Joseph Nye on the Future of American Power

In the Hutong
Winter Reading Blitz
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The essay by Joseph S. Nye in the December issue of Foreign Affairs was by itself worth the cost of my subscription. Decrying those who have already dragged their morose carcasses onto the Declining America/Rising China bandwagon, Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” makes a critical distinction in the essay between relative and absolute declines in American power:

Some Americans react emotionally to the idea of decline, but it would be counterintuitive and ahistorical to believe that the United States will have a preponderant share of power resources forever. The word “decline” mixes up two different dimensions: absolute decline, in the sense of decay, and relative decline, in which the power resources of other states grow or are used more effectively.

Nye suggests that relative decline is not only natural, but to some extent should be welcomed as the logical outcome of an increasingly prosperous planet. Decay at home, he suggests, is what undermines American power abroad.

On the question of absolute, rather than relative, American decline, the United States faces serious problems in areas such as debt, secondary education, and political gridlock. But they are only part of the picture. Of the multiple possible futures, stronger cases can be made for the positive ones than the negative ones. But among the negative futures, the most plausible is one in which the United States overreacts to terrorist attacks by turning inward and thus cuts itself off from the strength it obtains from openness.

Nye doesn’t quite come out and utter the famous Rooseveltian “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” but he underscores that the way Americans perceive ourselves is perhaps our greatest vulnerability in the formative years of this century. Declinism, he suggests, can too readily become a self-fulfiling prophecy. Stop whining, stop talking about just giving up, Nye seems to tell us, and deal with the issues that plague America at home rather than what to do about a Chinese aircraft carrier.

I do not disagree with Nye, and I agree that his point needs to be made to quench some of the rhetorical and perceptual excesses that Americans have begun to harbor about themselves and China. At the same time I am wary that his palliatives underplay some key strategic complexities in the Sino-US relationship.

Nye addresses Chinese capabilities (rightly noting that while China has come a long way on the road to global power, it has a road of at least equal distance yet to travel,) but he ignores Chinese challenges, intentions, perceptions and aspirations and the role they may play in bending China’s strategic calculus.

Worse perhaps is the decidedly Western lens Nye uses to examine an Eastern power and culture.  China may not yet be able to match American power according to our measures, but neither Neoliberals like Nye nor Neorealists like John Mearsheimer bother analyzing China’s options and capabilities through a lens polished by Eastern theories of strategy, international relations or power. That is a critical error, because in so doing they place far too much emphasis on Chinese physical strength and far to little on its wiles. China, after all, has been practicing and honing its own version of “smart power” since long before Sun Tzu took up a pen.

As an aspirin for America’s alarmist declinism, Nye’s article is a masterstroke. At the same time, he subtly reminds us of the persistent blind spot in the worldview of the West’s leading international relations theorists.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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One Response to Joseph Nye on the Future of American Power

  1. “Declinism, he suggests, can too readily become a self-fulfiling prophecy. Stop whining, stop talking about just giving up, Nye seems to tell us, and deal with the issues that plague America at home rather than what to do about a Chinese aircraft carrier.”

    Chinese families saved est. 30% of their earnings annually for about 40 years to get to where they are today. Meanwhile, most American families are plagued with Credit Card debt, and trashy Materialism.

    Economics, in my view, is China’s greatest strength, and for the Americans (ironic? perhaps) their biggest problem seems to be their lack of financial restraint. Most Americans spend all of their paycheque, leaving nothing for savings and investment.

    How then do Americans expect to get rich (the American dream)? Not by savings, but by getting a higher paying job. The punchline is that they never achieve that great opulence they seek precisely because they don’t save much as a percentage of their cheque, whether they make $100 a week or $100,000.

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