The limits of a superpower

The US enjoys undisputed military power, but cooperation is in its best interest

Joseph Nye has been ahead of the curve before. When it was fashionable to lament the decline of the United States, the Harvard political scientist argued that, au contraire, the US was "Bound to Lead," as the title of his 1989 book had it.

Now the US is the world's sole superpower, and the White House is occupied by a man whose willingness to have the country go it alone has, at times, left his own diplomats in tears. And Nye has come out with a concise, well-reasoned argument for an American foreign policy that works primarily in concert with that of other nations, rather than as a Lone Ranger. Even in the wake of Sept. 11, the US should pursue a multilateralist approach, Nye argues, not out of altruism but to further its own interests.

The US is bound to lead, in short, but does so best when flanked by allies, he maintains. Nye quotes the French analyst Dominique Moisi to make his key point: "The global age has not changed the fact that nothing in the world can be done without the United States. And the multiplicity of actors means that there is very little the United States can achieve alone."

The US is likely to remain No. 1, Nye assures us. "But even so, number one ain't gonna be what it used to be." For one thing, the nature of power has changed. Nye describes military, economic, and cultural or "soft" power as three different levels in a three-dimensional chess game. On the military level, the US has unquestioned superiority. On the economic level, it has great strength Â- although Europe and Asia represent counterweights.

It is on the cultural level, the "soft power" level, that things have changed the most. The information revolution has been a great leveler: Anyone with a website and a good argument has a much better opportunity to affect the public agenda than ever before.

A classic example of this is the landmines treaty, which came about "despite the opposition of the Pentagon, the strongest bureaucracy in the strongest country in the world," as Nye notes. It was the result of a combination of grass-roots and celebrity activism (Jodie Williams in Vermont and the Princess of Wales and others) plus the support of some middle powers such as Canada, a US ally, but not averse to stepping out from the American shadow, onto the high ground.

But make no mistake: overall, the US is no slouch at soft power. Again, Nye quotes a Frenchman to make his point, in this case Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine: "Americans are so powerful because they can 'inspire the dreams and desires of others, thanks to the mastery of global images through films and television and because, for these same reasons, large numbers of students from other countries come to the United States to finish their studies.' "

Another reason the US can't go it alone is that the nature of the issues to be dealt with has changed. Unilateral efforts just won't work on climate change, global public health, or transborder pollution. Nye reiterates Theodore Roosevelt's counsel, "Talk softly and carry a big stick." To which he adds, "We need not just to speak more softly but to listen more carefully."

Elsewhere in the book, he writes, "To the extent that official policies at home and abroad are consistent with democracy, human rights, openness, and respect for the opinions of others, the United States will benefit from the trends of this global information age, even though pockets of reaction and fundamentalism will persist and react in some countries. But there is a danger that we may obscure the deeper message of our values through arrogance and unilateralism."

Surely, there is something to be said for a country that conquers less by dropping bombs than by, in effect, inviting everyone to the movies. Nye is describing a world where global powers compete to see which can provide the most democracy, the freest marketplace of ideas, the fullest expression of human rights. This is good news that should not be overlooked. Cultural power may be "soft," but it's not imaginary.

One quibble: This slender volume is admirably compact, in part because a lot of material, such as names of people being quoted, is referred to the 30 pages of end notes. Notes in the margin beside the material to which they refer would make for smoother reading of this illuminating book.

• Ruth Walker is on the Monitor staff.

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