WASHINGTON – In the last century, the United States rose from the status of second-tier power to being the world’s sole superpower. Some worry that the U.S. will be eclipsed in this century by China, but that is not the problem.
There is never just one possible outcome. Instead, there are always a range of possibilities, particularly regarding political change in China. Aside from the political uncertainties, China’s size and high rate of economic growth will almost certainly increase its strength in relation to the U.S. But even when China becomes the world’s largest economy, it will lag decades behind the U.S. in per-capita income, which is a better measure of an economy’s sophistication. Moreover, given our energy resources, the U.S. economy will be less vulnerable than the Chinese economy to external shocks.
Growth will bring China closer to the U.S. in power resources, but as Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew has noted, that does not necessarily mean that China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s most powerful country. Even if China suffers no major domestic political setbacks, projections based on growth in gross domestic product alone ignore U.S. military and “soft power” advantages as well as China’s geopolitical disadvantages in the Asian balance of power.
The U.S. culture of openness and innovation will keep this country central in an information age in which networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power. The U.S. is well positioned to benefit from such networks and alliances if our leaders follow smart strategies. In structural terms, it matters that the two entities with per-capita income and sophisticated economies similar to that of the U.S. — Europe and Japan — are both allied with the U.S. In terms of balances-of-power resources, that makes a large difference for the net position of American power, but only if U.S. leaders maintain the alliances and institutional cooperation. In addition, in a more positive sum view of power with, rather than over, other countries, Europe and Japan provide the largest pools of resources for dealing with common transnational problems.
On the question of absolute — rather than relative — American decline, the U.S. faces serious domestic problems in debt, secondary education and political gridlock. But these issues are only part of the picture. Of the many possible futures, stronger cases can be made for the positive over the negative. Among the negative futures, the most plausible is one in which the U.S. overreacts to terrorist attacks by turning inward and closing itself off to the strength it obtains from openness.
But barring such mistaken strategies, there are, over a longer term, solutions to the major problems that preoccupy us. Of course, for political or other reasons, such solutions may remain forever out of reach. But it is important to distinguish between situations that have no solutions and those that, at least in principle, can be solved.
Decline is a misleading metaphor and, fortunately, U.S. President Barack Obama has rejected the suggested strategy of “managing decline.” As a leader in research and development, higher education and entrepreneurial activity, the U.S. is not in absolute decline, as happened in ancient Rome. In relative terms, there is a reasonable probability that the U.S. is likely to remain more powerful than any single state in the coming decades. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but neither do we live any longer in the “American era” of the late 20th century.
In terms of primacy, the U.S. will be “first” but not “sole.” No one has a crystal ball, but the National Intelligence Council (which I once chaired) may be correct in its 2012 projection that although the unipolar moment is over, the U.S. probably will remain first among equals among the other great powers in 2030 because of the multifaceted nature of its power and legacies of its leadership.
The power resources of many states and nonstate actors will rise in the coming years. U.S. presidents will face an increasing number of issues in which obtaining our preferred outcomes will require power with others as much as power over others. Our leaders’ capacity to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of our hard and soft power.
Simply put, the problem of American power in the 21st century is not one of a poorly specified “decline” or being eclipsed by China but, rather, the “rise of the rest.” The paradox of American power is that even the largest country will not be able to achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author, most recently, of “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.”