Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Courtesy: Shizuoka Shimbun

Public goods can be enjoyed by all. However, according to economists, that creates a problem. After all, why pay for something that is available to everyone? It is easier to free ride. Unless the largest consumers of the public goods take the lead in producing them, they will be under-produced.

Since World War II, the United States has led, albeit imperfectly, in the production of global public goods such as a balance of military power, international monetary stability, an open trading system and freedom of navigation. That leadership should continue to be a central purpose of American foreign policy, because if the largest country does not produce public goods, everyone will suffer from their absence.

Some Americans think the United States cannot afford to play this role in the future, but that is not true. While the United States has many problems (and always has), it is not in absolute decline like ancient Rome, which had no productivity growth. Because of immigration, we are the only major developed country that will not suffer a demographic decline by mid-century; our dependence on energy imports is diminishing rather than increasing; we are at the forefront of the major technologies (bio, nano, information) that will shape this century and our universities dominate the world league tables. We have more allies and connections than any other country.

The real challenge we face could be called “the rise of the rest.” Even though the growth in emerging markets is unlikely to create a single challenger that will overtake the U.S., the “rise of the rest” creates a more complex world. The problem of leadership in such a world is how to get everyone into the act and still get action.

Military force will remain a crucial component of American power, but it is not sufficient. An American strategy that holds the military balance in Europe and East Asia while maintaining alliances is crucial, but trying to occupy and control the internal politics of nationalistic populations in the Middle East revolutions is futile.

Under the influence of the information revolution and globalization, world politics is changing in a way that means that the U.S. cannot achieve many of its international goals acting alone. For example, international financial stability and global climate change depend on cooperation with Europe, Japan, China and others. In a world where borders are porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to cyber crime to terrorism, the soft power to create networks and institutions become increasingly important. The American century will continue in the sense of the centrality of the United States to the balance of power and the production of global public goods, but a successful foreign policy will look different from what it was in the latter half of the last century.

Joseph Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author more recently of, “Is the American Century Over?”


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