Author(s): Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Source: Foreign Policy, No. 80, Twentieth Anniversary, (Autumn, 1990), pp. 153-171 Published by: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580
Accessed: 12/08/2008 12:33
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byJoseph . Nye,Jr.
The Cold War is over and Americans are trying to understand their place in a world without a defining Soviet threat. Polls report that nearly half the public believes the country is in
decline, and that those who believe in decline
tend to favor protectionism and to counsel
withdrawal from what they consider "overextended international commitments." In a world of growing interdependence, such
advice is counterproductive and could bring on
the decline it is supposed to avert; for if the
most powerful country fails to lead, the consequences for international stability could be disastrous. Throughout history, anxiety about decline and shifting balances of power has been
accompanied by tension and miscalculation.
Now that Soviet power is declining and Japanese power rising, misleading theories of American decline and inappropriate analogies
between the United States and Great Britain in
the late nineteenth century have diverted our
attention away from the real issue-how power
is changing in world politics.
The United States is certainly less powerful
at the end of the twentieth century than it was
in 1945. Even conservative estimates show that
the U.S. share of global product has declined
from more than a third of the total after World
War II to a little more than a fifth in the 1980s.
That change, however, reflects the artificial
effect of World War II: Unlike the other great
powers, the United States was strengthened y
the war. But that artificial preponderance was
bound to erode as other countries regained
their economic health. The important fact is
that the U.S. economy's share of the global
product has been relatively constant for the
past decade and a half. The Council on Competitiveness finds that the U.S. share of world JOSEPHS. NYE, JR., is director of the Centeror Internaf
tional Affairsat Harvard University. Thisarticledraws
from his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing
Nature of American Power (New York: asicBooks).
product has averaged 23 per cent each year
since the mid-1970s. The CIA, using numbers
that reflect the purchasing power of different
currencies, reports that the American share of
world product increased slightly from 25 per
cent in 1975 to 26 per cent in 1988.
These studies suggest that the effect of
World War II lasted about a quarter century
and that most of the decline worked its way
through the system by the mid-1970s. In fact,
the big adjustment of American commitments
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