Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University has been battling the declinist heresy for more than two decades. In 1990 — at a time when it was fashionable to predict that Japan might eventually eclipse the US — he published Bound to Lead, arguing that America was likely to remain the world’s dominant power for many years to come. Now, 25 years later, Nye has written a book with a similar theme but a different target. In Is the American Century Over?, he takes on the current wave of declinism — which these days is usually based on the idea that China will displace America as “number one”.
20多年来，美国哈佛大学(Harvard University)教授约瑟夫•奈(Joseph Nye)一直在与美国衰落论者的异端邪说作斗争。1990年，他出版了《注定的领导》(Bound to Lead)一书，主张美国在接下来的许多年里很可能仍将是世界的主导力量——当时，预言日本或许最终将超越美国是一件很时髦的事。25年后的今天，奈写了一本类似主题的书，但靶子换成了另一个。在《美国世纪结束了吗？》(Is the American Century Over?)一书中，他向当前这波美国衰落论发起挑战——当前这波衰落论一般建立在中国将取代美国成为世界“头号强国”的观点上。
Once again, Nye begs to differ, arguing the case for America’s continued dominance on the basis of its political, economic, cultural and diplomatic strengths. The fact that, back in 1990, Nye was correct to debunk the idea that America was on the slide is just one good reason to take his new book seriously. His writing is illuminated by a calm authority and the ability to clarify issues by breaking them down into their constituent parts.
Thus Nye argues that a nation’s power has several components. It was he who coined the much-used term “soft power” to describe the way in which nations can achieve their aims through persuasion and the ability to attract. He argues that the power of a modern nation-state can be broken down into three main elements: economic power, hard (or military) power and soft power. China, he points out, can so far challenge America on only one of these indices — the economic.
According to the International Monetary Fund, China’s economy is now larger than that of the US, measured in purchasing power. Nye concedes that the Chinese economy will also probably surpass that of the US in absolute terms during the next decade. But he argues that America is likely to maintain its lead in military and soft power for much longer. And he also points out that America benefits from much more favourable geographic and strategic conditions than China. The US is surrounded only by oceans and allies. China, by contrast, finds itself boxed in by potential competitors, such as India or Russia, or US treaty allies, such as Japan or South Korea.
Much of what Nye has to say is convincing. But while his distinction between the three sorts of power makes sense, he does not fully address the possibility that one aspect of power — the economic — could ultimately be more important than the other two. After all, it is economic wealth which pays for military muscle and China’s military budget is increasing fast. Growing wealth also creates a form of “soft” power. We have seen a vivid example of that in recent weeks, as China persuaded several US allies to join a new Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite opposition from Washington. As more and more countries find that their most important economic relationship is with China, rather than the US, we are likely to see China’s “power to attract” also increase.
It is clear that China is still a long way from challenging America’s global reach. The US is the dominant military power and strategic player in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America — a status that China is not even close to challenging. However, it is now possible to see China posing a serious challenge to America’s military dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. Given that this is the region that is increasingly emerging as the core of the global economy, a loss of American predominance here would certainly have global implications.
As Nye repeatedly and correctly points out, events have a habit of making fools of those who predict the future trajectory of great nations. Past prophets of American decline failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union or the bursting of the Japanese bubble — which may be another way of saying that they failed to understand the relative strengths and resilience of the American system.
However, as well as being a leading academic analyst, Nye is also a patriot and a former senior official in the Pentagon. At one point he remarks revealingly that predictions of American decline are potentially “dangerous” because they could encourage countries such as Russia or China to pursue more aggressive policies. In other words, the maintenance of power has a lot to do with perception. If people around the world believe that the “American century” is set to continue for many more decades that will — in itself — help to sustain America’s role.
But power, as Nye makes clear, has many facets — and one of the strengths of his book is his ability to look at all aspects of the problem. On several occasions, I thought I had found a gap in the argument and scribbled something in the margin such as “education?” — only to find the topic dealt with, a couple of pages later. As a result, even those (like me) who do not completely buy Nye’s argument will benefit from his succinct and clear review of the state of the “decline” debate.