The Future of Power

Will the world be steered by a benign hegemon or by darker forces? Andrew Gamble wonders

May 19, 2011

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, new intellectual fashions for describing our contemporary predicament and prospects have succeeded one another with bewildering speed: from proclamations of the end of history and a liberal peace, to warnings of the clash of civilisations and the threat from failed states and rogue states, the emergence of new doctrines of American primacy and liberal intervention, and, most recently, the return of history, with the emergence of new great powers challenging the US.

In his latest book, Joseph Nye aims to make sense of contemporary international politics, as well as providing a diagnosis of the challenges facing the US and ways to deal with them. The analysis is driven by his theory of power, which distinguishes between hard power (force and payment) and soft power (persuasion and attraction). He notes the importance of structural accounts of power, but his own focus is policy-related - who gets what, how, where and when. The different forms of power are not alternatives to one another but complementary, and Nye emphasises how power is increasingly diffused throughout the international system in ways that cut across traditional understandings.

Nye uses his policy-related perspective on power to question the widespread belief that the power of the US is in terminal decline and the rise of China is irresistible. This argument is often conducted in terms of hard power and resources, but Nye doubts whether China yet possesses the kind of soft power that can deliver effective strategies to promote its interests in the international system. He disagrees that the world is set to be dominated by competition between rival great powers once again; the world is now too complex and too interdependent.

For Nye there has been no absolute decline in US power; only at most a relative decline. The historical analogies with the decline of earlier hegemons, particularly the UK, do not hold. The circumstances are entirely different - China's position today is not comparable to that of either Germany or the US in the early 20th century. The soft power wielded by the US remains far superior to that of any other country, rooted in its universities, its research, its civil society, its democracy and its culture, which no country, least of all China, is likely to match at all soon.

The US faces many internal problems, Nye concedes, from the size of its deficits to the standard of its schools, but he thinks there are solutions. It is capable of renewing and reorganising itself and finding strategies that combine hard and soft power in new and attractive ways, allowing it to remain an effective global player. Talk of unipolarity, multipolarity, hegemony and primacy are all unhelpful, he contends, and belong to earlier discourses of international relations that cannot capture the way power is now diffused in the international system among a great variety of actors, non-state as well as state. However, Nye acknowledges that the extent to which political elites and publics, particularly in the US and China, still see the world through such categories, which makes the world a more dangerous place.

Nye remains optimistic that liberal America will triumph. For all its mistakes and failings, the US will remain a generally benign force in international politics, with no other great power likely to challenge its position, at least for several decades. His optimism is derived from a particular reading of the nature of US power, and he thinks the negative impact on US power of recent cataclysmic events such the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the 2008 financial crash has been overrated.

The Future of Power is a concise, forceful statement of what Nye refers to as the liberal realist position in the US academy and in US politics. His optimism depends on the US maintaining its policy of openness and engagement with the rest of the world, encouraging immigration, implementing internal reforms, seeking a more sustainable model of economic growth, and finding new ways to cooperate on the international stage. He paints a plausible scenario for the continuance of the US at the heart of the international system.

But there is a much more pessimistic scenario, which Nye acknowledges but does not elaborate on here, in which international relations become characterised more by conflict than by cooperation, emerging powers such as China are not successfully incorporated, and the US, unable to renew its economic strength, begins to disengage from the international system it did so much to create. A great deal depends on the political choices that will determine which scenario is closest to reality.

The Future of Power

The Future of Power

By Joseph S. Nye

Perseus Books, 320pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781586488918

Published 24 February 2011

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