There has been much talk lately of the perceived decline of the United States as a world power, and of the rise of China. But the soothsayers should take a closer look at the omens, because the signs they’re reading are more complicated than they think.
The United States isn’t in decline. It’s simply operating in a changing world that presents a different set of challenges.
Projections of China surpassing the United States are examples of one-dimensional thinking in a world where power is multi-dimensional. The focus is too much on the single yardstick of overall gross domestic product, and not enough on the more refined measure of GDP per capita, or on military primacy, or on soft power.
The United States is going to retain its position as the world’s largest power, wielding more influence than any other country, for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to get its way, have full control, or bring its power to bear in every situation around the world. Rather, the U.S. is going to have to work with others to get things done.
In some places, U.S. influence in the world has declined in past 10 years, but in others it has grown. In East Asia, for instance, U.S. power is as great as – or greater than – it was 10 years ago. That is because many East Asian countries worry about the rise of China and look to the U.S. to counterbalance this.
On the other hand, the United States is less able to influence events in the Middle East today, primarily because of the diffusion of power in the region. But also because more people are participating in political processes through what has misleadingly been called the “Arab Spring,” but should be called the “Arab revolutions.”
As a result of these revolutions, countries in the Middle East are less amenable to external pressures. In fact, the information revolution, which has vastly increased the leverage of the person on the street, means that all major governments – not just that of the U.S. – now have less influence.
While nations deemed “superpowers” are said to have supreme power and influence, no country can fully control how events around the world turn out. From 1945 to 1950, for instance, the United States wielded immense international power. It had sole possession of nuclear weapons and the world’s largest economy by far. Yet, it was unable to prevent the Chinese communists from taking over in China, or the Soviet Union from developing nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, the ability of the U.S. to bring its power to bear around the world during the 20th century was just as much affected by domestic pressures as by external ones.
In the aftermath of World War I, the U.S. had the strongest economy in the world. However, the isolationist policies coming out of Washington during the 1930s limited its ability to build on that power internationally.
Something similar happened in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. The nation was scarred by bloody images from the front lines and internal dissent over a conflict that many saw as morally questionable. The U.S. shied away from further foreign entanglements.
Today, the United States is examining its role in societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and is concluding it’s time to draw down its presence there. At the same time, it realizes its presence is essential to maintaining a balance of power in East Asia so China is less likely to bully its neighbors. But while the Obama administration is adjusting its foreign policy so it can focus more on East Asia, it cannot turn its back on the Middle East. It has too many interests there, including energy, nuclear nonproliferation, and general regional stability.
As for the perceived loss of America’s much-vaunted superpower status, we need to come to terms with the changing reality of international relations, and accept that the U.S. will have to work with others to achieve its global aims. The changes of a global information age mean that even the world’s only superpower can’t go it alone.
Joseph Nye is the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he is currently the university distinguished service professor. He chaired the National Security Council group on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons (1977-1979) as well as the National Intelligence Council (1993-1994). His latest book is “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.” This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).