Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Courtesy: Shizuoka Shimbun

With America’s presidential primaries underway, the debate over foreign policy is heating up. Judging from the campaign, the United States is a pitiful giant in decline, out-maneuvered by Russia and China and besieged by terrorists. Among the Republican presidential candidates, there have been calls for the exclusion of Muslims, the carpet-bombing of Syria and descriptions of our situation as “World War III.”

Such campaign rhetoric is wildly exaggerated. Americans have a long history of misunderstanding our place in the world. We oscillate between triumphalism and declinism. Charles Dickens wrote that Americans always think they are in “an alarming crisis.” After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, we believed we were in decline. When Japan’s manufacturing outstripped ours in the 1980s, we thought the Japanese were 10 feet tall. In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, a majority of Americans believed that China was about to overtake the United States.

The result is a foreign policy debate that is often divorced from reality. The Middle East is in turmoil and American influence has diminished. But the causes are the revolutions in the Middle East, not American decline, and conditions in the rest of the world are far more propitious. It is a mistake to generalize from the Middle East to the rest of the world.

While the United States has many domestic problems such as K-12 education, growing inequality and political gridlock in Washington, America is not an empire in decline like ancient Rome, which had no productivity growth and suffered from bloody civil wars. Because of immigration, we are the only major developed country that will not suffer a demographic decline by mid-century; our dependence on imported energy is diminishing rather than rising; 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. Campaign rhetoric not withstanding, we are not a pitiful giant in absolute decline.

The United States isn’t about to be overtaken in overall power by another state. Europe lacks unity. Russia is suffering demographic and economic decline. India is growing at an impressive rate, but with a $2 trillion economy it is one-ninth the size of the U.S. (The ratio is similar for Brazil and Russia.) The only possible challenger among the “BRICS” is China, a $10 trillion economy (compared to America’s $18 trillion) growing at something like 6 percent a year. But China is not likely to overtake the U.S. for many decades (if ever).

Managing the rise of China is one of the greatest foreign policy challenges of this century. President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were correct to “rebalance” toward Asia. Central to that policy is our security treaty with Japan. Fortunately, there is no debate over that in the campaign.

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


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here