Joseph S. Nye, Jr, Is the American Century Over? Polity Press, 2015

In 1991, Nye published Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, a response to Paul Kennedy’s best-selling The Rise and Decline of Great Powers, in which Kennedy had written that the US was in decline due to an overstretch of its resources through multiple commitments and alliances around the world in the context of the cold war between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. As Mikhael Gorbachev, quoted here, stated in 1986, “We lag in all indices”. In December 1991, it was the Soviet Union that imploded.

Just as in 1991, Nye argued cogently that the US was bound to lead, because no other power could possibly do so, in this book Nye answers the question of his title with a quote from Mark Twain:”reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

“..the American century is not over, he concludes, if by that we mean the extraordinary period of American pre-eminence in military, economic, and soft power resources that have made the United States central to the workings of the global balance of power, and to the provision of public goods. Contrary to those who proclaim this the Chinese century, we have not entered in a post-American world. “

He then adds a but: “But the continuation of the American century will not look like it did in the twentieth century. The American share of the world economy will be less than it was in the middle of the last century, and the complexity represented by the rise of other countries as well as the increased role of non-state actors will make it more difficult for anyone to wield influence and organize action. “

The US, Nye argues, is likely to have primacy of power resources in 2041, and is most unlikely to be distanced or even nearly equalized by another power or combination of powers. Primacy, he points out, is a better word to use than “hegemony”, because “hegemony” gives the impression that whatever the emperor may wish, the lesser folk around him have plenty of reason to want to deliver. This is an illusion, a fundamental misreading of world affairs. Even at the height of the cold war, he points out, the US was constrained by Soviet military clout, while the “world economy” of the time was essentially limited to Europe, Japan and the Asia Pacific.

And he choses 2041 because that is a century on from Henry Luce famous lead article, “The American Century”, published in the February 17 1941 number of Life magazine (http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article6139.htm). As the son of an American missionary to China, and owner-founder of the magazine, Luce ended his peroration with the following call to join in the common task of making America’s century a success:

America as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, America as the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and America as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice – out of these elements surely can be fashioned a vision of the 20th Century to which we can and will devote ourselves in joy and gladness and vigor and enthusiasm.

Other nations can survive simply because they have endured so long -sometimes with more and sometimes with less significance. But this nation, conceived in adventure and dedicated to the progress of man – this nation cannot truly endure unless there courses strongly through its veins from Maine to California the blood of purposes and enterprise and high resolve. Throughout the 17th Century and the 18th Century and the 19th Century, this continent teemed with manifold projects and magnificent purposes. Above them all and weaving them all together into the most exciting flag of all the world and of all history was the triumphal purpose of freedom. It is in this spirit that all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century.

Revisionist historians of the cold war in the 1960s preferred 1917 as the year marking the end of European dominance , with the US declaration of war on Germany in April, and radicalization of the Russian revolution in October of 1917. The scene was thus set for the coming conflict between the new world leader of capitalism, the US, and the USSR as the champion of the world socialist revolution. The policy received its defining statement in the “long telegram” of February 22 1946 which George Kennan sent to Secretary of State George Marshall.http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/coldwar/documents/pdf/6-6.pdf

More recently, Michael Lind, whom Nye quotes, has argued that the American Century began in 1914, and the outbreak of the world war in Europe.

“In 1914, the American Century began. This year the American Century ended. America’s foreign policy is in a state of collapse, America’s economy doesn’t work well, and American democracy is broken. The days when other countries looked to the US as a successful model of foreign policy, prudence, democratic capitalism and liberal democracy may be over. The American Century, 1914-2014, RIP”.(http://www.salon.com/2014/07/12/the_american_century_is_over_how_our_country_went_down_in_a_blaze_of_shame/)

Nye disagrees. president Woodrow Wilson steered the US into war, set the tone for the Versailles Treaty, and  fathered the League of Nations, but the country reverted to “virulent isolationism”, despite its de facto position as the world’s leading economy, and its central position in the global power balance. Thus, Nye writes, it would be more accurate to date the American century with Franklin Roosevelt’s entry into World War II.

Power Nye, argues, involves sticks, carrots and attractiveness. No contender has the combination that America possesses. Europe, he rightly points out, has considerable economic, cultural and even military resources, but has limited ability to convert these resources into the exercise of power and influence on the world stage. The likelihood of a united Europe being able to challenge US primacy is “very low”. Japan has geographic and above all demographic limitations, and in any case, like Europe, is allied with the US in multiple ways. Russia’s economy is one seventh the size of the US, and its combination of xenophobia and antiliberalism is unattractive to the rest of the world. Brazil and India likewise are not on the cards as challengers.

The only country that is a possible contender is China. Its economy is already the size of America’s, and it has invested heavily in military hardware. But its domestic political system is far from attractive, while the list of major domestic problems which the CCP faces remains daunting. Indeed, China’s more recent tendency to throw its weight about only encourages neighbours, from Japan, to the Philippines through to India and Vietnam to counterbalance by cultivating closer relations with the US. Not least, given its domestic challenges, China for decades ahead clearly has incentives for restraint.

In short, what Nye sees is no power shift away from the US as the world’s prime power, but rather a defusion of power that US technology has done so much to propagate. It is the activism of non governmental organisations and the networks that have been spawned by the internet that define the modern moment, and the foreseeable future.

The US, Nye concludes, has many problems, but is not in absolute decline, as was Rome. In relative terms, it has no contestant. And as he rightly points out, the source of dynamism in the US is not government but the innovativeness of its entrepreneurs.

The late Susan Strange argued much the same case, but with the significant proviso that the world created in large part by American policy enjoyed neither Pope nor Emperor. It is primus without pares in a medieval world without ultimate authority. Who, one may ask is best set to confront the coming century: the US or the rest? Nye says the US. I agree.

On Susan Strange, see this blog: https://storybookreview.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/reaching-across-the-market-the-global-dynamics-of-business-state-relations-with-thomas-lawton-professor-of-strategic-management-at-cranfield-school-of-management-cranfield-university-uk-chapter-4/)

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About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) (www.chinauncovered.net) His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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