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Understanding Power in the 21st Century

By Joseph S. Nye, Jr. | 2013-08-01 | Hits:

Power is the ability to affect others to produce the outcomes you want. You can do this through coercion and threats, so-called “sticks.” You can do it with payments we call “carrots.” Or you can do it with attraction and persuasion which is “soft power.” In an information age, the role of soft power is increasing in its importance. The famous British historian A.J.P. Taylor, who wrote a book about the struggle for mastery of Europe in the 19th century, defined a great power as a country that was able to prevail in war. But we have to go beyond that limited way of thinking about what power means in the 21st century, and see it as much more three-dimensional, including not only military power but also economic power and soft power.

There are two big power shifts going on in the 21st century.  One is among countries, from West to East, and the other is from governments to nongovernmental actors, regardless of whether it is East or West.  I call the first of these, power transition and the second, power diffusion.
The issue of power transition is sometimes called the rise of Asia, but it should more properly be called the recovery of Asia because if one looked at the world in 1750, one would see that Asia was more than half of the world population and represented more than half of the world’s product. By 1900, Asia was still more than half of the world’s population, but it declined to only 20 percent of the world’s products. What we will see in this 21st century is the recovery of Asia to its normal proportions, with more than half of the world’s population and more than half of the world’s products.
Power diffusion is best understood in terms of the way technologies, and particularly information technology, are affecting the costs of participating in international affairs. The price of computing power declined a thousand-fold from 1970 to 2000. That is an extraordinary number. If the price of an automobile had declined as rapidly as the price of computing power, one could buy an automobile today for 40 yuan. And when the price of something declines that rapidly, it removes the barriers to entry. Now others can do what previously was reserved just to governments or big corporations. What this means is that things once restricted to very large organizations like governments or corporations are now available to anyone, and this has a significant impact on world politics. It does not mean that the governments are being replaced or that the nation-state is obsolete. Rather, it means that the stage on which governments act is now crowded with many more smaller actors.  But the main point is that it produces a new type of international politics and we have not yet begun to understand this. We need to realize that in an age in which information technology is so powerful and important, it may often be the case that it is not only whose army wins, but whose story wins; and that the ability to create an effective narrative is crucial.
Regarding the issue of power transition from West to East, one of the questions that is being raised nowadays is whether China will pass the United States, and some Chinese scholars have written about America in decline. If one looks carefully at power resources, however, the United States is likely to remain more powerful than China for the next few decades. It is plausible that the Chinese economy would be as large as the American economy in this decade. China is a big country and it is growing rapidly. But even when the Chinese economy is equal in size to the American economy, it would not be equal in composition. That one judges more by per capita income, which is a better measure of the sophistication of an economy, and when China equals the Americans in overall economic size, it will only be one-third of the United States in per capita income. In addition, if you look beyond economics to military power and soft power, the United States is likely to remain more powerful on a global basis.
The projection that China is about to pass the United States in any of these three dimensions of power is over-stated. Why does it matter? Power is not good or bad per se. Too much power can be bad. It can lead you to hubris, and mistaken strategy. It is very important to have accurate perceptions about the distribution of power. When people are too worried about power, they may overreact or follow strategies that are dangerous. The Peloponnesian War in which the Greek city-state system tore itself apart was caused by the rise in the power of Athens and the fear it created in Sparta. Similarly, World War I, which destroyed the centrality of the European state system in the world, is often said to have been caused by the rise in power of Germany and the fear that created in Britain.
Some analysts predict that will be the story of power transition in the 21st century: The rise in the power of China will create fear in the United States which will lead to a great conflict, but that is bad history and a poor understanding of power for our century. By 1900 Germany had already passed Britain in industrial strength. In my book The Future of Power, I show the basis for arguing that China is not going to equal the United States for another two decades or more, if then. In other words, the US has more time than Britain had, and it does not have to be as fearful. If we are too fearful, we may overreact. The danger I see that is the Chinese― thinking America is in decline― push too hard and Americans, fearing the rise of China, overreact. That is the danger we face in power transition, and the best way to avoid that is by having a very clear-eyed view of all three dimensions of power and how it is changing and the fact that we do not have to be fearful. There is time to encourage China to become what Robert Zoellick called, a “responsible stakeholder.”
The other reason why it is important not to be too fearful is the diffusion of power discussed above. What we are seeing is that both China and the United States, and of course Europe, Japan and others, will be facing a new set of transnational challenges, issues like climate change, transnational terrorism, cyber insecurity, pandemics. All these issues, which are going to be increasing in the future, are going to require cooperation. They cannot be solved by any one country alone, so to talk about the world being multipolar or unipolar makes no sense at all when one is talking about these issues. And it is interesting that if one looks at the National Security Strategy of the Obama administration which was issued in May 2010; it refers to the fact that we have to think of power as positive-sum, not just zero-sum. In other words, there may be times when it is good for the United States, good for Europe, if Chinese power increases.
Many of these new transnational challenges that we face are areas where we have to get away from just thinking about power over others and think about power with others. That is another reason why we do not want to become so fearful that we are not able to have cooperation with China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has referred to Obama administration policy as based on smart power. And indeed she has said we should not talk about multipolarity; we should talk about multipartnerships. This is a different approach to the future of power in the 21st century. If we can keep a balanced appraisal of the distribution of power, and figure out ways to deal with these common challenges that we face – we, meaning the United States, China, Europe, Japan and others – we can indeed have a win-win situation. That is the message of my new book: we need to get away from our old ways of thinking about power and broaden our ways of thinking to accommodate the changes that are going to occur in this 21st century.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard Kennedy School, and author of The Future of Power.
The Chinese verison appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, July 7, 2011.
Editor:Mei Yi