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In Digital Age, 'Future Of Power' Must Be Smart

Before Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the number of battleships was the primary measure of a nation's sea power. After World War II, no nation ever built another one again.
Before Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the number of battleships was the primary measure of a nation's sea power. After World War II, no nation ever built another one again.

Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power," but he says that strategy alone is no longer enough. In The Future of Power, Nye explains that in the global information age, superpowers need a "smart power" strategy — the hard power of coercion and payment, plus the soft power of persuasion and attraction. Advances in technology have helped smaller actors compete on a global level, leading to a diffusion of power.

China, Nye tells NPR's Neal Conan, is an example of a country that recently turned to soft power to augment its position on the world stage. In 2007, says Nye, Chinese President Hu Jintao advocated for an investment in soft power, which "they did very well, with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Shanghai Exposition this year," says Nye.

But they "undercut all this soft power they built up," he says, when they locked up dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. "What you do domestically can do an awful lot to undercut or reinforce what you're doing — or trying to do — internationally."

Nonstate actors figure prominently in the equation. Though we typically think of them as malicious — terrorist groups like al-Qaida — there are benign forces as well. Organizations such as Oxfam and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation work outside the government to fight hunger and cure diseases.

"Governments are still the most important actor on the world stage, but the stage is just a lot more crowded, because technology has reduced the barriers to entry," says Nye. For example, "Twenty or 30 years ago, if you wanted to have an international phone call that links all parts of the world, you could do it technologically, but it was expensive." But now all it takes is an Internet connection.

Gone are the days when one or two superpowers defined world affairs. The stage is now crowded by emerging nations like China and India.

"If you look at the world in 1800, you'll notice that more than half of the world's population was in Asia, and more than half of the world's product was made in Asia," says Nye. But in the 1900s, the picture looked very different — half of the population still lived in Asia, but because of the Industrial Revolution, production dropped to 20 percent in the East.

Now, in the 21st century, Asia is returning to a balance of half the population and half the production. "That's sometimes called the rise of Asia. It's actually the returnof Asia, and that's a natural process," says Nye.

And it's not a foregone conclusion that the growth of China and the relative decline of the U.S. will lead to conflict, says Nye. Those transitions "often lead to disaster," Nye allows. For example, "if you look at the origins of World War I, many people would say it was caused by the rise in the power of Germany, and the fear that created in Britain."

But on the flip side, the United States' overtaking of Britain didn't lead to war. "So it's not inevitable ... I think a lot depends on how we manage this," he says.

And Nye is hopeful. He says it's not true that China is destined to "eat our lunch or overtake us militarily and economically." At least not anytime soon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.