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JUNE 2015


Power Dynamics in

Today’s World

Is The American Century Over?

Joseph S. Nye Jr., Global Futures Series,

Polity Press, 2015, $12.95, paperback/$8.99,

e-book, 152 pages.

Reviewed By Harry C. Blaney III

This little volume is perhaps the best

short read I know about our global

landscape, its future trajectory and the

implications for global geostrategic

power shifts.

A former dean and now professor

at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School

of Government, Nye is no stranger to

Washington foreign policymaking.

Among other positions, he spent time

on the State Department’s seventh floor.

In short, he knows both the academic

side (he invented the concept of “soft

power”) and the hard realities of the

practice of power diplomacy.

As we all know, there is a furious,

and often misguided, debate about the

fall of America and the rise of China,

Europe and a host of other nations and

forces. Nye examines all of these argu-

ments, citing and quoting authors who

espouse one viewpoint or another. He

brings considerable factual material

and analytical skills to bear to see if the

views match reality.

What we see in this book is a

concise tour de force examining the

international context in which power

is exercised, to what end and how it

shifts (or does not) over time. While the

emphasis is on the role of America, the

author’s true focus is on relative and

shifting power—it is a dynamic look at

the phenomenon rather than a static,

unidimensional or simplistic expansion

of existing, but shifting, trends.

The first two chapters look at “The

Creation of the American Cen-

tury” and “American Decline.”

I will skip the argument over

when the American Century

may have begun because the

several alternatives are all

somewhat plausible and, in

any case, the heart of the mat-

ter is the often-popular idea

of American global decline.

Nye cites most of the

arguments for “American decline”—and

these citations alone are worth the

price of the book, just to set the stage.

He then gets to the real nitty-gritty of

the policies, resources, new actors and

exercise of power that lie at the heart of

American influence in the world.

One quote sums up much of his

argument here: “The short answer to

our question is that we are not entering

a post-American world.” Nye believes

that in 2041 the United States will still

have “primacy in power resources and

play the central role in the global bal-

ance of power among states...” But he

correctly notes that it is necessary to

look at “a decrease in relative external

power and domestic deterioration or


One key point he makes is that there

is “no virtue in either understatement

or overstatement of American power.”

The hubris of a Bush II is not wise, and

neither is “withdrawal from the world

or nationalistic and protectionist poli-

cies that do harm.” He uses the rise and

decline of Britain before the

two world wars to illustrate

how domestic decay (such

as falling industrial pro-

ductivity) reduced absolute

power, but it was the rise

of others that reduced the

country’s relative power.

Nye acknowledges that

the American Century may

change or end as a result of

a “relative” power decline because of

the rise of others. He looks at the rela-

tive power changes in Europe, Japan,

Russia, India and Brazil. The latter has

no chance to overtake America, but

Nye thinks that China will be the chief

competitor and even surpass America

in economic growth and size.

But in the next chapter, on China, he

also analyzes that country’s many prob-

lems and questions whether, in fact, it

will stop the American Century in all

areas of power. He looks at Beijing’s

strategy and American responses. He

notes that its military power is officially

at a quarter of America’s by the measure

of defense expenditures, but that there

are programs that are “off the books.”

Nye believes that the American

Century will likely continue, but it will

not look like the past and will be more

complex. The American share of the

global economy will be smaller than in

the past, for example. But Nye does not

believe in simple linear extrapolation

of growth rates; he looks at multiple

What we see in this book is a concise tour de force examining

the international context in which power is exercised, to what

end and how it shifts (or does not) over time.