By Joseph S. Nye Jr.
June 12, 2013
The right U.S. strategy includes 'power with,' not just 'power over.'
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, walk at the Annenberg Retreat of the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage. While saying it is critical that the U.S. and China reach a "firm understanding" on cyber issues, Obama told reporters his meetings with Xi have been "terrific." (Evan Vucci / Associated Press / June 8, 2013)
China will almost certainly pass the United States in the total size of its economy within a decade or so. But if one looks also at military and "soft power" resources, the U.S. is likely to remain more powerful than China for at least the next few decades. Does it matter?
When nations worry too much about power transitions, their leaders may overreact or follow strategies that are dangerous. As Thucydides described it, the Peloponnesian War — in which the Greek city-state system tore itself apart — was caused by the rise in the power of Athens and the fear that created in Sparta. Similarly, World War I, which destroyed the centrality of the European state system in the world, is often said to have been caused by the rise in power of Germany and the fear that created in Britain. (Though the causes of both wars were also much more complex.)
Some analysts predict that a similar scenario will be the story of power in the 21st century: The rise of China will create fear in the U.S., which will lead to a great conflict. But that is bad history. By 1900, Germany had already passed Britain in industrial strength. In other words, the United States has more time to deal with China's growing power than Britain had to deal with Germany's, and the U.S. does not have to be as fearful. If it were to be too fearful, both sides might overreact. The Chinese, thinking America was in decline, would push too hard, and Americans, worrying about the rise of China, would go too far.
The best way to avoid that is by having a very clear-eyed view of all dimensions of power and how they are changing. The recent Sunnylands summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping was a step in this direction.
Another reason it is important not to be too fearful is the diffusion of power. China and the United States — as well as Europe, Japan and other nations — will be facing new transnational challenges on issues such as climate change, terrorism, cyber security and pandemics. These issues, which will only become more urgent, will require cooperation, including help in many cases from nongovernmental agencies.
Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy referred to the fact that the U.S. has to think of power as positive-sum, not just zero-sum. In other words, there may be times when it is good for the United States (and the world) if Chinese power increases.