issues facing the U.S., and the rest of the world, are not susceptible to the application of power by a single country. More things are ''outside the control of even the most powerful state.''

The United States is certainly in decline, both in absolute terms, and relative to other countries. But it will remain an important and influential power, especially if it continues to adopt a less arrogant, more cooperative approach to the rest of the world.

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