Some people think that the United States has already been — or soon will be — eclipsed as the world’s leading power. But Joseph Nye ’58, the former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, argues in Is the American Century Over? that America’s preeminence will continue for decades to come.
If having the world’s largest economy makes a country the world’s most powerful nation, then “the American century” — roughly defined as the 20th century — may already be over, since some calculations indicate that China already has a GDP that has surpassed that of the United States, Nye writes. Though China’s huge market can overtake the United States in economic size, we will not automatically witness “the Chinese century” if we consider economic, military, and “soft power,” Nye points out in the slim book, which takes the form of an essay. (By “soft power,” a term he coined in the 1980s, Nye means the ability to affect others through attraction and persuasion.) China has the world’s largest army but spends far less on defense than the United States, its population is aging, and it lacks soft power.
Nye examines other possible challengers to America’s standing: Europe (no common identity), Japan (demographic problems), Russia (in decline), India (too poor), and Brazil (low productivity). He concludes that these pose no greater threat to American preeminence than do domestic considerations such as culture wars, the deterioration of social conditions, and political gridlock. American education is strong at the top, he writes, but less impressive at lower levels, and he worries that American students’ knowledge and skills may not keep pace with an advancing economy.
Despite all these concerns, he remains hopeful. Contrary to those who proclaim this the Chinese century, we have not entered a post-American world, Nye believes, but the continuation of the American century will not look like it did in the 20th century. “With slightly less relative power in the midst of a much more complex world,” he writes, “the United States will need to make smart strategic choices both at home and abroad if we wish to maintain our leadership.”