Cheong Suk-wai

Don't count Uncle Sam out yet

Talk that the US is in decline is greatly exaggerated, argues political scientist Joseph Nye

Is The American Century Over? By Joseph S Nye, Jr

146 pages/Polity Press/Available in paperback from at US$10.70 or on Kindle at US$9.99

It took about 2,136 years to establish the Roman Empire and to keep it going, but only about 70 years to end it after it rotted from within. Similarly, China's illustrious Ming Dynasty ruled for 276 years before being toppled within 65 years. And the 69-year-old Soviet Union crumbled in the span of only five years.

Now, might the United States be on the verge of losing its status as the world's pre-eminent power?

As US political scientist Joseph Nye points out in his new book, Americans themselves have been wondering about this since the late 1800s. Last year, a poll by the American think-tank Pew Research Institute found that 72 per cent of Americans surveyed did not think their country "stands tall above all others".

Nye, a Harvard University don, is famous for having coined the term "soft power", which refers to how attractive and persuasive a country is to the rest of the world. A country, he argues, acquires such power in three ways: through its culture, through its political values at home and abroad, and through its foreign policy.

Such power is also usually amassed by individuals, those in the private sector and civil society. Which is why, Nye stresses, that all the talk of the rise of China is still greatly exaggerated. For one thing, Nye notes, China's charm offensives thus far come from its government only.

Also, China keeps "stepping on its own message", that is, cancelling out what goodwill it has gained with unappealing censures such as banning the import of Norwegian salmon after Norway's Nobel Prize Foundation awarded the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Nye calls such a strategy "brittle propaganda" and points out: "In today's world, information is not scarce but attention is and attention often depends on credibility."

Nye adds that, technologically, China is not helping itself either because it prefers "copying" what others have discovered, rather than innovating. As he puts it, the "Chinese often complain that they produce a lot of iPhone jobs, but not Steve Jobs".

So, he concludes, China is not a serious contender for the US mantle - not for decades yet, anyway.

That is not to say that the US is not in danger of losing its appeal and influence globally, he cautions. In this book, which is really one long essay, Nye dissects the claim that the US is in decline in six ways:

  • First, when was the American century apparently created? His answer: 1941, when the US was at the peak of its economic powers and seen by the rest of the world as a game-changer in World War II;
  • Second, what are people really talking about when they say the US is declining? Answer: Both relative decline, which compares the US against the rest of the world, and absolute decline, which is about how far the US is wilting from within by, say, having the world's biggest prison population;
  • Third, who might the challengers to the US' pre-eminence be? Answer: Europe, Japan, Brazil, India, Russia and, of course, China;
  • Fourth, can China viably replace the US; Answer: Not for decades.
  • Fifth, how far is American society in decay and, on the flip side, how resilient is it? Answer: Nothing that the Americans face these days is as intractable as slavery, the witch hunt for communists, the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War.

In short, Nye is arguing, if the US came through all that and thrived, it will remain at the top indefinitely. That seems like a big boast, but he considers carefully each of the candidates to displace the US and concludes that:

  • Europe is almost on a par with the US militarily and economically, but its armed forces are dispersed and it is grappling with a low birth rate and a continuous flow of immigrants;
  • Japan is recovering from 20 years of poor policy decisions and the aftermath of a speculative bubble and, for historical reasons, is unlikely to gang up with China against the US, which is the only way it could really displace the US;
  • Brazil, despite its young workforce, has problems with corruption and productivity;
  • Russia relies too much on oil and gas, and its many tribes are also very restive; and
  • India has impressive military and nuclear capabilities, but much of its population is still very poor and not well-educated.

Having dispensed with his country's closest rivals, Nye examines what is healing, and ailing, the US. Citing the work of compatriot Samuel Huntington, he first identifies six instances in which the US was weakened globally.

They were: the Soviet Union's launch of the world's first satellite in 1957; President Richard Nixon's declaration in the late 1960s that the world now comprised many powers; the Arab oil embargo of 1973; the Soviet Union's efforts to expand its territories in the late 1970s; the huge fiscal and trade deficits chalked up under President Ronald Reagan; and the 2008 global financial crisis.

His strongest argument against assertions that his country is in decline is in Chapter 5 of this seven-chapter book. In it, he trots out a raft of statistics to show readers just how young, creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial and open the US is compared with the rest of the world. For example, the US has been consistently open to immigrants. In 1910, when the US recorded its highest number of immigrants, its foreign-born residents comprised 14.7 per cent of its total populace. Last year, that figure was nearly 13 per cent.

He cites former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who once told Nye that the US "recreates itself by attracting the best and brightest from the rest of the world and melding them into a diverse culture of creativity".

But, Nye stresses, the United States cannot fiddle on based on its cultural appeal and youthful spirit alone.

The US, he says, needs to pursue more trade opportunities with Europe and Asia, although he says Americans should focus more on investing in North America than Asia from now on, because the former's prospects are "more promising".

Above all, he says, the US will have to continue amassing allies to overcome the many complex challenges of today. In doing so, he says: "Leadership is not the same as domination. America will have to listen in order to get others to enlist in what former secretary of state Hillary Clinton called a multi-partner world."

In the end, those who are quick to report the death of the US should first ask themselves: Do people still want to be American? For many people, the answer is still a resounding yes, he says.

FACT FILE: The man who coined the term 'soft power'

THE American political scientist Joseph Nye, 78, has been one of the most astute analysts of American foreign policy and the ethics of nuclear proliferation in the past 40 years. Some critics find him rather too upbeat about the United States' staying power as the leader of the free world, but Nye is adamant that the US will have no conceivable challenger for decades.

The married father of three is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, and was formerly dean of its Kennedy School of Government.

In a 1998 interview with the History Institute of the University of California at Berkeley, Nye said that he had not wanted a career in academia, preferring to help shape foreign policy. But in 1967, upon finishing his studies at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, Nye got a letter from Harvard asking him if he would like to teach at that university.

Nye decided to give it a go, and liked it, making his mark in 1990 by coining the term "soft power", which refers to how attractive a country is to others and how influential it is in global politics, as opposed to the hard power derived from military and economic might.

Nye got his wish to work in the US State Department for five years, first under President Jimmy Carter in the mid-1970s and then under President Bill Clinton in the noughties. In the Carter administration, he advised on such things as how to stop the sale of plutonium, which is needed to make nuclear weapons.

In his 1998 interview, he recalled his foray thus: "It was a little like being thrown into a swimming pool and told to swim... In academic life, there is no premium on time, the premium is on getting it just right. (But) in government, that perfect paper you get in a little bit late is an 'F'."