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“The Future of Power” by Joseph Nye

From the point of view of a majority of Americans, China is emerging as their unquestionable key rival in the coming years. Owning about a quarter of the entire United States debt, and coupled with its highest population, China is destined to surpass the US as the number one supreme power in the world. Nye however, thinks that this is far from the reality. In “The Future of Power,” the author gives a description of the advancement in the multipolar world, where continents such as Asia have regained their historical positions globally, and where leaders are leveraging technology to create their own event-driving power. In this book, he also offers an in depth analysis of the international fault lines in the twenty-first century, including radical Islam, the return of Asia etc., he also gives suggestions how America can use its influence and power to resolve these issues. In addition, he gives the reasons why the US is bound to remain the leading world super power if it plays smart and pays attention to advice. From the political waves of the Middle East, to the diplomatic dance in China, this novel provides lots of insights.

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Nye argues that power is not exclusively dependent on the manipulation and domination, but also on cooperation. With the continued development of nations and institutions, it is the responsibility of the most powerful countries worldwide to act as peace stewards, rather than be power ursupers. According to Nye, there are three major forms of power; hard, soft and smart power (Chapter 1). He defines hard power, as the power that uses force to attain its goals. However, he warns that hard power is only succeeds in particular circumstances, where it is necessary to use it. Its legitimacy is usually dependent on the legitimacy of the ideas and culture of a nation; which forms the intangible resources utilized in developing soft power. This is evident in his statement, "during the Cold War, military deterrence helped to prevent Soviet aggression in Europe, while the soft power of culture and ideas ate away at belief in communism behind the Iron Curtain" (Nye 66). The author defines soft power as the, “the ability to affect others through the co-operative means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes”(Nye 34). Soft power can be an interesting and better substitute especially the military that have been associated with the use of hard power. An example of soft power as given in this novel is propaganda.  Smart power on the other hand, is the combination of hard power and soft power. The author suggests that if America wants to remain the strongest superpower globally, amidst its growing challenges of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, economic depression, climate change, political Islam, and the increasing hostile supremacy from countries such as China, it needs to adopt, a more cooperative, smart-power strategy.  Critics argue that “The Future of Power,” is nothing new to people who have read Nye’s previous books. However, for first timers like me, the book is very informative when it comes to international affairs.

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In Chapter 2, the author argues that military power is to a large extent dependent on the context in which it is applied, and that armies should adopt a flexible approach when handling various issue from, humanitarian interventions, classic warfare, assistance, to counterinsurgency. Nye reiterates his argument when he affirms that military power alone is not sufficient to prevail in global politics, giving an example of NATO, which has found it hard to win the hearts of many Afghanistan people.

In the third chapter, the author talks about economic power being a requirement for both hard and soft power. This chapter feels more to me like a text book to me; he introduces the fundamental principles of sanctions aids, etc. This shows the author’s underlying intentions to provide sufficient basic information to those readers with minimal knowledge with regard to international affairs.

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In part II titled, “Diffusion and Cyberspower”, Nye dwells on how the social media especially, twitter and face book are changing lives. This may not be news to many readers since such technologies are used world wide. The author argues that the social media and the internet are not only tools that assist in mobilizing good causes; they also help authoritative governments to destabilize movements. He gives an example of Egypt, where online activism was instrumental in organizing anti-government protesters. He raises important and fascinating questions on how to think of hacktivism, what role the governments should play in cyberspace, as well as the ways of dealing with threats of cybeterrorism, economic surveillance and cyberwar. Nye argues that while cyberspace strongly impacts international politics, it is “unlikely to be a game changer in the power transitions” in the coming years (Nye 99).

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According to Nye, the adaptation of power in the digital age requires that smart power strategies be developed, that is inclusive of a nation’s economic and military strength. He says that data that was initially reserved for the government is now available and accessible to the public; thanks to the internet. The internet has put power at the fingertips of people, thus enhancing their participation and involvement in world politics. He gives an example of WikiLeaks being able to reveal various state secrets through the internet, as well as, unspecified cyberattacks against the governments by terrorists.

Although the book is highly readable and well written, one is left with an impression that while trying to puts across his message, the author remains on the surface, being careful not to contradict himself. This is especially evident in Chapter 6, where he gives a brief analysis of the situations of different countries, only giving a summary of the general wisdom without taking a stand, until the end. While I admit that this book offers an interesting overview with regard to international politics; I expected that he would give a more in-depth analysis, taking into account his enormous knowledge and experience.

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The author’s theory regarding a two- level shift in global relations, from the West to the East, and national and non- national actors, is majorly based on the rise of China as part of Asia’s return of political and economic power in the post-Industrial Revolution. He says, “If you look at the world in 1800, you’ll notice that more than half of the world’s population was in Asia, and more than half of the world’s product was made in Asia” (Nye 133). According to Nye, Asia’s economic output in the 19 century dropped to only 20% of the globe’s total, despite the fact that over half of the world’s population came from Asia.

According to the author, the rebalancing of Asia’s demographic depicts it rise. He says, “It’s actually the return of Asia and it’s a natural process” (Nye 145). He goes ahead to trace this rise from the Japanese during the mid 20th century and, and he says that there is a high likelihood that it will continue in the coming years owing to the modernization of the Indian and Chinese economies. Nye argues that the economic success of China must be matched with equivalent political reforms that will make the Chinese Government legitimate in the global eye.     He however, notes that China lacks political maturity and participation to export its culture and opinions on various issues, at a level nearing that of America. This is despite the fact that it has been very successful in the Beijing Olympics, not forgetting its sound investment in soft power. The author notes that while different countries hold onto their share of the resources of the world, and in turn its power, non- state actors, on the other hand are increasingly affecting the global events for instance, terror groups. He stresses his point in this statement; “the world is neither unipolar, multipolar, nor chaotic. It is all three at the same time” (Nye 150).

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Nye argues that the notion that American power is declining is inaccurate and simplistic. He contradicts the sentiment by saying that, "the problem of American power is what to do in light of the realization that even the largest country cannot achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others" (Nye 15). According to Nye, there is no nation in the world that has combined both soft and hard power, like the Unites States of America. His culture of innovation, democracy and openness, coupled with its military power has enabled it to top the world’s power rankings. He however advices its leaders to act in a smart manner to convert its resources into long-lasting relationships and global orders, as opposed to squandering them. Contrastingly, he thinks that China is far much weaker, when compared to the US, because its economy is facing grave challenges. He says, "Chinese economy faces serious obstacle of transition from inefficient state-owned enterprises, growing inequality, massive internal migration" (Nye 179). These challenges, when coupled with the lack of legitimacy in its political system, make country far from being the world’s superpower country.

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While the economy of China is predicted to surpass that of the US, in the year 2017, the author however, thinks that China’s wealth will lag behind. This is mainly due to its social and economic challenges such as increased rural poverty, overpopulation, the growing urban middle class and increasing rate of unemployment among others.

Being a respected and knowledgeable analyst, nothing other than the best is expected from him, and he does not disappoint the readers in this book. Though readers may find reading this book meandering, it is the greatest kind of meandering; a learning journey in which one gets to know more about power and how it evolves. The bottom line of this novel is that the fears of most Americas that China might overtake them and be the next top most powerful nation globally is misplaced, if not premature. America’s hard, soft and smart power is unmatchable by any country on the world stage in the near future.

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“The Future of Power” provides a highly readable synthesis of over two decades of theoretically innovative scholarship. The author provides insightful probing on the various types of power, analysis of transitions among nations that have been rising and falling, as well as an exploration of the decentralization of power from state actors to non- state actors. Nye’s message is clear; that America should use its power and influence to extend economic prosperity to poor nations, but it should not forget to adopt a smart power strategy. This book is indeed a must read for anybody with interest in international affairs in the twenty-first century. There is no better guide to global affairs than “The Future of Power”.

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