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American Power in the 21st Century (Dr. Nye)

Updated on May 3, 2014
Will China "overtake" the U.S?
Will China "overtake" the U.S?

American Power in the 21st Century

On Monday, March 31, Canisius College hosted the latest guest of The William H. Fitzpatrick Chair of Political Science Lecture Series, Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. The room was filled to capacity with interested students, whether or not they were political science majors.

The Lecture Series was inaugurated by President Harry S Truman in 1962 and has since seen professors, politicians, political satirists, supreme court justices, journalists, activists and others. Dr. Nye is an American foreign policy scholar with a PhD in Political Science from Harvard University. He has served in numerous governmental councils throughout his career, and has published many books and articles.

The topic which Dr. Nye came to the college to discuss was American Power in the 21st Century. Principally, he came to dissuade people from the notion that America was declining and would be, in terms of power, overtaken by China.

Dr. Nye began by acknowledging that “the situation looks pretty grave,” considering the problems in the world centering around Putin, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and nuclear weapons. He even acknowledged that the current political climate of gridlock seemed to be preventing any action in these areas.

However, Nye said that to understand the current situation, Americans must have a context in which to view it, and he offered up the post-WWII era as that context. He said that this is an era most Americans agree the country was most powerful relatively, yet this period also saw China become communist, the Soviet Union acquire nuclear weapons and Castro rise to power in Cuba, showing that even at its theoretical strongest, the U.S. still could not completely control world affairs.

“We have never been as strong as we think we’ve been,” said Nye, who attributed this to what he called “The golden glow of the past.”

Nye pointed out that even though current opinion of the U.S. shows that people believe the country’s relative power is declining, opinion is cyclical, and every sputnik-like event causes a dip in opinion, but that opinion ultimately doesn’t count for much.

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Society of the Machine: Leon
Society of the Machine: Leon

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Is China, in relation to the U.S., the equivalent of cold war era Russia?
Is China, in relation to the U.S., the equivalent of cold war era Russia?

“There’s a lot of crying wolf, going on,” said Nye, adding, “But, you know, sometimes wolves do appear.”

Despite the second half of this quote, Nye believes the current trend is once more a false alarm. He attributes part of this trend to this imprecision of the word “decline.” The decline of a country, which is a “complex institutional arrangement,” generally takes a long time, and is difficult to assess until after the collapse, as was the case in Ancient Rome.

“We don’t know where the United States is in its life cycle,” said Nye.

Nye discussed the economic situations in China and the U.S., ultimately concluding that China’s communism prevents their economy from matching the U.S. economy, and even though China will eventually surpass the U.S. in GDP, it will not surpass the U.S. in per capita income, which Nye said was the more important indicator.

Nye also talked about his idea of soft power, which he defined as the ability to “get what you want through attraction and persuasion.” He pointed out that although China is spending a significant amount of money to increase their soft power, they do not get a good return on their investment, again because of their communism. He also pointed out that their use of hard power, or force, in areas like the Philippines, automatically decreases their soft power among neighboring countries, and China has yet to balance out their use of hard and soft power.

Nye also touched upon the comparison of modern day South East Asia to pre-WWI Europe, saying that the area around China is ready to explode much like the European powder keg. However, Nye also believes that the difference between WWI and today, is that the U.S. is still economically superior to China, whereas Germany had already economically overtaken Britain before WWI. Therefore, now is the time for the U.S. to take intervening measures.


Will the United States Remain the Dominant World Power Moving Forward?

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However, the true, underlying key to America’s success, according to Nye, is our willingness to accept immigrants.

“Immigration actually helps to keep America flexible and healthy.”

Nye concluded by re-affirming that the U.S. does face challenges both at home and abroad, and that China is growing in power, but saying that U.S. will remain the dominant world power, with one caveat: the country must learn how to work with others in an increasingly global community. Issues like climate change cannot be solved by any single country—it will take cooperation.

“The paradox of American power is that the world’s only superpower can’t go it alone.”

In a lengthy question and answer segment that followed, Nye was called out for his stance on fracking. In his lecture, he stated that fracking was one way the U.S. would remain dominant to China, but he failed to acknowledge the severe environmental consequences. In his answer to a question, he made the dubious claim that “there have been a number of studies…and by-and-large they have decided that fracking is indeed relatively safe.” It’s unclear what studies Nye was citing, but these comments seem inaccurate, and at a bare minimum they significantly downplay the known harmful effects of fracking.

In the question segment, Nye also commented on the Ukraine situation, which he largely said was still too uncertain to thoroughly discuss. He also talked about how events shape a president’s priorities, the usefulness of political theories, the European Union, Afghanistan, American and Chinese interference in Africa, China’s political future, and the future of the Middle East, as well as acknowledging the plague of money in American politics.

Nye on Chinese and American Power

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I am a reader, a hockey player, a part-time musician, and an English major at Canisius College.


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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, JAS Writer. Joe Nye is one of the leading foreign policy experts in our country. The most important point to keep in mind is that America emerged from World War II as the undisputed world economic power. That was a unique historic time. That could not be sustained forever but we will remain a prime power.