Is the American Century Over?

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October 08, 2015

See if you can guess who said this, and when:


“We Americans are unhappy.  We are not happy about America.  We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America.  We are nervous, or gloomy, apathetic.  As we look out at the rest of the world, we are confused; we don’t know what to do.”


Here’s a hint:   (Start sneaking under music)


ACT 1: 22:40:  “That’s a quote that could have been said many times during our history.”


Welcome to “Whose Century Is It?,”  a podcast exploring the ideas, trends, twists – shaping the 21st century.   I’m your host, Mary Kay Magistad.


(Music full.  Fade under.)


That voice you just heard was Joe Nye, Harvard professor, former government official, foreign policy wonk’s wonk, coiner of the concept “soft power” – more on that, as we go – and, most recently, author of the book, “Is the American Century Over?”


Well, is it?

ACT 2: 42:00:  The answer is no, because there’s still a lot of strength in the United States, and we can accommodate the rise of others.”


That point of view has been called unfashionable by some, might be considered wishful thinking by others.  In any case, Americans have a long tradition of feeling anxious about their position in the world –- going back to the Founding Fathers, and at many times since. 


Take that quote I read a minute ago.  Who did you think it was?  Donald Trump?  Any number of pundits speaking at any point since the great recession started in 2008, and with it, predictions that China would soon surpass us as the world’s premier superpower – if it hadn’t already?




That was publisher Henry Luce, in an essay in Life Magazine, in February 1941.  A quick disclaimer – this podcast is funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation – but that’s not why I’m mentioning him here. I’m mentioning him – because this essay mattered at the time it was published.  At that point, the Pearl Harbor attack was still months off.   America was mostly sitting out War War II.  And Luce was trying to rally reluctant Americans to get involved, to accept a mantle of global leadership.  His essay was called “The American Century.”  It actually popularized the concept ‘The American Century.”  Joe Nye dates the beginning of the American century to that same year, when America finally did join the war effort, and emerged at the end of it a superpower.


ACT 3:  26:00: After World War II, the United States had nearly half of the world’s economy, because others had been devastated by the war, and we’d been strengthened by it.   And from 1945 to 1970, the US share of the global economy declined from nearly half, back to about a quarter.  Nixon and Kissinger read that as decline, and a sign of multi-polarity.  Actually, once it hit that level of a quarter of the economy, it stabilized and stayed at that level for the rest of the century, going down to about 23 percent.  So you can say the rise of Europe, Japan and others after World War II, which was a policy objective of the United States, of the Marshall Plan and so forth, led to our relative decline, but led to our being better off absolutely.”


Fast forward 70 years, and here we are in another phase of what Nye calls “the rise of the rest.”


China’s rising, India’s growing fast, many African countries are finding their own successful development paths.  The percentage of people around the world living in absolute poverty has plummeted, from 35% a couple of decades ago, to what the World Bank says is likely to be below 10% this year.


ACT 4:  25:00:  “It still leaves us, in absolute terms, doing pretty well.  But it’s also true that with the rise of China and India and Brazil, and others, there are going to be more countries that are sharing in the pie, so to speak, and we’re going to be a little less dominant than in the past, even though we’ll still be the largest, and most powerful nation.”


Will we still be the most powerful nation?  That’s certainly not the perception, if you look at a survey in 40 countries done by the Pew Research Center this spring.   It found that more people than not in most of those countries said China will replace, or has already replaced, the US as leading global superpower. 


Now, it must be said, respondents in some countries felt strongly in the other direction – Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, said China will never replace the US.  Kind of interesting, if you think about it – the US colonized one of those three, and went to war with the other two, and they’re the ones who most want the US to continue to play the role it’s been playing in the world.   Easy to see why – each has a territorial dispute with China, and anxiety about what will happen as China continues to flex its muscles, and build up its military presence, in the South China Sea and East China Sea.


But it’s more than that.  The same Pew survey found that while China’s got a decent overall favorability rating – 55% in all countries surveyed, the majority of Asians – not including Chinese – believe increased US military resources in Asia is a good thing.   This is no surprise to Joe Nye:


ACT 4A:  5:20: I remember when I was in the Pentagon, testifying before Congress, and they were saying, ‘we must contain China.’  And I said, ‘there’s only one country that can contain China, and that’s China.  And if they’re aggressive toward their neighbors, they will produce that containment.  But we shouldn’t try to do that.  And essentially, that’s what’s happening now, that as China’s being aggressive to its neighbors, it’s pushing them into our arms.”


Some in the region alo like the US leadership role on the economic front, enough to join the new Trans Pacific Partnership, announced by US Trade Rep Michael Froman:


ACT 5:  “We, the trade ministers of Australia, Brunei Dar Es Salaam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, are pleased to announce that we have successfully concluded the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations.  (Applause).”


This is the biggest regional trade accord in history, and it’s been seen in some quarters as a US bid to keep China from claiming its own mantle as preeminent Asian power – one that many Chinese feel is its right to claim.   I mean, why should the US be the only power that gets to cite the Monroe Doctrine, about protecting its regional backyard?


ACT 6:  “But from personal opinion, I don’t think China wants to become a country that takes the role that America is taking now.”


That’s Liu Yang.  He’s a deputy editor at the Global Times newspaper in China.  That paper is an interesting hybrid.  It comes out both in Chinese and English, it’s under the umbrella of the People’s Daily – the Communist Party’s newspaper – and it can be rather bellicose in its nationalistic proclamations.  But it has also been known to do solid investigative reporting on problems within China. 


I chatted with Liu Yang, when he was in the US this summer as an Asia Foundation fellow – he went around to US think tanks, and listened to what American scholars had to say about China’s rise. 


ACT 7:  30:20: The people in America, they’re often worried that China will challenge the whole picture, the whole system of the international order.  I don’t think so, in that way.  I have never imagine that one day, China could become the world’s number one powerful, and the PLA will have bases in the Middle East.  I don’t think so.  Middle East is really big trouble, and if the US doesn’t have the ability to settle things down, I don’t think China will have that ability, too.”


That kind of candor is kind of refreshing.   Still – there are plenty of people in China – and in the Chinese military – who do want China to play a more prominent global role, who say this is already the Chinese Century.


ACT 7A: In China, I personally think…China is a rising power.  And rising powers need more room.  So China has already made clear, ‘we want more say in the international system.  We do not want to challenge the existing international order.  But the problem is, after we declare that we want more say, to what extent will the US give more room to China?  That is the problem

But – the Chinese government has shown itself to be a little conflicted when it comes to walking that talk. 


For instance – when the financial crisis started in 2008, some European governments said, basically, we accept that China’s a rising economic superpower.  So – can you help us out?  Kind of – a Marshall Plan 2.0, but this time, instead of the US coming to the aid of its war-stricken allies, it would be the new power, China, coming to the aid of US allies done in by US investment banks’ malfeasance.  And – China’s leaders said, -- uh, we think you have the wisdom to sort this out for yourselves, and – we can best help the world by helping China develop.”


Now, to be fair, while hundreds of millions of Chinese have pulled themselves out of poverty, a couple hundred million are still beneath the World Bank’s poverty line.  Even so, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced, while he was visiting the US last month, that China will give $2 billion in aid to developing countries, and will spend $3 billion more to combat climate change.


Kind of a big deal, right?   China’s leaders certainly hoped it would be perceived that way.  They’d hoped Xi Jinping’s US visit would be something of a milestone, showing that China, too, could shoulder the responsibilities expected of a rising super power.  But Xi and his colleagues hadn’t factored in who might be stealing his limelight:


AMB 1:  Bring up sound of gleeful shouting.


…By saturation coverage of Pope Francis, and the cheering crowds who turned out to see him everywhere he went.  This was in DC – where the Pope went over to the crowd, shook a bunch of hands, and posed for selfies with delighted children.  And that brings us back to Joe Nye, and the concept of soft power – which he defines as the power to get what you want through attraction, rather than through coercion, or payment. 


ACT 8:  :50:  “It’s interesting that Pope Francis seems to be more adept at it than President Xi.”


More adept – outside of China.  Inside China, thanks to a boost from state-run media, Xi is pretty popular – except with anyone who tries to criticize him.  More than a few people noticed the contrast between the kind of reception Xi Jinping got here, and that of Pope Francis.  In The Washington Post, David Ignatius, said, it kind of makes you wonder which of the two is the more powerful leaderQ.  He wrote in his column:


“Francis is arguably the dominant figure, despite the old crack about how many army divisions the pope has, and the potency of a rising China.  That’s because the nature of power has changed.  Francis embodies the kind of intangible but world-changing influence that matters most now.”   And he goes on: “This pope is strong because he is humble.  His message resonates in a complex world because it is simple.  He disdains the trappings of power, the pomp and fanfare, and thereby enhances his real power.  All of his words and actions seem to be going in the same direction.”


In other words –he’s saying -- authenticity matters.  So does appealing to what people actually care about. 


 It is kind of irresistible to juxtapose these two leaders of authoritarian organizations that each affects the lives of more than a billion people – even though, in practical terms, they do have fundamentally different jobs.  And it’s not like the Chinese government doesn’t get that soft power matters – it spends something like $10 billion a year, funding state-run media that broadcast overseas, and Chinese cultural centers, called Confucius Institutes, and other kind of public diplomacy.  It’s just that – not all of these efforts seem to -- know their audience.  As an example, there’s this video the People’s Daily put together, to show in the United States, of fresh-faced foreign students in China, singing Xi Jinping’s praises:


ACT 9:  :40:  “Always smile, in the public.  Very nice manner, and he’s very well educated.  (Girl): Handsome!  Yeah, he’s super-charismatic.  (Guy:) “His face is a bit cute.  Everyone just looks at him, and they like him.  ‘They also call him Winnie the Pooh, which I think is really funny.’ …”


They go on to say – the Chinese public calls him “Xi Dada,” – Uncle Xi.


1:30:  “Like big brother, or maybe like father…He’s taking care of China, and is helping and supporting everybody…Close to the Chinese people…


And they all say what an honor it would be to meet him, and end up saying, ‘Xi Dada, jiayou’ – jiayou is what you yell to your favorite sports team, kind of like ‘way to go, pour it on!’


3:00:  (Lots of “Xi Dada, jiayou!” at the end of the film, with “Country Road” playing in the background.) 


I like the touch of using “Take Me Home, Country Roads’ as background music here – a little soft power ricochet.  John Denver was one of the first American singers to visit China, during the reform and opening up period.  A surprising number of Chinese still know all the words to this tune.   The makers of this video apparently believed it would resonate as much with Americans now as it did with Chinese, then.


President Xi made a few of his own American cultural references when he gave a speech in Seattle to hi-tech luminaries.  Here, a translator is speaking over him:


ACT 10:  “In my younger years, I read the Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, and Common Sense by Thomas Paine.  I was interested in the life story and thinking of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and other American statesmen.    I also read works of Henry David Thoreou, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Jack London.  I was most captivated by Earnest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea, and its descriptions of howling wind, driving rain, rolling waves, the small boat, the old man and the sharks, so when I visited Cuba for the first time, I paid a visit to The Breakwater in Cohima, where Hemingway wrote the book.  And in my second visit of Cuba, I dropped by the bar where Hemingway frequented, and ordered his favorite – mint with rum, on the rocks.”  (Applause starts)  -- mojito.”


That was one of two points in Xi Jinping’s speech when he got that kind of applause.  The other, was when he said that his ongoing anti-corruption crackdown was not a power play, or a purge of his opponents, as it’s been called by many observers – this, he said, is no “House of Cards.”


So – give Xi Jinping soft power points for knowing that making a few cultural references can make a crowd feel closer to you. In fact, he’s done this often. He has  cited Russian authors when he has visited Russia, French in France, German in Germany. 


Still – cultural pandering only goes so far, in terms of soft power, when the crowd also knows that Xi’s government has moved aggressively to limit free speech, has increased censorship and control of the internet, has detained feminists demonstrating against domestic violence, and lawyers who take on civil rights cases.  That same Pew survey I mentioned earlier, found that in Germany and France, more than 90 percent of those surveyed said the Chinese government doesn’t respect the personal freedoms of its people.  


So – there’s a bit of a quandary.  China’s leaders want the kind of soft power America has enjoyed over the past half century – but Joe Nye says, they’re missing a fundamental point: 


ACT 11: 13:30:   “Most of American soft power is produced by our civil society, not by the government.  I mean, I’m a great supporter of Voice of America, but it’s not the source of our soft power.  Our soft power comes more from everything from Hollywood to Harvard, or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and so forth.”

14:00:  “But – the Chinese have a hard time with this, because their political system is premised on Party control.  And that means, if someone like Ai Weiwei, a brilliant artist, says something that’s unconventional, he gets locked up.  And that’s – not the way to increase your soft power.” 


So – what’s a rising authoritarian superpower to do?


ACT 12: 12:20:  “Well, Chinese traditional culture is very attractive, and Chinese know that that’s an asset, but the problem is – how do you combine hard and soft power?  I’ve used the term ‘smart power,’ as the ability to combine hard and soft power resources in ways that reinforce each other, rather than cancel each other out.  So I think the problem for China is not that they don’t understand the attractiveness of their culture, or their ability to use it.  It’s that they don’t know how to put the instruments together in a way in which they reinforce each other effectively.”


And that’s one reason why Joe Nye argues that the American Century is not over, that there are still plenty of factors in America’s favor:


ACT 13: 23:40:  “If you look at factors like demography, we’re the only major developed country that is going to keep its demographic ranking as the third largest in the world.  If you look at energy, we used to be very dependent on imported energy.  Now it looks like North America may not be doing any significant energy importing in the 2020s.  If you look at technology, the leading technologies of this century, biotechnology, nanotechnology, the next generation of information technology, are all areas where the United States is in the forefront.  And underneath that, the universities, the Shanghai Jiaotong University of China ranks 15 of the world’s top 20 universities as being in the United States, and none in China.”


That may well change in the future, but it’s hard for Chinese universities to compete, in areas that require critical thinking, when Xi Jinping’s government has instructed Chinese universities not to use so many Western textbooks, or teach or even talk about such Western concepts as civil society, democracy, or rule of law.  So, in recent years, ever more Chinese parents have been sending their kids elsewhere – especially to the United States, and some are moving, themselves.  Soft power – the power to attract.


That doesn’t mean that those same Chinese don’t feel proud of their own culture, and their own country.   They just see a future, in this century, where their horizons might be broader than those their government currently allows them to see.   And while Chinese, both inside and outside China, can be just as patriotic, even nationalistic, as Americans, Liu Yang, the deputy editor at the Global Times, says the reality is – this century will work best if great powers work together:


ACT 13B: LY:  “I think the most important thing for this century is the stable condition for the Sino-US relations.  Because I personally feel that relationship will be the most complicated one, but also will be the most important one for world peace.  And if China – no matter how many difficulties or differences we have, as long as China and the US can sit down, negotiate and cooperate, just like we cooperate in the deal with Iran, every problem – they all have big opportunities to be dealt with.  But if the China-US relationship declines so fast, it’s hard to imagine that that kind of conflict will do any good to any country in this world.”


Joe Nye agrees that working together is important, and says America will need to learn to do that more, as others rise:


ACT 13B:   38:00:  “I think it’s pretty clear that the 21st century is still going to be an American century, but it’s not going to look like the American century that Henry Luce proclaimed in 1941.  It’s going to have much more diffusion of power, because of the rise of the rest, but the US will still be the most powerful country.”


That’s Harvard professor Joe Nye, author of “Is the American Century Over?”   And that’s our podcast.   Thanks for listening.  Send us your thoughts, comments, criticisms, suggestions, at, where you can also find more on what we’ve talked about here.  You can also find us, and subscribe, on iTunes, and on Stitcher. 


Whose Century Is It is a coproduction between myself, Mary Kay Magistad, and PRI’s “The World, in partnership with WGBH & the BBC.  It’s funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a new episode.  Hope you’ll join us then.