Category Archives: USA

The Future of Power

I think many conflicting, and seemingly incompatible phenomenon can exist – can be true – at the same time. I just read a book that reveals that nominal paradox in great detail. “The world is neither unipolar, multipolar, nor chaotic – it is all three at the same time,” ends the highly compelling The Future of Power.

The Future of Power by Joseph S. Nye, Distinguished Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is quite encompassing and packs a punch that is more than it’s relatively short page length (234 pages). This book is an ambitious work. Dissecting the power zeitgeist in a hyper-globalized world is not an easy task. In particular, Nye examines America’s stature and role in the world. In examining the future of power relations between, within, and among states, NGOS, and individuals, Nye paints a complicated and complex picture.

Power is transitioning away from the U.S. but it is not going to one other country or entity; and it certainly isn’t transitioning away rapidly at all. No one country will be more economically powerful than the U.S. for the next 25 years. Further: the next leading power is the EU which is comprised of 28, or so, allies. The U.S. is going to be fine, especially if the U.S. “rediscover[s] how to be a smart power.” What is smart power?

Smart Power

Nye defines and redefines and references many international relations (IR) terms such as hegemony; soft power; and realism. He coins – or effectively brings to the market of ideas at the very least – a new term for power-measuring in the twenty-first century: smart power. Smart power is “liberal realism.” Smart power, for the U.S., is the “understanding of the strength and limits of American power.” Moreover: The U.S. should “develop an integrated grand strategy that combine[s] hard power with soft attractive power.” Finally, we should lead by example and “encourage liberal democracy and human rights at home and abroad where feasible at reasonable levels of cost,” that also “encourage[s] the gradual evolution of democracy but in a manner that accepts the reality of diversity.” Got it?

Nye likened the state of power relations to a 3D chess game. Dimension 1: Interstate military power is highly concentrated in the U.S. Dimension 2: Interstate economic power “is distributed in a multipolar manner among the U.S., the EU, Japan, and the BRICs.” Finally, Dimension 3: “Issues power such as climatic, terror, and pandemics is “highly diffused.”

According to the State Department, smart power is “the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.”

Nye does a great job of highlighting real examples and evidence of arbitrary and circular understandings or ideas. Nye also gives examples of how the world stage is also comprised of other actors, such as corporations and individuals, that now wield power.

Can smaller states utilize smart power?
Look at Singapore engaging in “active sponsorship of diplomatic activities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” while also becoming a regional military power.

An example of a non-government individual of having and using soft power? Nye’s example: In 2007, film producer Steven Spielberg, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, “sent an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao to use its influence to push Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.” It worked when “years of diplomacy could not.” Spielberg recognized the position China was in, and succeeded in his attempt at persuasion. That is soft power in an individual.

I think the best part of the book is just how much importance Nye allows to the Information Revolution. I certainly agree with this. Globalization is an information-based creation. A major reason we are seeing this power diffusion is the Internet. A tension exists between privacy and security; and there is a really good chapter regarding the cyberworld contained within this book.

We are just now really beginning to understand the battle we are in regarding the cyber realm. The Internet is Real.

Compare/Contrast – Moon & Sun:

In 2010, one poll found that 61% of poll respondents thought the country was in decline and only 19% trusted the government. …Over the past few decades, public confidence has dropped in half for major institutions.” [Nye Jr., 2011]


75% of Americans feel connected to their communities and say the quality of life there is excellent or good. According to a Pew poll, 111 million Americans say they volunteer their time to solve problems in their communities in the previous 12 months, and 60 million volunteered on a regular basis. 40 % said working together with others in their community was the most important thing they could do.” [Nye Jr., 2011]


Nye’s conclusion is an slightly optimistic one for us: “The United States is unlikely to decay like ancient Rome or even to be surpassed by another state, including China.” He continues: This is “not a narrative of decline.” Power is always shifting and evolving (and devolving, perhaps?) and American hegemony may be a thing of the past. Power transition is happening but not as rapid or in one direction as many argue. Perhaps China will be the next Soviet or Japan: the supposed next great power that settles for regional dominance.

As a careful analyst as he is, he knows the future is not predetermined: “There are a range of possible futures, not one.”

Americans might think that America is entering an era of decay but America is still quite the world power; just not quite as powerful as in the past, that is all. I must say that this book holds up remarkable well for being 5 years old. The U.S. dollar is still king. Check out the great Milton Ezrati on the primacy of the economic power of the U.S. in The National Interest. The U.S. dollar “is by far the world’s most traded currency, involved in 87 percent of all global currency exchanges, up from 85 percent in 2010,” in 2015 he writes. “For now the dollar remains supreme, ” exclaims the economist. America is the strongest individual country in the world.

Nye’s book is a must read for students of international affairs; in particular, for those interested in America’s role in the world; for those interested in China’s rise; and last but not least, those interesting in theory. You can’t understand the world, unless you understand power in all of its multifaceted faces.