Alliances and American Power in the 21st Century

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From Joseph S. Nye Jr., Washington Post:   [G]iven our energy resources, the U.S. economy will be less vulnerable than the Chinese economy to external shocks.

Growth will bring China closer to the United States in power resources, but as Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kwan Yew has noted, that does not necessarily mean that China will surpass the United States as the world’s most powerful country. Even if China suffers no major domestic political setbacks, projections based on growth in gross domestic product alone ignore U.S. military and “soft power” advantages as well as China’s geopolitical disadvantages in the Asian balance of power.

The U.S. culture of openness and innovation will keep this country central in an information age in which networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power. The United States is well positioned to benefit from such networks and alliances if our leaders follow smart strategies. In structural terms, it matters that the two entities with per-capita income and sophisticated economies similar to that of the United States — Europe and Japan — are both allied with the United States. In terms of balances-of-power resources, that makes a large difference for the net position of American power, but only if U.S. leaders maintain the alliances and institutional cooperation. In addition, in a more positive sum view of power with, rather than over, other countries, Europe and Japan provide the largest pools of resources for dealing with common transnational problems. . . .

The power resources of many states and non-state actors will rise in the coming years. U.S. presidents will face an increasing number of issues in which obtaining our preferred outcomes will require power with others as much as power over others. Our leaders’ capacity to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of our hard and soft power. Simply put, the problem of American power in the 21st century is not one of a poorly specified “decline” or being eclipsed by China but, rather, the “rise of the rest.” The paradox of American power is that even the largest country will not be able to achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author, most recently, of “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.”