If the Century is no longer America’s, it wasn’t China that took it

In June 2015 China formally constituted the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is the largest disruption yet to an international financial architecture in place since the early 1950s. Is this the turning point to a new world order, one no longer dominated by the US? Joe Nye doesn’t think so.

In his new book Is the American Century Over? (2015) Nye described how the American Century emerged in the 1940s partly from America’s then-unique capacity to provide the global public goods the world needed. Nye masterfully showed us, yet again, the devastating reach of his concept of soft power: that influence is more important than military power, that domination doesn’t mean leadership. He reminded us how Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew had once told him America would always be ahead of China: While China might boast a population of 1.3bn people, America could draw on the talents and goodwill of over 7bn.

Captain-America-Civil-WarBut, as the rest of Ordering the World: Truth to Power will go on to show, that capacity to provide the world its global public goods is no longer unique to the US nor obviously America’s any more to wield. The world’s economic centre of gravity—not just as metaphor but literally—used to sit off the eastern seaboard of the US, but no longer. Many of the world’s dilemmas require global cooperation: no single nation by itself, certainly not the US alone, can take on the problem of global climate change or cyber-security or international pandemics. That unique capacity that started the American Century is no more. If the Century is to remain American, the US will have to be a genuine leader, not just a unilateral doer.

There are two options. The US can lead the world by saying it wields fearsome power – in its military, in its technology, in the strength of its economy, in its ownership of the world’s reserve currency, in its creativity, in the Nobel Prizes it wins.

Or, it can lead the world by being a force for good.

Time was, it did both. But if the US now does only the first, can it still draw on the goodwill of the 7bn people on Earth that Lee Kuan Yew promised America?

The idea is neither fanciful nor whimsical that leadership comes with doing good for those who are led.  It is, after all, a principle of economics that under free-market capitalism the only need a society has for government is when government provides public goods.  Democracy has as one of its most cherished principles that a society should select leaders who are accountable, competent, and effective, and who work for that society. The phrase "consent of the governed" shines a light through the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence.

But also this is an idea that transcends use of the ballot box. This service for the good extends to those parts of society that either do not or can not vote: leaders serve the society they lead.  If those leaders are only pretenders who cannot fulfil that purpose, society should replace them. When we speak of world leadership, it is the society of nations that matters.

China provides a new discourse for leadership. With the AIIB as part of that overarching strategy, China’s narrative becomes, "We are far from perfect. But we understand how hard it is to develop and grow an economy. Even if we don’t get it right, and we certainly won’t get it right for you, we understand the difficulty. Here’s help." This chimes well with China’s long-standing policy of Peaceful Rise. And this simple idea could well end up winning over the world’s 6.5bn people who don’t live along the TransAtlantic Axis and who never quite got to be part of the American Century.

Is Nye’s account of the American Century now, by contrast, a narrative that draws more and more only on America’s power, and less and less on America’s doing good in the world?

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