Is the American Century Over? By Joseph Nye. Polity Press; 152 pages; $12.95
The Economist, London, on March 7, 2015, reviewed Professor Joseph Nye’s new book. “Americans have a long history of worrying about their decline,” notes Joseph Nye. Puritans in 17th-century Massachusetts lamented a fall from earlier virtue. The Founding Fathers fretted that the republic they had created might dissipate like ancient Rome. Modern scholars are a gloomy…,too. Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, a think-tank, has written that, with America’s foreign policy in a state of collapse, its economy ailing and its democracy broken, the American century ended last year. Excerpts below:
Mr Nye, a veteran observer of global affairs, is more optimistic. He expects that America will still play the central role in the global balance of power in the 2040s. What, after all, is the alternative?
Europe is hardly a plausible challenger. Though its economy and population are larger than America’s, the old continent is stagnating.
By 2025 India will be the most populous nation on Earth. It has copious “soft power”—a term Mr Nye coined—in its diaspora and popular culture. But only 63% of Indians are literate, and none of its universities is in the global top 100. India could only eclipse America if it were to form an anti-American alliance with China,
China is the likeliest contender to be the next hyperpower: its army is the world’s largest and its economy will soon be. (In purchasing-power-parity terms, it already is.) But it will be decades before China is as rich or technologically sophisticated as America; indeed, it may never be.
Hu Jintao, the previous president, tried to increase China’s soft power by setting up “Confucius Institutes” to teach its language and culture. Yet such a strategy is unlikely to win hearts in, say, Manila, when China is bullying the Philippines over islands in the South China Sea.
Perhaps the greatest threats to American pre-eminence are domestic. As pundits often point out, young American workers score terribly on cross-country comparisons of numeracy, and Americans are disillusioned with their government. Yet even here, Mr Nye sees hope: 82% of Americans say America is the best place in the world to live. It remains a magnet for foreign talent, and could be an even stronger one if it sorted out its immigration policy.
“Leadership is not the same as domination,” says Mr Nye; influence matters more than military might. This short, well-argued book offers a powerful rebuttal to America’s premature obituarists.