CAMBRIDGE – The United States government’s National Intelligence Council projects that American dominance will be “much diminished” by 2025, and that the one key area of continued American superiority – military power – will be less significant in the increasingly competitive world of the future.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has called the 2008 financial crisis a sign that America’s global leadership is coming to an end.
The leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, suggests that US power has passed its mid-day.
How can we know if these predictions are correct?
One should beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Countries are not like humans with predictable life spans.
For example, after Britain lost its American colonies at the end of the eighteenth century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain’s reduction to “as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia.”
He failed to foresee that the industrial revolution would give Britain a second century of even greater ascendency.
Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power. Even then, Rome did not succumb to another state, but suffered a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes.
Indeed, for all the fashionable predictions of China, India, or Brazil surpassing the US in the coming decades, the classical transition of power among great states may be less of a problem than the rise of modern barbarians – non-state actors.
In an information-based world of cyber-insecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.
So, what will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the twenty-first century?
What resources will produce power? In the sixteenth century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain the edge; seventeenth-century Holland profited from trade and finance; eighteenth-century France gained from its larger population and armies; and nineteenth-century British power rested on its industrial primacy and its navy.
Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or non-state) with the best story that wins.
Today, it is far from clear how the balance of power is measured, much less how to develop successful survival strategies.
In his inaugural address in 2009, President Barack Obama stated that “our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America.
We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal.” Smart power means the combination of the hard power of command and the soft power of attraction.
Power always depends on context. The child who dominates on the playground may become a laggard when the context changes to a disciplined classroom.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Josef Stalin scornfully asked how many divisions the Pope had, but four decades later, the Papacy was still intact while Stalin’s empire had collapsed.
In today’s world, the distribution of power varies with the context. It is distributed in a pattern that resembles a three-dimensional chess game.
On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar, and the US is likely to remain the only superpower for some time. But on the middle chessboard, economic power has already been multi-polar for more than a decade, with the US, Europe, Japan, and China as the major players, and others gaining in importance.
The bottom chessboard is the realm of cross-border transactions that occur outside of government control.
It includes diverse non-state actors, such as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets, and, at the other extreme, terrorists transferring weapons or hackers threatening cyber-security.
It also includes new challenges like pandemics and climate change.
On this bottom board, power is widely dispersed, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, hegemony, or any other cliché.
Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the giddy pace of technological change is likely to continue to drive globalization and transnational challenges.
The problem for American power in the twenty-first century is that there are more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful state. Although the US does well on military measures, there is much going on that those measures fail to capture.
Under the influence of the information revolution and globalization, world politics is changing in a way that prevents America from achieving all its international goals acting alone.
For example, international financial stability is vital to Americans’ prosperity, but the US needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Global climate change, too, will affect Americans’ quality of life, but the US cannot manage the problem alone.
In a world where borders are more porous than ever to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, America must help build international coalitions and institutions to address shared threats and challenges.
In this sense, power becomes a positive sum game.
It is not enough to think in terms of power over others.
One must also think in terms of power to accomplish goals. On many transnational issues, empowering others can help to accomplish one’s own goals. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of relevant power.
The problem of American power in the twenty-first century is not one of decline, but of recognizing that even the most powerful country cannot achieve its aims without the help of others.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead.