The Paradox Of American Power: Why The World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone
Reviewer: Maja Ruzic (Central European University)
IMPORTANT: CEJISS is not associated with resellers. CEJISS is not responsible for the content of external links.
The end of the Cold War altered the structure of the international world order. The bipolar structure that shaped the international agenda for more than fifty years was changed by the fact that only one superpower survived ushering in a unipolar age in modern international relations history. The power and primacy of the US was beyond doubt and Fukuyama was more than confident to announce ‘the end of history as such.’ According to Fukuyama, the end of the Cold War announced the beginning of the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government, which was led by the US.i Furthermore, French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, describes the US as a hyperpower; a predominant country in all categories of power.ii However, the end of 20th and beginning of the 21st century brought new challenges to international politics. New actors and new issues were shaping the international agenda and the unipolar world had been challenged by the global “nonpolar” reality.
The beginning of the new phase in international relations has been described differently among the works of various scholars. Some scholars argued that the unipolar world is actually only a passing moment, soon to be replaced by a multipolar or nonpolar world order. Nevertheless, many debates concentrate around the question of how such an emergent international environment reflect on the leading position of the US. Nye’s work represents a valuable contribution to this debate. Through five chapters Nye offers a broad overview of the new globalised world order; examines the power position of the US within this order and offers recommendations for US foreign policy in other to preserve its primacy.
According to Nye, the post-Cold War order has been infringed on by globalisation and the information revolution. Although the process of globalisation preceded the information revolution, both processes had similar consequences to the position and the power of states. The information revolution, also known as the third industrial revolution, changed the nature of governments and sovereignty. In making this point Nye is not alone. In The Lexus and Olive Tree, Friedman claims that the main feature of the new world order is the process of globalisation. The new globalised order is characterised by the dynamic processes as opposed to the Cold War order, which was static.iv They further argue that globalisation and the information revolution lead to the decentralisation of power from state to non-state actors: ‘The state remains sovereign, but its powers, even for the United States, are not what they once were’ (p. 74). The authority of the state has been challenged both from above, by regional and global organisations, and from below, by nongovernmental organisations and private corporations. Thus, power can be located in ‘many hands and in many places.’iv As Nye further argues, globalisation and the information revolution introduced new issues to international politics, which require engagement both of state and non-state actors. Therefore, challenges such as health issues, environmental problems, economic regulation, terrorist and other criminal activities, provided an opportunity for non-state actors to develop strategies to influence public policies that were once monopolised by states. However, for Nye, this does not spell the end of sovereign state. Non-state actors participate in global governance, but the state, remains the ‘real source of democratic legitimacy’ and is still the centre of global power (p. 108). In other words, Nye does not ignore the rise of non-state actors in the international arena, but for him that does not interfere with the dominant position of the state.
Nevertheless, the main contribution to the analysis of global order is Nye’s perspective on the power position of the US. In his analysis, Nye acknowledges and further expands on Walt’s argument about US’ primacy. That primacy is based upon the possession of both “hard” and “soft” power. The US continues to be the largest possessor of “hard” power, which is defined by military supremacy and economic strength. However, much of the US’ power and influence is based on the possession of “soft” power, the ability to shape the preferences of others through the inherent attractiveness of culture, ideology and institutions. Both, “soft” and “hard” powers is related and reinforce each other. For Nye they are means of providing interests that affect the behaviour of others. Nevertheless, Nye rightfully points out that 21st century power ‘distributed among countries in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimension chess game’ (p. 39). The top of the chessboard is unipolar and refers to the military power where the dominant position of the US is unquestionable. However, when it comes to economic power, the unipolar position of the US gives (s)way to a multipolarity which includes Europe, Japan and China. Thus, the middle of the chessboard can be described as multipolar. The most difficult to describe is the realm power at bottom of the chessboard, because at this level ‘power is widely dispersed, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, or hegemony’ (p. 39). This power is beyond governmental control and refers to the transnational relations focus on non-state actors from bankers to terrorists. Therefore, Nye concludes that power distribution does not lead to the decline of American power and, in fact, contributes to the US’ position of primacy.
However, the core argument of the book addresses the question: how should the US use its present unprecedented power to preserve a leading position with the world order. In other words, how can the US redefe its national interests so it may preserve its position? Nye claims that the US will remain in place, and intact, only if it broadens its national interests to include more international engagement as the US can no longer pursue unilateral foreign politics without consequence. Issues such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, environmental and health problems cannot be dealt with alone, they require broad support mechanisms and partners. Therefore, multilateral engagement represents the only sustainable way of achieving US national interests.
The US should not take its “soft” and “hard” powers for granted, but should develop “smart” power, which represents a strategy that draws on both of the aforementioned forms in a prudent manner.
This work significantly contributes to post-Cold War international relations scholarship. Nye offers valuable perspectives on both power politics and global interdependence. With well-developed arguments Nye supports the multilateral engagement of the US for achieving “global goods” though not for ensuring benefits for all but as a way of ensuring the core national interests of the US.
i Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, The national interest, No. 16, Summer 1989, pp. 3-18.
ii Norman Schofield, Architects of Political Change: Constitutional Quandaries and Social Choice Theory, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 43.
iii Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and Olive Tree, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 1999.
iv Jessica T. Mathews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 1997, pp. 50-66.