A girl holds a US and a Chinese flag during the arrival ceremony for China's President Xi Jinping and first lady Madame Peng Liyuan at the White House in September, 2015.

A girl holds a US and a Chinese flag during the arrival ceremony for China's President Xi Jinping and first lady Madame Peng Liyuan at the White House in September, 2015.


Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. (Thanks for that, Yogi Berra.) And it's easy to be anxious, as a global power. Americans have excelled at it, over time.

"Shortly after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 17th century, some Puritans lamented a decline from earlier virtue," writes Joseph Nye, a Harvard Distinguished Service professor and former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, in his book 'Is the American Century Over?.'

"In the 18th century, the founding fathers focused on the history of Rome, and worried about the decline of the new American republic. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens observed that if you listen to its citizens, America always 'is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is in an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise.'"

Even going into what Nye dates as the beginning of the American Century, in World War II, publisher Henry Luce wrote an essay trying to rouse Americans to take up the mantle of global leadership.

“We Americans are unhappy," he wrote. "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.”

If any of that sounds like it could have come out of the mouths of current-day pundits, politicians and presidential candidates, it's because it has. China's economic rise has looked impressive, even intimidating from a distance. Its rise as a global power, eventually eclipsing the United States if it hasn't already, is taken as a given by a plurality of people surveyed in 40 countries by the Pew Research Center this spring.

But a rise is rarely linear, nor without its challenges, and China, with its slowing economy and other problems at home, is already finding its share. Meanwhile, Nye says, the United States has more resilience and reserves — and not just of the economic kind — than many Americans, and outside observers, are acknowledging. He argues that America, for all its stumbles with the Iraq War, and Abu Grahib, and greedy investment banks causing the global financial crisis, and the widespread Internet surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, still has significant soft power — the power to attract — and what he calls smart power, a finesse with using soft power and hard power (military, economic) in ways that reinforce each other.

Even on demographics, where China would seem to have the obvious edge, Nye says, the US is actually more resilient, because immigrants keep coming here, some to attend the world's top universities, some to work their way up from the bottom. China, by contrast, takes in few immigrants, and its population is aging fast. Right now, the US population is one-fourth of China's. By the end of this century, some demographers say, it will be half of China's. Why? Because, the theory goes, the US will keep drawing immigrants, and China's population will contract.

And this is not a binary consideration. India is growing fast. Many African countries have found a way forward. If the United States wants to continue to be a global leader, Nye says, it needs to find a way to accommodate the rise of the rest, while maintaining its unique soft power edge.

That's in contrast to a certain narrative going around in the Republican presidential debates, that the United States is weak, and needs to project more military might to retain international respect.

Joe Nye, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, wouldn't say no — he'd just say, that's neither the only thing that matters, nor necessarily the most important.

Smart power trumps brute force. And sometimes, he says, the smartest strategy is to use your soft power — the power to attract. You need only look at cheering crowds and saturation media coverage Pope Francis got while he was in the United States, compared with the more subdued popular reception for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. China matters, and will matter, but soft power is the wild card, both for China and for the United States, as the century unfolds.

For more:

Xi Jinping’s Seattle speech:

People’s Daily video of foreigners praising Xi:

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