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Is the American Century Over?

Is the American Century Over? by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Polity Press, 2015, 146 pp.

Few if any authors in the United States are as qualified as Joseph Nye to ask such a question, “Is the American Century Over?” Even fewer could provide such a reasonable answer. One reason for this sentiment is, as Nye himself admits, “I have lived through the American century.” Indeed he has—and not simply as a witness to it but as one who shaped it. For such a short work, Nye is able to very succinctly present his case that the American century is not over and may exist for decades into the future. He argues the term decline has become almost meaningless and somewhat dangerous in a geopolitical context. Likewise, describing the United States as ever being a world hegemon overstates the case of American power. For those looking to narrow the chronology of what could be considered the American century, Nye suggests that it began in 1941 and thus leads one to wonder: will the United States maintain primacy in global affairs in 2041? The key to understanding the concept rests with the ability to think about America’s position in the world in relative terms. As Nye puts it, the key is to think about relative decline rather than absolute decline as most critics are apt to do. He clarifies the concept even further by considering decline in two ways: external power and domestic decay. The first is relative to others in the international system; the other represents a lack of internal ability to convert resources into power.

The book presents a number of strengths to support the case for continued American preeminence into the future. Among them are the strength of alliances and the low probability of balancing alliances against the United States, demographics that illustrate positive trends in the United States and negative trends in most competitors, economy and productivity, military power, and technological innovation. Using the above criteria, Nye compares the United States against six countries (groups): Europe, Japan, Brazil, India, Russia, and China. The analysis is concise and convincing that the American century is anything but over.

Of course Nye also mentions those areas that could most affect decline and hasten the end of the American century including mismanagement of the economy, education competitiveness, and political-social-cultural institutions. Here Nye reverts to his concept of soft power to foresee how internal decline is the most threatening force against the American century. He reserves his toughest critique for the US political system and the US Congress that has devolved into legislating foreign and economic policy based on pressure from self-serving economic and ethnic pressure groups. The outcome is a lack of power conversion—a failure of the United States to translate power into effective influence.

Nye also discusses the two great power shifts he sees occurring: power transition and power diffusion. He sees power transitioning from Western states to Eastern states indicative in the “rise of the rest.” More importantly, he sees a great diffusion of power brought on by the explosion of information technology. This development creates greater complexity and will make it harder for any nation to wield power and control the global environment.

In the end, Nye concludes the American century may indeed be shortened by accident, miscalculation, or poor human choices. However, he appears confident the challenges of the future are not unsolvable—as long as the United States works with others and seeks to gain greater efficiency in power conversion. In Nye’s view, the duration of the American century will depend on adjusting strategic goals and, most of all, continued American leadership. There is much to like in this short work and nothing to criticize. It will be thought-provoking reading for senior civilian and military leaders or those who may question the future of American global leadership.

W. Michael Guillot, USAF, retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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