07/01/2020 No. 157
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Response to Essays by Joseph Nye and M.D. Nalapat
By David S. Mason
December 1, 2009

Editor's Note: See www.endoftheamericancentury.blogspot.com for David S. Mason's blog associated with his book; the dialogue published  on www.chinausfriendship.com on November 1, 2009, also shows on site: http://endoftheamericancentury.blogspot.com/2009/11/dialogue-and-forum-on-end-of-american.html

· Response to Essay by Joseph Nye: Professor Nye's work, especially his book Soft Power, has much influenced my own thinking, and figures prominently in The End of the American Century.  His ideas have directly or indirectly influenced the Obama administration, as reflected in Secretary Clinton's use of the term ''smart power.''  Both the rhetoric and actions of the Obama administration add substance to the concept. 


Professor Nye has long argued that power is multidimensional, that military power is increasingly irrelevant or dysfunctional, and that achieving foreign policy goals now rests on persuasion and cooperation as much as anything.  I agree with him on all of this, and his marvelous formulation in this essay that ''on many transnational issues, empowering others can help to accomplish one's own goals.''


But I disagree with him that ''American power in the twenty-first century is not one of decline'' and the difference lies mostly in how we view America's domestic record.  In Soft Power, Nye identifies many elements of American soft power, including its economy, culture, values, and global image.  But as I show in my book, the U.S. has lost ground in virtually every domain of such soft power, while also losing strength and credibility with its military power and its global reputation.  Meanwhile, other regions or powers, like China, the EU, India and others have gained global soft power influence, often at the expense of the U.S.


The U.S. economy and standard of living, since World War II a source of envy and admiration worldwide, is no longer much of a model or aspiration for others.  Its astounding growth over the last two decades, it turns out, was a hollow shell, built on ballooning levels of household and government debt.  The current economic downturn-still not finished by a long shot-is bringing the United States back to a more ''natural'' economic position, much lower than before.  Even before the current crash, by many measures more meaningful than GDP/capita-like quality of life indices-the U.S. was nowhere near the top of the global list.


While growing the economy, based mostly on increased consumption, the U.S. neglected health care, education, investments, R&D, and infrastructure, and allowed increased levels of poverty and inequality.  On all of those measures, the U.S. fares poorly in comparison to other developed countries.


Global opinion surveys conducted by Pew, BBC and others show little enthusiasm in other countries for ''American-style democracy,'' for American ways of doing business, or for the spread of U.S. ideas and customs.  Though global opinion about the U.S. has improved somewhat with the election of President Obama, far more people worldwide continue to see U.S. influence on the world as ''mostly negative'' rather than ''mostly positive.''  On this scale, among 15 countries, the U.S. ranks 10th, below Germany, Britain, Japan and China, according to a recent BBC poll.


While American culture remains popular in many places (though not, by all means, all), it is difficult to see how global infatuation with ''Desperate Housewives'' can help solve problems like terrorism or global warming.  As Professor Nye notes in his first paragraph, even some of our closest allies now believe the era of U.S. global leadership is over.  Even more emphatic assertions of that belief have come from leaders in China, Brazil, Peru, Iran and elsewhere.


American decline is not necessarily a bad thing, though, given the increasing interconnectedness of countries and global issues.  It will be easier for the United States to interact cooperatively with other countries-and for them to deal with Washington-if the U.S. is not so dominant and domineering.  President Obama has adopted a much more conciliatory and modest approach to other countries-viz. his speeches in Ankara and Cairo-and this befits a country that has less reason to crow about its superiority and exceptionalism.   As Professor Nye points out, most of the big issues facing the U.S., and the rest of the world, are not susceptible to the application of power by a single country.  More things are ''outside the control of even the most powerful state.'' 


The United States is certainly in decline, both in absolute terms, and relative to other countries. But it will remain an important and influential power, especially if it continues to adopt a less arrogant, more cooperative approach to the rest of the world.



· Response to Essay by M.D. Nalapat: It is both enlightening and refreshing to hear about the U.S. role in the world from a thoughtful critic outside the U.S., like UNESCO's M.D. Nalapat.  He points to the past tendency of the U.S. to rely on ''military and economic muscle to seek 'compromises' that are in fact surrenders by the other side.''  I believe those views are widespread in the world, though quite different from the way most Americans perceive their role in the world.  It is difficult for Americans to hear the voices and opinions of others, because we are so used to thinking of ourselves as the world's best, and the most admirable.  Kishore Mahbubani, the author of The New Asian Hemisphere, thinks Americans are blind to their own shortcomings, and basically unable ''to listen to other voices on the planet.''  In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, this is one big factor in America's declining global power, influence, and effectiveness.


Mr. Nalapat views the great strength of the U.S. resting in its ''syncretic values'' and its openness to innovation and immigration.  Indeed, I would agree that immigration, and the power of assimilation and adaptation, have been an important element of this country's history and development.  Immigrants have provided both an energetic workforce and a vital source of creativity, innovation, and invention.  The election of Barack Obama, an African-American with a multi-ethnic heritage, seems a confirmation of this admirable national trait.


However, this American advantage may also be eroding, and even becoming problematic.  In the U.S. now, there is growing anti-immigrant sentiment, and one would expect this to increase as the economic downturn continues to bite.  While the United States has (almost) always welcomed others to our shores, we have not usually treated them very well once they get here.  Hispanics and other minorities, for example, experience much higher levels of poverty and unemployment than Whites, and are much more likely to be stuck with poor schools and inadequate health care.


The U.S. is still a global leader in science, technology and innovation, but even in these areas, the country is losing some of its edge.   Over the last two decades, the U.S. has steadily lost its overwhelming global dominance in the production of both patents and scientific journal articles.  The decline of American schools has taken a toll on science education, too, with American students often coming in dead last on international tests and competitions in science and math.  China produces four times as many engineers as the United States.  As other countries like China and India gear up technologically, it seems likely that talented and creative people are more likely to stay at home, or return home after taking some education in the United States. 


Of course the U.S. remains a major global player in science, technology and innovation.  But its ''American Century'' dominance in this area, as in so many others, is on the wane in the face of both domestic decline and the ''rise of the rest.''  Similar to Joseph Nye's emphasis on culture, Madhav Nalapat stresses the ''arts and sciences'' as a powerful tool for the U.S., especially in its interaction with China.  And this is where I most differ with Mr. Nalapat.  While culture and scientific exchanges are important, they can not substitute for the much more overwhelming influence of trade and economics.  This is where China (and the EU, and India) are really gaining, and where the U.S. is particularly vulnerable.  It is the growing economic might and confidence of these powers, and others that will most challenge the dominance of the United States.


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Professor David S. Mason teaches U.S. politics, society and foreign policy, international politics, and comparative politics (especially European) at Butler University in Indianapolis. His previous research and publications have focused on Russian and European politics and history, social justice attitudes, and public opinion. For a partial list of his publications (with access to many of them), see, http://
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