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June 21st, 2015

Book Review Symposium: Is The American Century Over?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

June 21st, 2015

Book Review Symposium: Is The American Century Over?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In his latest book, Is the American Century Over? Professor Joseph S. Nye argues that, despite the rise of China, America is not declining. Instead, he writes, we are seeing the rise of the rest. In our second USAPP Book Review Symposium, we present three reviews of Nye’s new book, which were submitted separately and written independently.

41LsMupBqiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Is the American Century Over?, by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Polity Press. 2015 


Jonathan Freeman writes that this book is an intelligent and argumentative essay on the question of American decline, which takes a close look at the problems of the ‘challengers’ to U.S. power.

Most readers will read this book with a degree of bias. My own perspective on the subject is heavily influenced by my own status as an American. Personally, I do not think America’s best days are behind us and in spite of (or perhaps because of) our regular blundering we do try to do better, to be better. As Churchill famously observed; “You can always depend on the Americans to the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”

Nye begins the book with a general synopsis of the period that has become known as the “American century.” There is little doubt that America has dominated this time period in the areas of both hard and soft power, argues Nye. He delineates the various ways both statistically and allegorically that the United States has possessed and wielded power over the past hundred years or so.

In chapter 2, Nye explores the notion – keenly felt by Americans – of contemporary American decline. He discusses the almost neurotic fever with which many Americans have continuously perceived their national decline since the end of World War II. Nye completes the chapter with an historical narrative of other great powers in the world, showing how and where America has stood in history with regard to its rivals, leading into a comparison with other prominent powers over the same period.

Assessing the “challengers”; Europe, Japan, Russia, India, and Brazil, Nye argues that all have substantive structural problems which inhibit them from seriously competing with the United States in terms of both hard and soft power. Europe, while a credible economic competitor prior to the meltdown of the Greek economy, cannot compete either through cultural influence or military might. He then cites evidence which shows that Japan has serious cultural stigma issues, and that Russia stands on an economic house of cards. He explains that India has an even greater degree of economic disparity between the rich and poor than does the United States, and finally that Brazil has thus far been unable to develop influence based on its economic success. This leaves, in Nye’s view, China as the sole credible threat to American influence and power.

Nye devotes the entire fourth chapter to analysing the nature and viability of China’s attempt to overhaul the United States as the pre-eminent global superpower. Assessing China’s economic, military, and soft power – he concludes that, “China still lags far behind the United States in all three dimensions of power.” On the economic side, he argues that in spite of the fact that China’s may surpass the United States in the areas of purchasing power parity and gross domestic product, it is still some distance from actually overtaking the United States in real terms. In this, he states, the American system still has numerous advantages over China in terms of overall national development, currency trading, and rule of law, particularly in the areas of property and intellectual property.

Credit: MudflapDC (CC- BY-NC-SA-2.0)
Credit: MudflapDC (CC- BY-NC-SA-2.0)

While Nye does not make extensive comparison of military capabilities between the United States and China, he clearly points out the disparity. In the areas of capabilities of logistics, modern weaponry, and budgeting the United States far outpaces China in the military arena. In the area of soft power, meanwhile, Nye argues that China’s heavy-handed efforts tend to be counterproductive in developing their desired levels of global influence. While he certainly does not claim that America has been deft in developing relations with other governments and peoples, Nye appreciates that America has displayed a far lighter touch than have the Chinese.

He continues by comparing America to the decline of Rome and finds the comparison wanting, only to concede that American pre-eminence “will probably not end[…]in the next 30 years.” He cites the US National Intelligence Council, which predicts that while the United States will likely remain the most power nation it will no longer be either a hegemon or the world’s sole superpower by 2030.

In conclusion, Nye has offered an intelligent and argumentative essay on the question of American decline. He has made a solid claim that the United States is not deteriorating; in fact it is steadily progressing in an integrated and expansionary manner, while other nations simply are developing faster in specific areas. An additional positive is the book’s brevity, offering not an extensive academic presentation on the subject, but a snappy and readable encapsulation of Professor Nye’s well researched and eminently defensible views on the subject. 


Harry C. Blaney III writes that the book emphasizes the changing role of relative and shifting power between the U.S. and potential rivals such as China over the 20th century and beyond.

This little volume is perhaps the best short read I know about our global landscape, its future trajectory and the implications for global geostrategic power shifts.

A former Dean and now professor at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, Nye is no stranger to Washington foreign policymaking. Among other positions, he spent time on the State Department’s seventh floor. In short, he knows both the academic side (he invented the concept of “soft power”) and the hard realities of the practice of power diplomacy.

As we all know, there is a furious, and often misguided, debate about the fall of America and the rise of China, Europe and a host of other nations and forces. Nye examines all of these arguments, citing and quoting authors who espouse one viewpoint or another. He brings considerable factual material and analytical skills to bear to see if the views match fundamental reality.

What we see in this book is a concise tour de force examining the international context in which power is exercised, to what end and how it shifts (or does not) over time. While the emphasis is on the role of America the author’s true focus is on relative and shifting power – it is a dynamic look at the phenomenon rather that a static, unidimensional or simplistic expansion of existing, but shifting, trends.

The first two chapters look at “The Creation of the American Century” and “American Decline.” I will skip the argument over the American Century may have begun because the several alternatives offered are all somewhat plausible and, in any case the heart of the matter is the often popular idea of American global decline.

Nye cites most of the arguments for “American decline” – and these citations alone are worth of price of the book, just to set the stage. He then gets to the real nitty-gritty of policies, resources, new actors and exercise of power that lie at the heart of American influence in the world.

One quote sums up much of his argument here: “The short answer to our question is that we are not entering a post-American world.” Nye believes that in 2041 the United States will still have “primacy in power resources and play the central role in the global balance of power among states…” But he correctly notes that it is necessary to look at “a decrease in relative external power and domestic deterioration or decay.”

One key point he makes is that there is “no virtue in either understatement or overstatement of American power.” The hubris that characterized the presidency of George W. Bush is not wise, but neither is “withdrawal from the world or nationalistic and protectionist policies that do harm.” He uses the rise and decline of Britain before the two world wars to illustrate how domestic decay (such as falling industrial productivity) reduced absolute power, but it was the rise of others that reduced the country’s relative power.

Nye acknowledges that the American Century may change or end as a result of “relative” power decline because of the rise of others.  He looks at the relative power changes in Europe, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil. The latter has no chance to overtake America, but Nye thinks that China will be the chief competitor and even surpass America in economic growth and size.

But in the next chapter, on China, he also analyzes the country’s many problems and questions whether, in fact, it will stop the American Century in all areas of power. He looks at Beijing’s strategy and American responses.  He notes that Its military power is officially at a quarter of American by the measure of defense expenditure, but that there are programs that are “off the books”

Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. (DoD photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force/Released)
Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. (DoD photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force/Released)

Nye believes that the American Century will likely continue, but it will not look like the past and will be more complex. The American share of the global economy will be smaller than in the past, for example.  But Nye does not believe in simple linear extrapolation of growth rates; he looks at multiple elements of power like military, economic, and soft power.

Nye notes, as some others have, that “transnational issues” are “not susceptible to traditional hard power instruments.”  It is here that diplomacy must work harder and smarter; but, frankly, we have not yet organized national foreign policy process and management structure, let alone training and assignments of those entrusted with decision-making to align with this new reality.

Nye states, as have President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, that the United States “cannot achieve many of its international goals acting alone.” This is a perspective that too many in America, and especially in Congress, do not understand.

The key for Nye is: “The problem of leadership in such a world is how to get everyone into the act and still get action.” His is dismissive of those who equate military action with power, and points to the many global challenges where military might is of little use. He decries both those who overreact, resulting in the “waste blood and treasure as it did in Vietnam and Iraq,” and those who preach a form of total isolation from the world’s troubles.

Nye concludes that our place in the world could be affected by our own partisan politics, and he is critical of the budget cutters who reduce funding for diplomacy and the military, as well as domestic needs such as education, R&D, and infrastructure that make our country great. He believes we need to grow and tax to accomplish these goals.

While he believes the U.S. should intervene in key crises, Nye holds that the Washington should stay out of the business of “invasion and occupation.” He argues for the need to reinvigorate, reconfigure and reinvent international institutions to carry the work of addressing our most serious global challenges.

For those with an abiding interest in international issues this should be required reading as this book provides so many insights and much wisdom into the global dynamics of power and even more its significance. Not least its overview of the implications of these trends and how we need to deal with this new and changing world can be the basis for a lively debate about governmental policies, actions, and the role of our international institutions.

This post is a version of a book review published in the Foreign Service Journal of June 2015 and at the Rethinking National Security blog.  


Cora Lacatus & Emmanuelle Blanc write that “Is the American Century Over?” is a fresh and accessible take on an important topic for the U.S. and the wider world. The book addresses the debate over why America still matters, and warns of the dangers that the view that the U.S. is on an inevitable path of decline can have for informing policy-making.

Is the American century over? No.

“Is the American Century Over?” is a book about why America still matters and will continue to do so. In an impressive “tour de force”, Joseph Nye, one of the most eminent scholars of International Relations, notably famous for his concept of “soft power”, addresses this debate elegantly and comprehensively – shedding light on numerous nuances that eventually challenge the widespread alarmist provisions depicting the 21st century as the one which will witness the decline of America.

In his book, Nye tackles some of the toughest questions of contemporary IR:

Is there such a thing as an American century? As Nye’s points out, using such a term as an identifier for a nation is an arbitrary construct, or attempt at capturing a country’s power and positioning it on a historical timeline. Going a step further, we could even consider it a historical misnomer resulting from our intellectual inclination to look back at history and make sense of it in terms of grand powers and empires, all nicely laid out on a timeline of epochs of glory and decline.

But what does it mean that we speak (or write) of America’s decline today? As Nye rightly emphasizes, one first needs to specify whether we are talking about “absolute” or “relative decline”. Samuel P. Huntington also pointed out five different phases of US declininism in the late 20th century – after the USSR launched the first satellite in 1957; after President Nixon’s announcement of multipolarity in the late 1960s; after the Arab oil embargo of 1973; after Soviet expansion in the late 1970s; and after the onset of President Reagan’s fiscal and trade deficits in the late 1980s. To this list, Nye adds the more recent period after the financial crisis and great recession of 2008. In line with James Fallows, the end of the World War II marked the time when the US’s decline began to be considered in terms of ‘falling behind someone else’ and not simply as a falling short of its own ideals or God’s wish for it. In Nye’s terms, the aftermath of the war was the moment of a shift in perspective from an “absolute” to a “relative decline.”

Despite America’s domestic battles over culture, the weaknesses in many of its institutions (e.g. political gridlock) and a possible economic stagnation, Nye does not predict an absolute decline of America – comparable to the collapse of the Roman Empire over 1,500 years ago. The real challenge might rather come from a relative decline, due to the growing power resources of other countries, the potential contender number one in this regard, being China. By breaking down the different facets of China’s power (hard and soft), Nye comes to the conclusion that it is not likely that China will surpass the US in the foreseeable future. To back up his arguments, he introduces telling nuances that shed light on a more complex situation than usually described. For instance, looking at economic indicators predicting that the Chinese economy (GDP) will be larger than the US one in a few years’ time, Nye argues that it is a flawed way of measurement as it does not take into account the level of sophistication of the economy, and its level of innovation in science and technology. In his own words, “Chinese often complain that they produce iPhone jobs, but not Steve Jobs” (p.52).

Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture (Creative Commons BY)
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture (Creative Commons BY)

Entering into a dialogue with the future is an exercise in informed imagining in which one takes an analytic step back from the reality one inhabits and make predictions about its future. Nye is particularly aware of the difficulties associated with this exercise and in discussing the American century, recommends to keep in mind its successes alongside the assessment of its risk to face decline and be replaced by a different powerful state. After all, there is a significant difference between, on the one hand, a country developing and acquiring power and, on the other hand, that same country being able to act as a global power and thus also becoming a threat to the US’s position in the world order. Of import is also the further impact of such a negative view of the American Century as fundamentally determined by a state of inextricable decline in the face of the rise of new international powers and non-state actors. If decline is a construct, it is generated by perception of politics – and when not handled with care, such negative perception can result in informing policy-making in unanticipated ways.

Throughout the book, Nye’s arguments build on dichotomies he has developed more in depth elsewhere and which he distils into simple and very accessible language. Besides analysing the difference between absolute and relative decline, hegemony vs primacy, or isolationism vs entrenchment, he proposes the well-established concepts of hard and soft power to make sense of state relations in an increasingly complex international order. The United States remains strong and, if we are all convinced by Nye’s arguments, his prediction of America’s continued powerful status will prove correct in future decades. But key to maintaining powerful status resides in developing the ability to convert power effectively into outcomes and to do so by also working collaboratively with others. In Nye’s words,

“If the American century is to continue, it will not be enough to think in terms of American Power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals which involves power with others”. p.112

Nye’s book is definitely worth reading for his fresh take on a topic that is of great concern to the United States and the entire world. Rich and accessible, this book is a must-read for all those interested in understanding the likely future constellations of power and challenges of the 21st century. 

 A version of this review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.

Featured image : The US Capitol Building. Photo Credit: Architect of the Capitol. CC

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Jonathan Freeman is International Relations PhD student at LSE. His research examines military assistance as a tool of US foreign policy. He served as an officer in the United States Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a political appointee in the Obama Administration. He has a BA from University of Michigan, a Masters of Liberal Arts from Harvard University’s Extension School, and an MBA from UMASS – Amherst. He occasionally tweets @JFonIR 

Harry Blaney is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy. He brings over thirty years of experience in international affairs to CIP and has held senior positions in the federal government, policy research, and non-profit organizations. His experience includes the White House, State Department, foreign affairs think tanks, and U.S. diplomatic posts abroad. His main focus has been on national security, including non-proliferation arms control, US-Europe relations, US-Russia, and global issues including energy, climate change, conflict zones, NATO, EU, and macro-strategic issues.

Cora Lacatus is a PhD Candidate and ESRC fellow in International Relations at the LSE. She works as a research associate for the Dahrendorf Europe-North America Working Group and the MAXCAP Project. 

Emmanuelle Blanc is a PhD Candidate in the department of International Relations at the LSE. Her research deals with transatlantic relations and examines more particularly the role of the EU-US political dialogues.


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Posted In: Book Reviews | Jonathan Freeman | U.S. History | US foreign affairs and the North American neighbourhood

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