Is “the American century” over? Many seem to think so. In recent years, polls have shown that in 15 of 22 countries surveyed, most of the respondents said that China either will replace — or has replaced — the United States as the world’s leading power.
In 1941, in an effort to resist the isolationism that followed World War I, Henry Luce of Time magazine published a famous editorial on “the American century.” After the war, when Britain was too weak to support Greece and Turkey in 1947, the U.S. took its place. It invested heavily in the Marshall Plan in 1948, created NATO in 1949 and led a United Nations coalition that fought in Korea in 1950. To this day, American troops are still welcome in Europe, Japan and Korea. From 1945 to 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union balanced each other’s power. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States became the world’s only superpower.
There has always been a lot of fiction mixed with the facts of “the American century.” The peak of America’s share of world power resources was from 1945, when the U.S. had nearly half the world economy as a result of World War II, to 1970, when the U.S. share of world product returned to its prewar level of a quarter of world product. Yet, during this period, the U.S. often failed to get what it wanted: witness Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons, communist takeover of China and half of Vietnam, stalemate in the Korean War, Soviet suppression of the revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Castro’s control of Cuba and so forth.
The U.S. is likely to remain the central actor in the global balance of power in 2041. But on the new transnational issues — financial stability, climate change, pandemics, terrorism and cyber strife — while American leadership will be important, success will require the cooperation of others. In this sense, power becomes a positive sum game. If the American century is to continue, it will not be enough to think in terms of American power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals, which involves power with others such as Japan, China, Europe, India, Brazil and others. On many transnational issues, empowering others can help the U.S. to accomplish its own goals. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of our power.
This is not a post-American world. “The American century” will continue in the sense of the centrality of the United States to the balance of power and American leadership in the production of global public goods, but it will look very different from what it was in the 64 years since Henry Luce proclaimed it.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “Is the American Century Over?”