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Interview

'The future is not Asian': Joseph Nye

Authoritarian China cannot lead Japan and India, says former Clinton official

A view of the Shanghai skyline: Joseph Nye says the U.S. remains the only country with global capacity in hard power.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- Asia's rapid economic growth and deepening interconnectedness have given rise to the theory that the region will supplant the U.S. as the world's dominant force in the 21st century.

But America's leading position remains secure, Joseph Nye, a leading American expert on international relations and national security, told Nikkei. This comes despite the fading of its soft power -- the attractiveness of its culture, values and policies -- under President Donald Trump, Nye said.

A Harvard University professor emeritus and former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Nye, 83, served as assistant secretary of defense for international security under President Bill Clinton.

"The U.S. remains the strongest country in hard power," Nye said. "For all that China has grown economically, it's still basically two-thirds of the U.S. economy, at [current] exchange rates. And in military power, it doesn't equal the U.S. in any way.

"The U.S. remains the only country with global capacity in hard power, and in soft power the U.S. still does better than China," he said, citing a survey by British research firm Portland that puts America in the top five and China in 27th place.

Joseph Nye, who served as assistant secretary of defense for President Bill Clinton, argues that Asia lacks the unity to supplant the U.S. as the dominant power in the 21st century. (Photo by Emily Hey)

Asia's larger role on the global stage in recent years, thanks partly to the rapid economic growth of countries like China and India, has led some geopolitical analysts to argue that the region will take on the leading role now held by the West. Indian-American analyst Parag Khanna predicted the "Asianization" of the world in his book "The Future is Asian."

Nye does not entirely disagree with this view. "I wrote already 10 years ago, in my book, 'The Future of Power,' that one of the great power shifts of the 21st century is the shift of the economic center of the globe from Europe to Asia, or from the Western to the Eastern Hemisphere," he said.

However, Nye went on, this does not mean Asia can or will create a united front to take on the West.

"When you talk about Asia, you're talking about many countries. You're talking about China, Japan, India and so forth," and the ability of the U.S. to organize itself politically and militarily cannot be compared to that of an entire heterogeneous region, he said.

"The dividing line is not between Asia and the West, if you talk about values -- the dividing line is between authoritarians and democracies," Nye argued, citing Japan and India as examples of the latter.

"If you asked, 'Will there be an authoritarian alliance in Asia, led by China?,' I think not, because Japan and India don't want to succumb either to [Chinese] values or to Chinese determination in the balance of power," he said.

And "if the Japanese and the Americans stay together in their security alliance, China can't dictate to Japan," he said.

Despite the shift in the world's economic center of gravity, on the whole, "the future is not Asian, in terms of the global balance of power," Nye said.

Children perform a Thai dance in Bangkok. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

He also argued against the view of a bipolar world led by Washington and Beijing, even if China is the closest player to the U.S. in terms of economic power. "If you look at the importance of Europe, the importance of Japan, it would be a mistake to leave them out," he said.

Nye noted with interest the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the reelection of China-skeptic Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as indications that "even though Chinese economic power has grown dramatically, it hasn't been able to stamp out democratic values in places where there's a degree of political independence."

That said, Nye expressed concern about erosion of American soft power during the Trump administration. "His emphasis on 'America first' makes others feel second, and the United States is less attractive than it was," he said.

If reelected in November, Trump could do more harm to American alliances, Nye warned.

"Many of my friends say, 'We can hold our breath for four years, but it's hard to hold your breath for eight years,'" he said.

Nye suggested that the damage to American soft power may not be permanent. "At the time of the Iraq War, the Americans had lost a good deal of soft power, but [they] recovered a lot of it under Obama," he noted.

He sees room to rebuild with Europe in particular. The two "still have a great deal of economic interdependence," along with shared values including democracy and human rights, he said.

But even if Trump leaves office in 2021, "I don't think the Europeans will trust the Americans as much" because of the risk of another America-first leader emerging, Nye said, adding that Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal have created a "deep mistrust."

As for the impact of the coronavirus on this interdependent dynamic, Nye said the effect is "significant," and probably greater than that of the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, but not yet fully clear.

"In the short run, it clearly has a very negative effect because of the curtailment of air flights and trade and supply lines and so forth," but "we really don't know yet how deep it's going to go," he said.

"There are two forces that are trying to decouple the U.S.-China interdependence," Nye said. "One is what you might call a 'natural force,' the coronavirus. And the other is the political force, which are people who want to disentangle more from China for political strategic reasons."

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