Book Review: How America Stays Number One

April 5, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Washington Times on April 5, 2011.

The Future of Power
By Joseph S. Nye
PublicAffairs, $27.99, 300 pages

The United States is the world’s most powerful nation. Yet Washington is finding it harder than ever to achieve its ends. Consider Libya, where a campaign that was supposed to last just days is turning into a stalemate that could last weeks or months. So much for being a “superpower.”

American policymakers like to talk about “smart power,” as if the meaning was self‐​evident. Helping us understand what power is and how it is best used is Joseph S. Nye, of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He attempts to answer the question: “How will power work, and how is it changing in the twenty‐​first century?”

The topic is made more important by the increasing challenge to American dominance. Mr. Nye points out that the United States continues to stand tall compared to its competitors. He writes: “for all the fashionable predictions of China, India, or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threats may come from modern barbarians and nonstate actors.”

That’s obviously a controversial topic, but The Future of Power is more analytical than ideological. However one sees the future balance of power, Mr. Nye helps readers understand what power is.

Most people understand power, even if it is hard to define and even harder to measure. At its simplest, power is the ability “to get what we want.” But that phrase encompasses much. Mr. Nye writes: “A policy‐​oriented concept of power depends upon a specified context to tell us who gets what, how, where, and when.”

Resources matter. The Soviet Union’s power always was constrained by its economic weakness. But, notes Mr. Nye: “Power conversion — getting from resources to behavioral outcomes — is a crucial intervening interval.”

Mr. Nye’s writing style is accessible even when his subject grows more complex. He is serious about plumbing the complexities of power. For instance, he writes about “relational power,” which he believes comes in three forms: commanding another party to change, controlling another party’s agenda and shaping another party’s preferences.

Recent reliance on military action emphasizes the first of these. But the other two can be more effective at much lower cost. To maximize power one should utilize all three.

Forms of power also differ. Nevertheless, military, economic and “soft” power can reinforce one another. Of the first, writes Mr. Nye, “noncoercive and benign uses of military resources can be an important source of the soft power behavior of framing of agendas, persuasion, and attraction in world politics.”

Soft power still draws the most skeptics, but Mr. Nye persuasively argues that it matters. Indeed, he asserts: “Soft power has often had very real effects in history, including on the movement of armies.” The ability to persuade another nation to fight on one’s behalf is almost the same as possessing the other country’s military resources. Europe has been doing this to America for decades.

Who exercises power also matters. Governments are the traditional force in international relations. But nongovernmental organizations are playing an increasingly important role. Individuals also matter.

The Internet has created an important new tool. Still, the Internet alone has not transformed international relations among states. Rather, Mr. Nye explains: “while leaving governments the strongest actors, the cyberdomain is likely to see an increase in the diffusion of power to nonstate actors and network centrality as a key dimension of power in the twenty‐​first century.”

The most interesting part of the book is Mr. Nye’s assessment of America’s potential decline and who stands to benefit. He makes a good case for “some day, but not yet.” The United States faces significant challenges, but no other power is yet ready to thrust Washington aside.

His assessment of China offers a welcome antidote to the assumptions of many that Beijing is just a few years away from surpassing America economically. China’s growth is likely to slow. Even when China gains a bigger economy, American per capita income will remain well above that of China’s. Mr. Nye writes: “China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to American preponderance that the Kaiser’s Germany posed when it passed Britain at the beginning of the last century.”

Nevertheless, the United States is going to find it harder “to get what it wants” in the future, especially through military action. Mr. Nye proposes a policy of “smart power” which he thinks of as a synthesis of liberalism and realism. Such an approach sounds good, but the devil remains in the details. Using “smart power” to advance stupid policies is not smart.

Indeed, President Obama appears to think that he is mixing liberalism and realism with his decision to intervene in the Libyan civil war. Already America’s next geopolitical train wreck is in sight.

Still, The Future of Power is a helpful primer to better understand the tools available to those formulating America’s foreign policy. They just need to remember that adopting smart policies is even more important than using smart power.

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