Being in first place is the American Way. Chants of Were
Number One! echo around the globe, wherever a representative
from the United States happens to be waving the stars and
stripes. Its a fact of our culture, as unquestionable
as apple pie or the Fourth of July, and not without good reason.
The size and strength of the U.S. military is unsurpassed.
Despite the current recession, the World Economic Forum continues
to rank the United States first in growth competitiveness.
Finally, for millions of people around the world, this country
continues to represent freedom, opportunity, and the brightest
prospect for a better future.
Its unlikely that the United States will cede its superpower
status anytime soon. But the forces of globalization and technology
have dispersed the distribution of power amongst a much wider
band of factions, organizations, and individuals. Thanks to
the Internet, the birth of a political movement is only a
few clicks away.
In this smaller, faster world, being Number One aint
going to be the same. So what does that mean for America and
its role in the world? How should our interests and policies
be defined as we enter the 21st century? Dean Joseph S. Nye,
Jr., addresses these questions and many others in The Paradox
of American Power: Why the Worlds Only Superpower Cant
Go It Alone, published in February by Oxford University
Nye describes his new work as a lineal descendant of Bound
to Lead, the 1990 book that refuted the popular opinion
of the time that America was sinking into a state of decline.
The impetus for Paradox, he continues, came from the
realization that the pendulum of conventional wisdom had swung
too far in the opposite direction; from decline to what he
terms triumphalism. Not since Rome has any
nation had so much power, but that power is still not enough
to solve global problems like terrorism or the proliferation
of nuclear weapons without the help of other nations,
he states. We may be Number One, but that is not enough
to make us invulnerable.
September 11 made that all too clear. Nye began writing Paradox
months before the terrorist attacks, but found he had only
minor revising to do after they occurred. It was essentially
a confirmation of my argument, he says. In the
comfortable decade between the end of the Cold War and this
new century, Americans thought we were invincible. September
11 revealed the deeper changes that were already occurring
in the world that had escaped popular attention.
Ironically enough, those changes were brought about by the
rise of technology and globalization, two developments most
closely associated with the United States. No one could fail
to notice how the New Economy drove one of the biggest economic
booms in the history of the American economy, creating thousands
of millionaires overnight. Less apparent was how our enemies
could use the Internet as a tool to orchestrate elaborately
planned attacks. A technological revolution has been
diffusing power away from governments and empowering individuals
and groups to play roles in world politics including
wreaking massive destruction that were once reserved
for the governments of states, Nye observes. Privatization
has been increasing, and terrorism is the privatization of
Its more than a matter of staying one step ahead of
our enemies in a technological game of cat and mouse, he continues.
When the Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland,
the cause was a bomb in unaccompanied luggage. So now
the airline employees ask if we packed our bag ourselves.
A Mohammed Atta would say, Yes, I packed my bag myself,
so weve created new security procedures. Unfortunately,
each time you find a solution, someone will be looking for
a chink in your armor. That dynamic is bound to continue.
Military power is an essential part of the response, but
an equally productive focusing point, Nye continues, would
be the cultivation of what he calls soft power,
or the ability to advance ones agenda through attraction
rather than coercion. Soft power arises from our culture,
values, and policies, he states. Given its proper weight,
soft power can serve as a much-needed balance to our economic
and military might, two examples of hard power
that can overwhelm and alienate other countries. The thousands
of international students who come to study at U.S. institutions
are an example of this countrys soft power. Our governments
democratic values and promotion of peace and human rights
influence how other countries perceive us. For better or worse,
so does the latest Bruce Willis action flick. Americas
use of capital punishment and relatively permissive gun control
laws undercut its soft power in European countries. While
its intangible quality makes soft power much more difficult
to use and control, observes Nye, that fact does not diminish
American pre-eminence will last well into this century,
but our attitudes and policies will need to encompass a very
different means of meeting challenges and achieving our goals,
he says. While a strong military presence will continue to
be essential to maintaining global stability, it proves less
adequate when confronting issues such as global climate change,
the spread of infectious diseases, and international financial
stability. We must not let the illusion of empire blind
us to the increasing importance of soft power, Nye cautions.
A unilateralist approach to foreign policy fails to
produce the right results, and its accompanying arrogance
erodes the soft power that is often part of the solution.
The Bush administration, he continues, seems to have turned
from a unilateral to a more multilateral approach in foreign
policy. The question is, how deep is the conversion
and how long will it last after we defeat the Al Qaeda network?
In the war against terrorism, he continues, soft power is
essential in winning a conflict that is far greater in scope
and reach than the on-the-ground battles in Afghanistan. Its
a race against the terrorists to win the hearts and minds
of the Islamic moderates, says Nye. Instead of
a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, you could
say that what you see is a civil war inside Islam. Theres
more of a difference between an Al Qaeda terrorist and a moderate
Muslim than between a moderate Muslim and a moderate Christian
Making such distinctions part of our international awareness
when establishing foreign policy is key to building Americas
soft power, Nye continues. Globalizations ability to
shrink the distance between countries has created a world
in which it is increasingly difficult and unwise
to pursue an isolationist or unilateralist policy in ignorance
of other cultures and religions.
While globalization itself is nothing new (Nye cites the
Silk Road that connected medieval Europe and Asia as an early
example of thin globalization), todays networks
are thicker and quicker in more than an economic
sense. Until we devise a method for creating self-contained,
atmospheric bubbles for individual countries, for example,
the phenomenon of global climate change affects us all. The
spread of Islam around the world is an example of social globalization.
The increase in the number of democratic countries demonstrates
the reach of political globalization.
This massive web has created a reality far more complex than
the homogenous, Americanized world many opponents of globalization
fear. The instant international recognition of brands such
as Coca Cola and McDonalds gives corporations undeniable
power both the hard, economic variety and
the soft, cultural type. Technology, however,
diffuses power to a range of entities, from individuals to
small, grassroots groups to large, nongovernmental organizations
such as Oxfam or Greenpeace. If you dont want a Starbucks
to open in your neighborhood, you can organize an e-mail petition
and forward it to your local political representatives. Divisions
between the private, public, and nonprofit sectors will no
longer be as clear as they once were; each will have an increased
role to play in American government and the use of soft power,
The incorporation of business-minded tactics in government
agencies and nonprofit organizations is one relatively recent
example of the blurring between sectors. Nye cites the military
and the post office as examples of two government institutions
whose popularity has increased through marketing. So why not
apply the same strategy to strengthen Americas soft
power, creating a worldwide campaign for democratic values
and beliefs? Marketing matters, Nye comments.
But more powerful than any marketing device is the power
of public example. Soft power is based on basic propositions.
People notice what youre doing, and they will want to
model themselves after you if they admire your actions.
Recognizing the networks of individuals and groups that are
playing an increasingly significant role in shaping Americas
soft power will be of utmost importance as the United States
determines its international stance in the years to come.
Foreign policy will no longer be the bailiwick of governments
alone. The nature of government as we know it is changing,
but public debate and discussion will continue to be essential
to the democratic process.
Our historical test at the beginning of this century
is to develop a consensus on norms and institutions that will
allow us to work with others to create a more stable, prosperous,
and democratic world that will be congenial to our values
in a future where our power is not as great, concludes
Nye. Facing that challenge acknowledges the possibility of
a future reality for America where, as strange as it may seem,
being on top of the world is no longer a given.
Julia Hanna is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.