The U.S. culture of openness and innovation will keep this country central in an information age in which networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power. The United States is well positioned to benefit from such networks and alliances if our leaders follow smart strategies. In structural terms, it matters that the two entities with per-capita income and sophisticated economies similar to that of the United States — Europe and Japan — are both allied with the United States. In terms of balances-of-power resources, that makes a large difference for the net position of American power, but only if U.S. leaders maintain the alliances and institutional cooperation. In addition, in a more positive sum view of power with, rather than over, other countries, Europe and Japan provide the largest pools of resources for dealing with common transnational problems.
On the question of absolute — rather than relative — American decline, the United States faces serious domestic problems in debt, secondary education and political gridlock. But these issues are only part of the picture. Of the many possible futures, stronger cases can be made for the positive over the negative. Among the negative futures, the most plausible is one in which the United States overreacts to terrorist attacks by turning inward and closing itself off to the strength it obtains from openness. But barring such mistaken strategies, there are, over a longer term, solutions to the major problems that preoccupy us. Of course, for political or other reasons, such solutions may remain forever out of reach. But it is important to distinguish between situations that have no solutions and those that, at least in principle, can be solved.
Decline is a misleading metaphor and, fortunately, President Obama has rejected the suggested strategy of “managing decline.” As a leader in research and development, higher education and entrepreneurial activity, the United States is not in absolute decline, as happened in ancient Rome. In relative terms, there is a reasonable probability that the United States is likely to remain more powerful than any single state in the coming decades. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but neither do we live any longer in the “American era” of the late 20th century. In terms of primacy, the United States will be “first” but not “sole.” No one has a crystal ball, but the National Intelligence Council (which I once chaired) may be correct in its 2012 projection that although the unipolar moment is over, the United States probably will remain first among equals among the other great powers in 2030 because of the multifaceted nature of its power and legacies of its leadership.
The power resources of many states and non-state actors will rise in the coming years. U.S. presidents will face an increasing number of issues in which obtaining our preferred outcomes will require power with others as much as power over others. Our leaders’ capacity to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of our hard and soft power. Simply put, the problem of American power in the 21st century is not one of a poorly specified “decline” or being eclipsed by China but, rather, the “rise of the rest.” The paradox of American power is that even the largest country will not be able to achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author, most recently, of “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.”