The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone

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The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone

By Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Oxford University Press, 2002
222 pp. $26.00
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An astutely argued case for American multilateral engagement. America's paradox, according to Nye, is that it is too powerful to be challenged by others but not powerful enough to achieve its goals by going it alone. Indeed, popular notions of American unipolarity and hegemony are misleading and potentially dangerous, for the world's power structure is complex and multilayered. The United States has unprecedented military power, but economic power is widely shared with Europe and East Asia. Meanwhile, a booming world of transnational relations lies outside Washington's control. If the United States pursues a heavy-handed, unilateral foreign policy, it will hasten the demise of its preponderance and destroy its ability to shape the global playing field. By binding itself to the outside world through multilateral treaties and agreements, Nye points out, the United States may loose some freedom of action -- but it gains far more by turning other countries into predictable and cooperative partners. Other states are more likely to accept rather than resist (or balance against) American power when that power is exercised within at least a loose framework of multilateral rules. This kind of "soft power" -- the ability to influence other states through nonmilitary means -- is critical to America's success.

Nye is most insightful when he discusses the implications of the information revolution and globalization for American foreign policy. As he sees it, the Internet puts knowledge -- and therefore power -- in the hands of more people than ever before. The sovereign state still matters, but it will not be what it used to be. Hence military might alone will not buy the United States much leverage in the coming decades, as economic interdependence and information flows make stable rules, credible commitments, and "soft power" the coins of the new global realm.

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