What Overshadows the American Century?

Reading a mistaken news story about his death, Mark Twain famously replied that it was "greatly exaggerated." Joseph S. Nye Jr. says something similar about the judgment that America is in decline, that its century in the sun is nearly over.

Nye does the great service of examining this claim in his new book, Is the American Century Over?, giving a subtle analysis in terms of hard power (military and economic) and soft power (a concept introduced by Nye to refer to an attractive practice, at least a model or ideals such as liberty or democracy). He differentiates the power to command from the power to lead, as he also distinguishes between colonies and allies, between absolute and relative decline.

This trope of America having its century began in a 1941 editorial by Henry Luce in Life, one of his own magazines. A hundred years from our entry into World War II would end in 2041, or about a quarter century from now.

This article is not a review of Nye's latest book. It is about a crisis that he doesn't discuss, even though this slowly-mounting crisis will probably affect and cast in the shadow the subject about which he does choose to write.

In talking about the international agenda of issues, Nye refers to climate change seven or eight times in the book, variously in the company of pandemics, terrorism, financial instability and pathologies of the internet. However, it does not seem to occur to him, as it does not seem to occur to many others, that climate change may become a supervening issue in less than a quarter century. To the extent it does, it will not matter much which nation dominates others.

It would hardly be worth noting this oversight or misjudgment if Nye were not among the best and brightest of the governing elite. He is former dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard, held high jobs in both the State and Defense Departments, wrote, for example, The Paradox of American Power (2002), is highly respected by such powerful guys as John Kerry.

It would be unfair to lump Nye with climate deniers, but the book about American power shows no urgency about the issue, beyond listing it with other issues as part of a fairly obvious future agenda of possible bad things. Without an overwhelming sense of urgency, the problem of climate change will remain unaddressed. Urgency would be necessary because of the power of the fossil fuel purveyors, the energy-use habits that we all have, the judgment of observers such as Richard Heinberg that sustainable energy simply couldn't support the religion of "growth" we have been indoctrinated into and the economic system that sustains that belief.

Though we are sometimes told that the emergency caused in part by climate change will be long and slow (a welcome warning about the apocalyptic style into which critics may fall), food shortages caused by droughts, heat waves, and floods (including soggy fields) are not impossible on a planet of over seven billion human jaws.

In this sense, the big question is not whether the American century is over, but whether human civilization is reaching a tipping point of having created conditions, even apart from nuclear weapons, that are inadvertently self-destructive. Some observers think so. For example, Clive Hamilton wrote Requiem for a Species as long ago as 2010. In it, he claimed that "the triumph of liberal capitalism, which was hailed prematurely as the 'end of history.' coincided precisely with the dawning realization that industrial progress has been transforming the physical environment in a way that threatens the demise of the world that liberal capitalism promised to create."