Is the American Century Over? JCU Welcomes Professor Joseph Nye


On April 14th, 2016, the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs had the honor of hosting Dr. Joseph Nye to present his latest book, Is the American Century Over?

Professor Joseph Nye

Professor Joseph Nye

Prof. Nye is Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, and former Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Nye has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science, and Technology. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Diplomacy. In a recent survey of international relations scholars, he was ranked as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy, and in 2011, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 Global Thinkers. He is the author of thirteen books and more than a hundred and fifty articles in professional and policy journals.

The Beginning of the American Century – To open the lecture, Prof. Nye tried to define when the American century actually started. On this, he said, there is no consensus, as different people indicate years ranging from the 1900, when the US became the world’s largest economy, to 1941, when they joined WWII. However, in Nye’s opinion, the beginning of the American century is in 1945-1946, when the United States realized that it had to keep its troops in Europe. At this time, the Truman Doctrine was created, leading the United States to take on the role of arbiter of international disputes, a role that Britain was no longer able to cover.

After pinpointing the beginning of the American century, Nye’s addressed his second question (and the title of his book): is the American century over? Some argue that it is, as the US is in decline because of China’s rise to power. However, Nye continued, this way of thinking is not new. Already in the 1800s, when Charles Dickens visited the United States, he wrote that “the Americans are always concerned about decline.” According to Nye, there were various times in history when critics claimed the US would soon be surpassed by another economy. In 1967 it was by the USSR, with the launch of Sputnik. In the 1980s it was Japan, with its technological boom. Now, the same is said about China. Nye countered these claims, saying that “we [Americans] have a history of thinking that the American century is over or that the United States is in decline. The problem is that this doesn’t say anything about power, but rather about American psychology.”

Absolute and Relative Decline – Nye continued by highlighting the difference between absolute and relative decline. Absolute decline is what happened to the Roman Empire, a collapse of economical and civic society ending in civil war. Even then, absolute decline is not a fast process, as it took three centuries for Rome to fall from the height of its power. Obviously, Nye affirmed, said decline could not be applied to the United States. Relative decline, on the other hand, is when a country is doing pretty well overall, but another country is doing even better. Therefore, Nye asked, which would be the country that is doing better than the United States? Some say it’s not a country, but infact the continent of Europe, with its strong communitarian economy. However, Nye countered, the lack of real political unity undermines EU’s chances of overtaking the US.

Joseph Nye

Professor Joseph Nye at John Cabot University

China’s Economy – The other country that many claim could replace the United States as the world’s superpower is China. However, he argued, despite its impressive growth, China’s economy, with its 10 trillion dollars, is much smaller than the US’, at 18 trillion dollars. GDP growth rates show that someday China may pass the US, but not before 2040 at the very earliest, if China’s economy does not experience any setbacks. If, instead, one measures China’s power in terms of military power, while the country has been investing heavily, its military budget is only 25% of that of the United States. Finally, China has invested heavily in expansion of its soft power as well. However, the results have not been very significant, specifically because of China’s authoritarian political system and aggressive policies towards its neighboring countries. Therefore, Nye said, no country is close to surpassing the US.

The Future – Dr. Nye concluded that asking whether the American century is over means asking the wrong question. In fact, he continued, the world is now faced with international problems that no single country can tackle by itself: climate change and world terrorism, among others. Therefore, the real question to ask is: “Will Americans learn to adjust their thinking so that they are able to work with others to deal with these upcoming issues? Instead of being concerned about who will pass whom in the upcoming years, the concern should be focused on whether powerful countries will be able to work together to solve the tough problems that the future holds for us,” Nye said.

Before the lecture Prof. Nye was interviewed by one of Italy’s top daily newspapers, Corriere della Sera. You can find the interview (in Italian) here.

Watch the videorecording of Professor Joseph S. Nye’s “Is the American century over?

Learn more about the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University