Gavin E L Hall

Is the American Century Over?

Nye, J. (2014) Is the American Century Over? Cambridge: Polity Press

Joe Nye continues to place great emphasis on the merits of soft power in this analysis of the American Century. For the experience reader of Nye there is not a lot new in the book. Indeed the core argument could flippantly be summarised as No, 3-D Chess, and Soft Power. However, if you are looking for something easy to read and digest on a two hour train journey then this could well be the book for you.

Nye begins by exploring what is meant by the term ‘American Century’. The focus is on where the century should start and a variety temporal markers are discussed, which range from the dawn of the 20th Century up to the turn of the millennium. A spoiler would be unfair but, in light of our brief three point summary in the opening paragraph, you can safely assume that Nye envisages the American Century beginning towards the later end of the time frame.

The focus of the book then turns to the core of the argument which centres on whether the United States is in decline, the indicator of the ending of the American Century. Nye draws important distinctions between relative and absolute decline, and whilst he concludes that it maybe a fair summary that the United States is experiencing some form of relative decline the overall effect will have no bearing on its ability to project power and influence.

Power is attributed via three areas, military, economic and soft. Nye envisages no scenarios in which American military power will decline sufficiently that its place as the dominant global power will be threatened. He dismisses the use of purchasing power parity (PPP) as a useful measurement for assessing state power. Conveniently this is the metric which has seen China overtake the United States. Instead Nye focusses on the sophistication and greater depth of the United States economy and the fact that the US Dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

The core element of Nye’s thesis throughout his academic career has been the importance of soft power, even in its most intangible and unrealised form. He argues that soft power forms and important part of his interconnected 3-D Chess matrix, with military and economic all having an effect and influence upon each other.

Whilst the book primarily focusses on China as the challenger to America, sections are also dedicated to India, Brazil and Japan. Nye does concede that a European bloc, a federal one state European union, could compete with the United States, but that this is unlikely to be realised.

Consideration is given to the emerging global trends, especially the diffusion of power (see
The Future Declassified Review). However, he highlights an overly fearful United States that ’overreacts to terrorist attacks by closing inwards and thus cutting itself off from the strength it obtains from openness’ (p. 115-116) as a potential scenario that could precipitate decline. For Nye, this would mean a loss of soft power as well as the cost in blood (military) and treasure (economic).

It will be sometime before we enter a post-American world.