Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Joseph Nye and the Future of American Power

Probably no scholar has written as much on the nature and longevity of American power as has Joseph S. Nye Jr. of Harvard University. Professor Nye has a forthcoming book, The Future of American Power, and his essay, "The Future of American Power: Dominance and Decline in Perspective," is the lead article at the new Foreign Affairs special edition, "The World Ahead." Here's the introduction:
The twenty-first century began with a very unequal distribution of power resources. With five percent of the world's population, the United States accounted for about a quarter of the world's economic output, was responsible for nearly half of global military expenditures, and had the most extensive cultural and educational soft-power resources. All this is still true, but the future of U.S. power is hotly debated. Many observers have interpreted the 2008 global financial crisis as the beginning of American decline. The National Intelligence Council, for example, has projected that in 2025, "the U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that American dominance will be much diminished."

Power is the ability to attain the outcomes one wants, and the resources that produce it vary in different contexts. Spain in the sixteenth century took advantage of its control of colonies and gold bullion, the Netherlands in the seventeenth century profited from trade and finance, France in the eighteenth century benefited from its large population and armies, and the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century derived power from its primacy in the Industrial Revolution and its navy. This century is marked by a burgeoning revolution in information technology and globalization, and to understand this revolution, certain pitfalls need to be avoided.

First, one must beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Nations are not like humans, with predictable life spans. Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the peak of its power, and even then it did not succumb to the rise of another state. For all the fashionable predictions of China, India, or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threat may come from modern barbarians and nonstate actors. In an information-based world, power diffusion may pose a bigger danger than power transition. Conventional wisdom holds that the state with the largest army prevails, but in the information age, the state (or the nonstate actor) with the best story may sometimes win.

Power today is distributed in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar, and the United States is likely to retain primacy for quite some time. On the middle chessboard, economic power has been multipolar for more than a decade, with the United States, Europe, Japan, and China as the major players and others gaining in importance. The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations. It includes nonstate actors as diverse as bankers who electronically transfer funds, terrorists who traffic weapons, hackers who threaten cybersecurity, and challenges such as pandemics and climate change. On this bottom board, power is widely diffused, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, or hegemony.

In interstate politics, the most important factor will be the continuing return of Asia to the world stage. In 1750, Asia had more than half the world's population and economic output. By 1900, after the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, Asia's share shrank to one-fifth of global economic output. By 2050, Asia will be well on its way back to its historical share. The rise of China and India may create instability, but this is a problem with precedents, and history suggests how policies can affect the outcome.
I've highlighted the second to last quote above, because it caught my attention. I can recall, almost twenty year ago, Nye offered the same basic analogy, in an article from Spring 1992 at Foreign Affairs, "What New World Order?":
No single hierarchy describes adequately a world politics with multiple structures. The distribution of power in world politics has become like a layer cake. The top military layer is largely unipolar, for there is no other military power comparable to the United States. The economic middle layer is tripolar and has been for two decades. The bottom layer of transnational interdependence shows a diffusion of power.
The top of the international remains unipolar with the concentration of military power in the United States. But I'm interested in how in 1992 Nye spoke of economic "tripolarity" but today mentions "multipolarity" going back from more than a decade ("tripolarity" was a hip term at the time, as Japan and Germany seemed to be emerging at "the new superpowers.") And the bottom layer --- now a chessboard and not a layer cake --- is transnational relations, which implies much larger system effects from non-state actors such as al Qaeda (clearly a nod to the dramatic importance of the global war on terrorism in U.S. foreign policy over the last decade).

Overall, I have little disagreement with Nye's analysis. The one thing that really concerns me, and perhaps more so that it does Nye, is the impact America's long-term debt burden will have on the sustainability of U.S. power. He writes later in the essay, for example:
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. Barring such mistaken strategies, however, there are solutions to the major American problems of today. (Long-term debt, for example, could be solved by putting in place, after the economy recovers, spending cuts and consumption taxes that could pay for entitlements.) Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is important to distinguish hopeless situations for which there are no solutions from those that could in principle be solved. After all, the bipartisan reforms of the Progressive era a century ago rejuvenated a badly troubled country.
I'll have more on this, but see, in the current issue, Roger C. Altman and Richard N. Haass, "American Profligacy and American Power." And Niall Ferguson, from March/April 2010, "Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos."