Analysis & Opinions - The Economist

The New Rome Meets the New Barbarians: How America Should Wield Its Power

Mar. 23, 2002

The New Rome Meets the New Barbarians: How America Should Wield Its Power

by Joseph Nye (By Invitation)
March 23, 2002
Reprinted from The Economist

The United States is likely to be the world''s top power for many years.
This brings challenges that it should not try to face alone, writes Joseph

Shortly after September 11th, President Bush''s father observed that just
as Pearl Harbor awakened this country from the notion that we could
somehow avoid the call of duty to defend freedom in Europe and Asia in
World War Two, so, too, should this most recent surprise attack erase the
concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the
fight against terrorism or in anything else for that matter.

But America''s allies have begun to wonder whether that is the lesson that
has been learned - or whether the Afghanistan campaign''s apparent
success shows that unilateralism works just fine. The United States, that
argument goes, is so dominant that it can largely afford to go it alone.

It is true that no nation since Rome has loomed so large above the others,
but even Rome eventually collapsed. Only a decade ago, the conventional
wisdom lamented an America in decline. Bestseller lists featured books
that described America''s fall. Japan would soon become "Number One".
That view was wrong at the time, and when I wrote "Bound to Lead" in
1989, I, like others, predicted the continuing rise of American power. But
the new conventional wisdom that America is invincible is equally
dangerous if it leads to a foreign policy that combines unilateralism,
arrogance and parochialism.

A number of adherents of "realist" international-relations theory have also
expressed concern about America''s staying-power. Throughout history,
coalitions of countries have arisen to balance dominant powers, and the
search for traditional shifts in the balance of power and new state
challengers is well under way. Some see China as the new enemy; others
envisage a Russia-China-India coalition as the threat. But even if China
maintains high growth rates of 6% while the United States achieves only
2%, it will not equal the United States in income per head (measured in
purchasing-power parity) until the last half of the century.

Still others see a uniting Europe as a potential federation that will
challenge the United States for primacy. But this forecast depends on a
high degree of European political unity, and a low state of transatlantic
relations. Although realists raise an important point about the levelling of
power in the international arena, their quest for new cold-war-style
challengers is largely barking up the wrong tree. They are ignoring deeper
changes in the distribution and nature of power in the contemporary

Three kinds of power

At first glance, the disparity between American power and that of the rest
of the world looks overwhelming. In terms of military power, the United
States is the only country with both nuclear weapons and conventional
forces with global reach. American military expenditures are greater than
those of the next eight countries combined, and it leads in the
information-based "revolution in military affairs". In economic size,
America''s 31% share of world product (at market prices) is equal to the
next four countries combined (Japan, Germany, Britain and France). In
terms of cultural prominence, the United States is far and away the
number-one film and television exporter in the world. It also attracts the
most foreign students each year to its colleges and universities.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some analysts described the
resulting world as uni-polar, others as multi-polar. Both are wrong,
because each refers to a different dimension of power that can no longer
be assumed to be homogenized by military dominance. Uni-polarity
exaggerates the degree to which the United States is able to get the
results it wants in some dimensions of world politics, but multi-polarity
implies, wrongly, several roughly equal countries.

Instead, power in a global information age is distributed among countries
in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game. On
the top chessboard, military power is largely uni-polar. To repeat, the
United States is the only country with both intercontinental nuclear
weapons and large state-of-the-art air, naval and ground forces capable
of global deployment. But on the middle chessboard, economic power is
multi-polar, with the United States, Europe and Japan representing
two-thirds of world product, and with China''s dramatic growth likely to
make it the fourth big player. On this economic board, the United States
is not a hegemon, and must often bargain as an equal with Europe.

The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations that cross
borders outside government control. This realm includes actors as diverse
as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national
budgets at one extreme, and terrorists transferring weapons or hackers
disrupting Internet operations at the other. On this bottom board, power
is widely dispersed, and it makes no sense to speak of uni-polarity,
multi-polarity or hegemony. Those who recommend a hegemonic American
foreign policy based on such traditional descriptions of American power
are relying on woefully inadequate analysis. When you are in a
three-dimensional game, you will lose if you focus only on the top board
and fail to notice the other boards and the vertical connections among

A shrinking and merging world

Because of its leading position in the information revolution and its past
investment in traditional power resources, the United States will probably
remain the world''s most powerful single country well into this new
century. While potential coalitions to check American power could be
created, it is unlikely that they would become firm alliances unless the
United States handles its hard coercive power in an overbearing unilateral
manner that undermines its soft or attractive power - the important ability
to get others to want what you want.

As Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, has written, "Unlike centuries past, when
war was the great arbiter, today the most interesting types of power do
not come out of the barrel of a gun." Today there is a much bigger payoff
in "getting others to want what you want", and that has to do with
cultural attraction and ideology, along with agenda-setting and economic
incentives for co-operation. Soft power is particularly important in dealing
with issues arising from the bottom chessboard of transnational relations.

The real challenges to American power are coming on cat''s feet in the
night and, ironically, the temptation to unilateralism may ultimately
weaken the United States. The contemporary information revolution and
the globalization that goes with it are transforming and shrinking the
world. At the beginning of this new century, these two forces have
combined to increase American power. But, with time, technology will
spread to other countries and peoples, and America''s relative
pre-eminence will diminish.

For example, today the American twentieth of the global population
represents more than half the Internet. In a decade or two, Chinese will
probably be the dominant language of the Internet. It will not dethrone
English as a lingua franca, but at some point in the future the Asian
cyber-community and economy will loom larger than the American.

Even more important, the information revolution is creating virtual
communities and networks that cut across national borders. Transnational
corporations and non-governmental actors (terrorists included) will play
larger roles. Many of these organizations will have soft power of their own
as they attract citizens into coalitions that cut across national
boundaries. It is worth noting that, in the 1990s, a coalition based on
NGOs created a landmines treaty against the opposition of the strongest
bureaucracy in the strongest country.

September 11th was a terrible symptom of the deeper changes that were
already occurring in the world. Technology has been diffusing power away
from governments, and empowering individuals and groups to play roles in
world politics-including wreaking massive destruction-which were once
reserved to governments. Privatization has been increasing, and terrorism
is the privatization of war. Globalization is shrinking distance, and events
in faraway places, like Afghanistan, can have a great impact on American

At the end of the cold war, many observers were haunted by the spectre
of the return of American isolationism. But in addition to the historic
debate between isolationists and internationalists, there was a split within
the internationalist camp between unilateralists and multilateralists. Some,
like the columnist Charles Krauthammer, urge a "new unilateralism"
whereby the United States refuses to play the role of "docile international
citizen" and unashamedly pursues its own ends. They speak of a uni-polar
world because of America''s unequalled military power. But military power
alone cannot produce the outcomes Americans want on many of the
issues that matter to their safety and prosperity.

As an assistant secretary of defense in 1994-95, I would be the last to
deny the importance of military security. It is like oxygen. Without it, all
else pales. America''s military power is essential to global stability and an
essential part of the response to terrorism. But the metaphor of war
should not blind us to the fact that suppressing terrorism will take years
of patient, unspectacular civilian co-operation with other countries. The
military success in Afghanistan dealt with the easiest part of the problem,
and al-Qaeda retains cells in some 50 countries. Rather than proving the
unilateralists'' point, the partial nature of the success in Afghanistan
illustrates the continuing need for co-operation.

The perils of going alone

The problem for Americans in the 21st century is that more and more
things fall outside the control of even the most powerful state. Although
the United States does well on the traditional measures, there is
increasingly more going on in the world that those measures fail to
capture. Under the influence of the information revolution and
globalization, world politics is changing in a way that means Americans
cannot achieve all their international goals by acting alone. For example,
international financial stability is vital to the prosperity of Americans, but
the United States needs the co-operation of others to ensure it. Global
climate change too will affect Americans'' quality of life, but the United
States cannot manage the problem alone. And in a world where borders
are becoming more porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases
to terrorism, America must mobilize international coalitions to address
shared threats and challenges.

The barbarian threat

In light of these new circumstances, how should the only superpower
guide its foreign policy in a global information age? Some Americans are
tempted to believe that the United States could reduce its vulnerability if
it withdrew troops, curtailed alliances and followed a more isolationist
foreign policy. But isolationism would not remove the vulnerability. The
terrorists who struck on September 11th were not only dedicated to
reducing American power, but wanted to break down what America stands
for. Even if the United States had a weaker foreign policy, such groups
would resent the power of the American economy which would still reach
well beyond its shores. American corporations and citizens represent
global capitalism, which some see as anathema.

Moreover, American popular culture has a global reach regardless of what
the government does. There is no escaping the influence of Hollywood,
CNN and the Internet. American films and television express freedom,
individualism and change, but also sex and violence. Generally, the global
reach of American culture helps to enhance America''s soft power. But not,
of course, with everyone. Individualism and liberties are attractive to
many people but repulsive to some, particularly fundamentalists. American
feminism, open sexuality and individual choices are profoundly subversive
of patriarchal societies. But those hard nuggets of opposition are unlikely
to catalyze broad hatred unless the United States abandons its values
and pursues arrogant and overbearing policies that let the extremists
appeal to the majority in the middle.

On the other hand, those who look at the American preponderance, see
an empire, and urge unilateralism, risk an arrogance that alienates
America''s friends. Granted, there are few pure multilateralists in practice,
and multilateralism can be used by smaller states to tie the United States
down like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, but this does not mean that a
multilateral approach is not generally in America''s interests. By embedding
its policies in a multilateral framework, the United States can make its
disproportionate power more legitimate and acceptable to others. No large
power can afford to be purely multilateralist, but that should be the
starting point for policy. And when that great power defines its national
interests broadly to include global interests, some degree of unilateralism
is more likely to be acceptable. Such an approach will be crucial to the
longevity of American power.

At the moment, the United States is unlikely to face a challenge to its
pre-eminence from other states unless it acts so arrogantly that it helps
the others to overcome their built-in limitations. The greater challenge for
the United States will be to learn how to work with other countries to
control more effectively the non-state actors that will increasingly share
the stage with nation-states. How to control the bottom chessboard in a
three-dimensional game, and how to make hard and soft power reinforce
each other are the key foreign policy challenges. As Henry Kissinger has
argued, the test of history for this generation of American leaders will be
whether they can turn the current predominant power into an
international consensus and widely-accepted norms that will be consistent
with American values and interests as America''s dominance ebbs later in
the century. And that cannot be done unilaterally.

Rome succumbed not to the rise of a new empire, but to internal decay
and a death of a thousand cuts from various barbarian groups. While
internal decay is always possible, none of the commonly cited trends seem
to point strongly in that direction at this time. Moreover, to the extent it
pays attention, the American public is often realistic about the limits of
their country''s power. Nearly two-thirds of those polled oppose, in
principle, the United States acting alone overseas without the support of
other countries. The American public seems to have an intuitive sense for
soft power, even if the term is unfamiliar.

On the other hand, it is harder to exclude the barbarians. The dramatically
decreased cost of communication, the rise of transnational domains
(including the Internet) that cut across borders, and the
"democratization" of technology that puts massive destructive power into
the hands of groups and individuals, all suggest dimensions that are
historically new. In the last century, Hitler, Stalin and Mao needed the
power of the state to wreak great evil. As the Hart-Rudman Commission
on National Security observed last year, "Such men and women in the
21st century will be less bound than those of the 20th by the limits of the
state, and less obliged to gain industrial capabilities in order to wreak
havoc...Clearly the threshold for small groups or even individuals to inflict
massive damage on those they take to be their enemies is falling

Since this is so, homeland defense takes on a new importance and a new
meaning. If such groups were to obtain nuclear materials and produce a
series of events involving great destruction or great disruption of society,
American attitudes might change dramatically, though the direction of the
change is difficult to predict. Faced with such a threat, a certain degree
of unilateral action, such as the war in Afghanistan, is justified if it brings
global benefits. After all, the British navy reduced the scourge of piracy
well before international conventions were signed in the middle of the 19th

Number one, but...

The United States is well placed to remain the leading power in world
politics well into the 21st century. This prognosis depends upon
assumptions that can be spelled out. For example, it assumes that the
American economy and society will remain robust and not decay; that the
United States will maintain its military strength, but not become
over-militarized; that Americans will not become so unilateral and arrogant
in their strength that they squander the nation''s considerable fund of soft
power; that there will not be some catastrophic series of events that
profoundly transforms American attitudes in an isolationist direction; and
that Americans will define their national interest in a broad and far-sighted
way that incorporates global interests. Each of these assumptions can be
questioned, but they currently seem more plausible than their

If the assumptions hold, America will remain number one. But number one
"ain''t gonna be what it used to be." The information revolution,
technological change and globalization will not replace the nation-state
but will continue to complicate the actors and issues in world politics. The
paradox of American power in the 21st century is that the largest power
since Rome cannot achieve its objectives unilaterally in a global
information age.

Joseph Nye is dean of Harvard''s Kennedy School of Government and
author of "The Paradox of American Power: Why the World''s Only
Superpower Can''t Go It Alone" (Oxford University Press, 2002).

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph.“The New Rome Meets the New Barbarians: How America Should Wield Its Power.” The Economist, March 23, 2002.