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International Studies Quarterly (2012) 56, 215217

The Twenty-First Century Will Not Be a Post-American World

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Harvard University One of the refreshing aspects of Christopher Laynes work over the years has been his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. But now, he is in the awkward position of being part of a new conventional wisdom. Recent polls show that in 15 of 22 countries surveyed, most people say that China either will replace or has replaced America as the worlds leading superpower. Even Americans themselves are equally divided about whether China will displace the United States. Layne is correct that such views reect the slow growth and scal problems that followed the 2008 nancial crisis, but one should be wary of extrapolating long-run trends from short-term cycles. Such moods are not historically unprecedented. Americans have a long history of incorrectly estimating their power. After Sputnik, the Soviets were 10 feet tall; in the 1980s, it was the Japanese. Now it is the Chinese. Layne is also right that enthusiasts for the unipolar moment badly overestimated American power a decade ago, but not all skeptics about American decline believed in American hegemony. For example, I argued in The Paradox of American Power that the prevailing concepts of polarity and hegemony led to confused analysis and poor policies. After the collapse of Cold War bipolarity, power in the global information age became 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. But on the middle chessboard, economic power has been multipolar for more than a decade (well before the 2008 nancial crisis that Layne cites), 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 that cross borders outside of government control. It includes nonstate actors as diverse as bankers electronically transferring funds, terrorists transferring weapons, hackers threatening cyber-security, and threats 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. Hegemony (which Layne does not dene here) is a confusing term. Some authors dene it in terms of resources; others in terms of behavioral outcomes. But power measured in resources rarely equals power measured in behavioral outcomes. For example, many analysts point to the current inability of the United States to control states like Iran or Afghanistan, but they allow the golden glow of the past to color their diagnosis of declining hegemony. After World War II, the United States had an overwhelming preponderance or hegemony measured in economic power and nuclear weapons resources, but nonetheless was unable to prevent the loss of China, to rollback communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, stop the loss of North Vietnam, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba. Hegemony is often illusory, and cycles of belief in decline tell us more about psychology than real shifts in power resources. It is currently fashionable to compare American hegemonic decline to that of Britain or imperial Rome. It would be ahistorical to believe that the United States will have a preponderant share of power resources forever. However, 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 greater or are used more effectively. Rome, an agrarian society with little economic productivity and much internecine warfare, succumbed not to the rise of another empire but to absolute decay, while Britain declined relative to the rise of new powers such as Germany and the United States. And the declinists of the 1980s whose theories Layne tries to rescue developed a theory of imperial overstretch in which defense expenditures constantly increase as a share of GDP until the hegemon collapses. This theory helps explain the collapse of the Soviet Union where defense expenditures eventually exceeded 20% of GDP, but in the United States, despite two ill-advised wars in the past decade, defense expenditure at 6% has decreased from its Cold War levels of 10%. The analogy with British decline is misleading. Britain had naval supremacy and an empire on which the sun never set, but in 1914, Britain ranked only fourth among the great powers in its share of military personnel, fourth in GDP, and third in military spending. With the rise of nationalism, protecting the empire became more of a burden than an asset. For all the loose talk of American empire, the United States is less tethered and has more degrees of freedom than Britain had. And while Britain faced rising neighbors in Germany and Russia, America benets from two oceans and weaker neighbors.

Nye Jr., Joseph S. (2011) The Twenty-First Century Will Not Be a Post-American World. International Studies Quarterly, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2478.2011.00698.x 2011 International Studies Association


The Twenty-First Century Will Not Be a Post-American World

An area where I agree with Layne is the shift of wealth from West to East. In The Future of Power, I identify that transition as one of the two great power shifts of this century (the other is the power diffusion from states to nonstate actors, about which Layne is silent). In inter-state politics, the most important factor will be the continuing return of Asia. In 1800, Asia had more than half of the world population and the worlds product. By 1900, after the industrial revolution in Europe and America, Asias share shrank to one-fth of the world product. By 2040, Asia will be well on its way back to its historical share. The rise in the power of China and India may create instability, but it is a problem with precedents, and we can learn from history about how our strategies can affect the outcome. It is a mistake, however, to exaggerate Chinese power. For more than a decade, many have viewed China as the most likely contender to balance American power, or surpass it. Some draw analogies to the challenge imperial Germany posed to Britain at the beginning of the last century, though Germany surpassed Britain in 1900, and China has a long way to go to equal the power resources of the United States. Even when the overall Chinese GDP passes that of the United States, the two economies will be equivalent in size, but not equal in composition. China would still have a vast, underdeveloped countryside, and it will begin to face demographic problems from the delayed effects of its one-child-per-couple policy. As the Chinese say, they fear the country will grow old before it grows rich. Per capita income provides a measure of the sophistication of an economy. China will probably not equal the United States in per capita income until sometime near the middle of the century. In other words, Chinas impressive growth rate combined with the size of its population will likely lead it to pass the American economy in total size, but that is not the same as equality. Moreover, linear projections can be misleading, and growth rates generally slow as economies reach higher levels of development. Chinas authoritarian political system has thus far shown an impressive power conversion capability, but whether China can maintain that capability over the longer term is a mystery both to outsiders and to Chinese leaders. Unlike India, which was born with a democratic constitution, China has not yet found a way to solve the problem of demands for political participation (if not democracy) that tend to accompany rising per capita income. Whether China can develop a formula that can manage an expanding urban middle class, regional inequality, and resentment among ethnic minorities remains to be seen. On American power relative to China, much will depend on the often underestimated uncertainties of future political change in China. Chinas size and high rate of economic growth will bring it closer to the United States in power resources, and this can be described as a relative decline of American power

compared to China, but that does not necessarily mean that China will surpass the United States as the most powerful country. Even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many current projections are based simply on GDP growth. They ignore US military and soft-power advantages, as well as Chinas geopolitical disadvantages. As Japan, India, and others try to balance Chinese power, they welcome an American presence. It is as if Mexico and Canada sought a Chinese alliance to balance the United States in North America. The fact that Chinese power in Asia is contested both by India and Japan (as well as other states) provides a major power advantage to the United States. The USJapan alliance and the improvement in USIndian relations mean that China cannot easily expel the Americans. From that position of strength, the United States, Japan, India, Australia, and others can work to engage China and provide incentives for it to play a responsible role, while hedging against the possibility of aggressive behavior as Chinas power grows. In other words, it will be possible to use our power to shape the environment in which China denes its national interests as it grows. This is a more complex process than the institutional lock-in negotiations that Layne caricatures and then asks whats in it for China. Layne sees the current nancial situation of the United States as proof of declineeven though the 2011 downgrading of Americas credit rating by Standard and Poors led to an increase rather than a decrease in bondholders desire to purchase US treasury bonds. Similarly, Layne refers to Chinas vote of no condence in the dollars future, but there is a gap between Chinese declaratory and practical policy. Despite its various declarations, China continues to hold dollars and is a long way from internationalization of the renminbi. The United States has very real problems and certainly needs to deal with its debt and decit problems, but the American economy remains highly productive. America remains rst in total R&D expenditures, rst in university rankings, rst in Nobel prizes, rst on indices of entrepreneurship, and according to the World Economic Forum, the fth most competitive economy in the world (China ranks 26th). Moreover, the United States remains at the forefront of such cutting-edge technologies as bio-tech and nano-technology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decline such as in ancient Rome. Some observers worry that America will become sclerotic like Britain at the peak of its power a century ago. But American culture is far more entrepreneurial and decentralized than was that of Britain where the sons of industrial entrepreneurs sought aristocratic titles and honors in London. And despite recurrent historical bouts of concern, immigration helps keep America exible. In 2005, foreign-born immigrants had participated in one of every four technology start-ups in the previous decade. As Lee Kwan Yew once told me, China can draw on a talent

Joseph S. Nye Jr.


pool of 1.3 billion people, while the United States can not only draw on a pool of 7 billion people, but can also recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot. Many commentators worry about the inefcient American political system. It is true that the founding fathers created a system of checks and balances to preserve liberties at the price of efciency. Moreover, the United States is now going through a period where party politics have become very polarized, but nasty politics is nothing new; it goes all the way back to the founding fathers. American government and politics have always had problemsand, though it is hard to remember in light of the current melodramas, sometimes worse than today. The United States faces serious problems regarding debt, secondary education, and political gridlock, but one should remember that they are only part of the picture. In principle, and over a longer term, there are solutions to current American problems. Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is worth distinguishing situations where there are no solutions from those which could in principle be solved. Where I suspect that Layne and I might agree is on the need for a new American strategy in a world marked by the rise of the rest. We should learn from the prudence of Dwight Eisenhower. The number-one power does not have to man every boundary and be strong everywhere. The attempt to do so would violate Ikes prudence in resisting direct intervention on the side of the French in Vietnam in 1954. Also relevant today is Ikes conviction that it is essential to preserve the strength of the American economy to undergird our military strength. Applied to todays world, an Ike-like strategy would avoid involvement of ground forces in major wars on the Asian continent, even if there was not a scal decit.

Counterinsurgency is attractive as a military doctrine in the way that it pays careful attention to the tactical balancing of hard and soft power, but in a strategic sense, it should not lead us into imperial occupation of weak states and nation building in places that are beyond our limits. The maxim of avoiding major land wars in Asia or other poor countries does not mean withdrawing a forward military presence from places like Japan and Korea, or ending military assistance of various types to countries like Pakistan or Egypt. Some analysts call this a strategy of off-shore balancing, but that term must mean more than just naval and air force activity. An American land presence that is welcome and supported by allies should not be ruled out by a slogan. Eisenhower also understood the limits of what is possible in terms of American domestic institutions and public attitudes. The British historian Niall Ferguson, an enthusiast for empire, lamented at the time of the Iraq War that the United States lacked the capacity for empire because of three domestic decits: manpower (not enough boots on the ground); attention (not enough public support for long-term occupation); and nancial (not enough savings and not enough taxation relative to public expenditure). He was correct. A stomach for empire or colonial occupation is one of the important ways in which American political culture differs from that of imperial Britain. Whether worthy of applause or lament, such are our domestic limits. At the same time, universalistic values are also in the nature of our political culture, but we often promote these values best by being what Ronald Reagan called a shining city on a hill. The global information age of the twenty-rst century will be different from the past century and will require a better strategy than America used in the past decade, but it will not be a post-American world.