Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Is the American Century Over?
In his book Is the American Century Over?, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a renowned political scientist and professor, attempts to answer that very question to understand why America has been in an economic and political decline. If nothing else, his brief thesis gives both educated citizens and ignorant ones (like me) an intelligent, unbiased evaluation of one of the most powerful nations in recorded history.
Nye begins his discussion by pinpointing the exact moment when the United States emerged as a major influence around the world, settling on 1941 (WWII) as the beginning of the so-called "American century." And while historians and political scientists disagree on the exact date (some say WWI, while others argue the fall of the Berlin Wall), Nye makes the argument that even at the supposed height of its powers, the United States often failed to get what it wanted, "... witness Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons; communist takeover of China and half of Vietnam; stalemate in the Korean War; Castro’s control of Cuba ..." Rather than cater to a certain demographic, Nye’s analysis remains impartial throughout.
Nye also brings his objectivity to the subject of America’s decline or what he calls "relative decline." The United States’ economic struggles, education woes, and politics (i. e., the Iraq War and Senate interlock) have all diminished its global influence over the past decades. However, as Nye points out, America’s seemingly rapid decline is not internal but external; numerous nations now vie to overtake the US, such as Japan, Russia, and India. What could easily turn into an insular examination of the balance of power instead embraces the progress of other countries, even ones that could potentially depose the United States as the most powerful nation on Earth.
China stands above all other nations as the greatest threat to overtake the United States. According to Nye, in a mere decade, China will boast the highest GDP in the world, and with a greater population, the world’s biggest army, nuclear weapons capabilities, and technology in space, it’s not difficult to see why. However, what China has in economy, technology, and military, it lacks in education and cultural influence. As Nye articulates, "Chinese often complain that they produce iPhone jobs, but not Steve Jobs. The trade volume shows up in Chinese statistics, but the value added shows up in the US figures." Along with possessing a culture of innovation, the United States also possesses a less visible form of power, which may preserve the United States’ claim as the top nation.
Soft power, a term Nye himself created, describes the unseen forces that drive a country’s influence. As he describes: "The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture ... its political values ... and its foreign policies ..." The United States is still the preeminent nation in terms of soft power; Hollywood’s films are seen worldwide, democracy is still an ideal many countries strive for, and political and military pressures exist to ensure the country’s continual intervention in foreign affairs. Nye’s uncanny ability to explain complex sociopolitical concepts into simple ideas like "soft power" allow the reader to understand the content without being buried by scholarly jargon. This is one of the endearing traits of the book; it sets an academic tone, yet it can appeal to a wide audience.
As a skeptic myself, I also appreciated Nye’s aversion to American exceptionalism and dyed-in-the-wool patriotism. Given the partisan culture and climate of today’s politics, he could have easily fallen into the trap of making sweeping generalizations or hyperbolic remarks regarding the United States’ reign as the most powerful country on Earth. While he continually expounds on the hegemony of the United States, he also sees its flaws: "Americans win more Nobel prizes than do citizens of any other country, and publish more scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals ... However, too many primary and secondary schools in less affluent districts lag badly behind ... This could mean that the quality of the labor force will not keep up to the rising standards needed in an information-based economy." Such honesty in political discourse is rare nowadays, and it’s refreshing to see Nye exhibit it so freely.
One can’t criticize the United States without thinking of another ancient superpower, Rome. However there are major differences that contributed to Rome’s downfall, such as a stagnant economy, internecine warfare, and rampant corruption in its political systems, to mention just a few. And, perhaps most importantly, America renews itself not by invasion, but by immigration: "... America is one of the few [countries] that may avoid demographic decline ... largely as a result of immigration." Nye departs from the current fears associated with immigration, reminding us of its advantages and its capacity to stir up creativity and entrepreneurship.
First articulated by American magazine tycoon Henry Luce, the "American Century" is still very much alive. As Joseph S. Nye, Jr. brilliantly articulates, there are numerous challenges and challengers which will push the United States as the premier nation in the world over the next few decades. Bringing an objective, critical analysis and years of experience in economics and politics, Nye’s Is the American Century Over? is both a cautionary tale for the patriotic and a celebration of emerging nations. How long the United States stays the most influential nation remains to be seen, but Nye is confident that the United States will remain a powerful player in the global dynamic for decades to come.
Cardoso is a writer of science-fiction and comedy and sometimes both. He has published one essay and graduated from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s degree in English.