Decline and Fall
By Nick OwcharJuly 23, 2015
Is the American Century Over? by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
IMAGINE the following scene:
It’s fourth of July afternoon. Someone is having a backyard barbecue on the anniversary — the 239th — of this country’s declaration of independence from a foreign power.
The place is a small suburban city with a Mayberry-style downtown — there’s an ice cream shop and a diner and bar, the kind of place where you find plaques installed in front of the old brick buildings that tell you how they’re connected with the city’s founding.
The backyard picnic table is spread with the usual summertime fare: many pounds of grilled meat (bought on sale at Sam’s Club), an enormous bowl of tortilla chips, an equally enormous one containing salsa, a plate of deviled eggs getting runny in the sun, a “healthy” plate of carrots and celery that no one really touches, plenty of red cups, craft beers, buy-one-get-one-free bottles of wine from BevMo!.
In the air’s the usual small talk about the hot weather, the food, summer plans. When someone says they wish they could afford to go to Paris this summer, someone else actually mentions their fear of traveling abroad because of the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year.
The name draws a puzzled look. Charlie who?
“Oh,” they say once it’s explained to them. Soon, someone else is asking them about the dune buggy they bought and refurbished. They’re going to take it out to Glamis in August, they say. So much for international tragedy. Charlie who? Is the meat almost ready?
It’s a small example — duplicable, I’m sure, anywhere across the country — of the ignorance thriving in many suburban bubbles while people are struggling in other parts of the world. It’s the type of scene supporting the caricature, popularized by Robert Putnam and other political scientists, that American civic engagement — along with the nation — is falling apart.
But Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye Jr., whose other books include The Future of Power and Soft Power, would wag a finger at this kind of pessimism. It’s a rush to judgment, he’d say, that probably points to “more about popular psychology than geo-political analysis” — a point he makes early in his elegant new book Is the American Century Over? (Polity).
The fact is, according to Nye, Americans have been obsessed for centuries with the question that’s the title of his recent book. When did that obsession start? Look at the Puritans. They were already worrying, in the 1600s, that the end was nigh and that the American Eden would soon fall into sin and disaster. But it didn’t.
Dial forward a century and the American Founders are worrying, too. America’s experiment in representative democracy, they feared, might have the same fate as the Roman Republic. Even though America’s early years would be as tumultuous as Rome’s — including a shattering civil war — the country endured … and continued.
Nye quotes Charles Dickens’s observation that America “is depressed, and always stagnated, and always is in an alarming crisis” — it sounds like the kind of thing you might hear today on the streets of Manhattan or Washington, DC.
The tendency to worry about America’s imminent decline, as Nye shows, is evergreen.
Nye’s own answer to his book’s title — no real spoiler here — is no. The American Century isn’t over. But “no” isn’t a reason to feel relief, and he gives us plenty of reasons why we should feel unsettled about America’s place in the world, starting with the simple fact that all things — people, movies, meals, even nations — come to an eventual end:
It goes against common sense and history to believe that the United States will have a dominant share of world power forever. But what is the life cycle of a country? Political entities are social constructs without clear lifespans, unlike human organisms where a century is generally the limit (though science will eventually extend this somewhat.) When you look at persons, you can generally judge whether they are in decline, though that depends on what functions you focus on — for example, athletic skill vs. mental acuity. The evidence about nations is harder to measure, and the time horizons may be much longer.
The former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Nye cringes at the terms bandied back and forth so easily on Sunday TV news shows.
America’s “supremacy” is a shaky term to use, he says; “hegemony” is even shakier. Nye resists all labels. Their meanings depend on who’s using them — some treat “supremacy” or “hegemony” as interchangeable with imperialism; others define it according to who has the most power resources in the world, or military might; still others as a quality of international order centered around “a group of like-minded states.”
For the sake of argument, though, Nye frames the time period of America’s primacy in several areas — economic, military, soft power (the craft of persuasion on the international scene, an area of study that Nye has made his own) — as starting roughly around the time of World War II. If you believe in the 100-year cycle of power, as some historians tend to do, that means there are about three decades ahead of us before everything’s supposed to unravel.
Nye describes the external agents who may contribute to this unraveling — especially China, India, and Russia — but he also points out that each has its own internal weaknesses and problems. In China’s case, that weakness has become all too evident with the crash of China’s stock market this month, an event that has shaken the faith of the people there in their so-called “Chinese miracle.” Hard to stay firm in one’s convictions about a financial miracle when trillions of dollars vanish from the country’s market in a single month.
But there’s another wild card in America’s — and the world’s — strategic future: the information revolution. Nye says that states will experience increasing difficulty managing — and preventing — the diffusion of power and guarding their influence. Technology places far more leverage into the hands of non-state players — more than ever existed during America’s earliest years of emerging primacy.
“Power over information,” writes Nye, “is much more widely distributed today than it was even a few decades ago. Flash mobs and demonstrations around the world challenge governments’ efforts to shut down access to the internet, text messaging, and television.”
“World politics will not be the sole province of governments” — private organizations and individuals will play an increasingly influential role, something demonstrated so vividly by the power of social media during the Arab Spring.
Is the American Century Over? serves as a provocation, an attempt in the truest Montaignean sense to capture the essence of the topic for those of us not blessed with an undergraduate’s or retiree’s leisure to slowly make our way through a large, multivolume analysis of the issue. Nye outlines each issue briskly, with economy and precision, creating an ideal primer for anyone wishing to better understand the global stage and where America stands on it.
If there is any shortcoming to this book, it is that it’s both timely and quickly dated. In a chapter about American society and culture, in which Nye responds to critics drawing parallels between the US and ancient Rome, he writes positively about an overall increase in tolerance concerning “culture wars over issues like same sex marriage” — and one can’t help thinking of the Supreme Court’s June decision on same-sex marriage … and admiring the prescience of Nye’s book.
A few sentences later, a comment about how “others see striking changes in gender and race relations as progress” can’t help falling in the shadows of recent tragic racial news, especially the heartbreaking shootings of churchgoers in Charleston’s AME Church.
That’s not a fault of Nye’s — a book that assesses the contemporary moment is bound to get overrun by events by the time of its publication. Nye himself even points out how contexts often change substantially, dramatically: how, for instance, ideas of Soviet power were wildly inflated in the 1970s though hindsight would show the Soviet economy was teetering on the verge of collapse at the time. (In politics, it seems, as in relationships, hindsight’s a blunt, honest tool that’s too late to be useful.)
Nye’s balanced, measured tone — and his reluctance to take a dismissive stance — are reasons why such a book is welcome today. As provocative as his title may seem, he holds to a moderate, thoughtfully reasoned course:
[…] the American century is not over, if by that we mean the extraordinary period of American pre-eminence in military, economic, and soft power resources that have made the United States central to the workings of the global balance of power […]. Contrary to those who proclaim this the Chinese century, we have not entered a post-American world. But the continuation of the American century will not look like it did in the twentieth century.
While this book examines American identity on the international scene, this reviewer can’t help returning to the scene of the Fourth of July barbecue mentioned at the top.
What Nye’s book also inspires us to reflect on is the notion of the American people as a monolithic entity. Does such an entity exist? For many living in suburban bubbles like the one described above, the question of American decline isn’t a very interesting one. For them the American century — based on consumer comforts and immediate surroundings — seems very far from over, even if they’re not rich enough to belong to the 1%.
And for others, especially those born, raised, living, and dying in deteriorated urban landscapes and paralyzed rural backwaters, the American century has never really existed at all.
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