Declinist narratives about the fall of America have proliferated in recent years as domestic challenges have intensified and China’s influence has grown. But don’t dismiss American power just yet, argues political scientist Joseph Nye – it has risen from difficult times before, and is well-placed to do so again. This article is based on Joseph's new memoir 'A Life in the American Century'.
In February 1941, just before World War II, TIME/LIFE publisher Henry Luce baptized this “the American Century.” For eight decades, I have lived in it as an academic as well as a public intellectual. With five years as a political appointee in the State Department, Pentagon and Intelligence Community, I spent enough time in Washington to witness American power up close, and occasionally play a part in it.
Some say that the American century is over. But are rumors of American decline greatly exaggerated? Yes and no. Decline can be relative and absolute. For example, Britain and the Netherlands were close competitors early in the 17th century, before British naval power outstripped the Netherlands, but the Dutch economy, society and art remained strong. American power has declined relative to the rest of the world, but it still remains the richest and most powerful country with geographical and social facts that would give any global challenger a run for their money.
In 1945, the US represented nearly half of the world economy and had the only nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union broke the atomic monopoly in 1949, but it was not until 1970 that the US share of the world economy returned to the one quarter where it had stood before World War II (and roughly stands today). President Nixon and others interpreted this return to normal as decline, and broke the dollar’s tie to gold in 1971. But the obituaries were premature. While nothing lasts forever, today the US remains the world’s strongest military power as well as the largest economy. China has become a near peer economic competitor that represents a decline in American power compared to China, but in absolute terms the US remains more powerful than China. It is important to remember that a reduced lead, is still a lead.
China is an impressive competitor with great strengths but also weaknesses. In assessing the overall balance of power, the US has at least five long-term advantages that may persist for some time. One is geography. The US is surrounded by oceans and friendly neighbors, while China shares a border with fourteen other countries and is engaged in territorial disputes with several. The US also has an energy advantage of near self-sufficiency, whereas China depends on energy imports.
Third, the US derives power from its large transnational financial institutions and the international role of the dollar. A credible reserve currency depends on it being freely convertible, as well as on deep capital markets and the rule of law, which China lacks. The US also has a relative demographic advantage as the only major developed country that is currently projected to hold its place (third) in the global population ranking. Seven of the world’s fifteen largest economies will have a shrinking workforce over the next decade, but the US workforce is expected to increase, while China’s peaked in 2014. Finally, America has been at the forefront in key technologies (bio, nano, and information). China, of course, is investing heavily in research and development and scores well in the numbers of patents, but by its own measures its research universities still rank behind American ones.
All told, the US holds a strong hand in the great power competition, but if we succumb to hysteria about China’s rise or to complacency about its “peak,” or if the US plays its cards poorly, it could reduce its power. For example, discarding high-value cards– including strong alliances and influence in international institutions –would be a serious mistake. It could also mismanage its competition with China. China is not an existential threat to the US like the Soviet Union was in the Cold War, but mismanagement could make it existential by blundering into a major war. The relevant historical analogy is 1914, when the European powers blundered into a war that destroyed four empires, not 1941 when Japan attacked the US.
My greater concern, however, is about domestic change and what it could do to American soft power of and the future of the American century. Even if its external power remains dominant, a country can lose its internal virtue and attractiveness to others. The Roman Empire lasted long after it lost its republican form of government. As Benjamin Franklin remarked about the form of American government created by the founders: “A republic if you can keep it.”
Political polarization is a problem, and civic life is becoming more complex. Technology is creating an enormous range of opportunities and risks that the next generation will face as it copes with the Internet of Things, AI, big data, machine learning, deep fakes, and generative bots – to name but a few. And even larger challenges are approaching from the realms of biotechnology, not to mention coping with climate change. Some historians have compared the flux of ideas and connections today to the turmoil of the Renaissance and Reformation five centuries ago, but on a much larger scale. Concerning those eras were followed by the Thirty Years’ War that killed a third of the population of Germany. Today, the world is richer and riskier than ever before. I am sometimes asked whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future. I reply, “Guardedly optimistic.”
America has many problems – polarization, inequality, loss of trust, mass shootings, deaths of despair from drugs and suicide – just to name a few that make headlines. There is a case for pessimism. At the same time, it has survived worse periods in the 1890s, 1930s and the 1960s as I describe in my book. For all its flaws, the US is an innovative society that, in the past, has been able to recreate and reinvent itself.
American fears of decline and social change have been cyclical. For as long as the US has sat upon the throne of the world it has been anxious about being unseated. After the Soviets launched Sputnik and 1957 and Khrushchev proclaimed their superiority, many Americans believed that the solid Eisenhower administration was stagnant and in decline. After the hubris and defeat in Vietnam, the 70s were also marked by declinism. In 1979, a prominent American magazine cover had a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a tear rolling down her eye. This was a little more than a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hubristic period of “the sole superpower” when the US blundered into the Iraq War.
Today, a majority of Americans believe that the US is in decline, and Donald Trump uses this mistaken premise to promise to “make America great again.” And yet he promises policies like withdrawing from alliances abroad, and damaging democratic institutions at home that would weaken American hard and soft power. His election in 2024 could prove a turning point in the American century. America is caught in the downturn of yet another cycle.
And yet, history shows that past generational changes have enabled the country to escape the troughs of such cycles. We should be wary of counting too heavily on American exceptionalism, but I remain guardedly optimistic: maybe Gen Z can do it again.