James Holmes

Can America Build “Coalitions of the Willing?”

Joe Nye has outlined a cogent view of the future. Now we need a roadmap to get there.

Professor Joe Nye has a nifty piece over at the Washington Post examining the future of American power, and by extension the use of that power to advance U.S. purposes in the world. His bumper sticker: that the "rise of the rest," a phrase culled from Fareed Zakaria's writings, will determine to what effect Washington can wield its power this century. Rivals' power could fetter U.S. policy, it seems, but deft diplomacy could transmute competition or indifference into cooperation.

Nye strikes a fairly upbeat note, cautioning against straight-line projections of the recent past into the future. (Bravo.) That China can maintain its smooth ascent to regional and world power looks doubtful, whereas the glass is more than half-full for the United States despite recent economic travails. In short, there's little cause to fret that America will tumble from its perch atop the international pecking order. Nothing is preordained. What is clear is that Washington's margin of economic, military, and thus diplomatic primacy will narrow as China, India, and other ambitious powers come to eminence. The "unipolar moment" Charles Krauthammer glimpsed just after the Cold War — that instant when an unchallengeable United States bestrode the international order — will pass into history.

In all likelihood, vouchsafes Nye, the vagaries of power will leave America standing first among relative equals. As the rest rise, "U.S. presidents will face an increasing number of issues in which obtaining our preferred outcomes will require power with others as much as power over others …. The paradox of American power is that even the largest country will not be able to achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others."

This is all fine. Call it Hyperpowers Anonymous: if you're used to bankrolling great ventures or strong-arming others, admitting you have a problem constitutes the first step toward a solution. Still, Nye leaves the reader wanting more. How can Washington elicit the help it needs from its peers? If a multipolar world imposes a premium on building and managing alliances, coalitions, and partnerships, how do we get there from here? Who are the likely helpers, how much capacity do they possess, and how fervently will they help prosecute U.S.-led enterprises of various types at various places on the map?

For me Nye's column dredges up the old Far Side cartoon showing Einstein madly scribbling equations on the chalkboard. After the scientist fills up half the board, he draws a cloud containing the words "then a miracle occurs." On the opposite end he inscribes his famous formula e = mc2. Eureka! This, however, inspires little confidence. As math teachers the world over instruct: show your work.

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In a way the Machiavellian task Nye discerns is a macro-level, even more daunting challenge than orchestrating partnerships to superintend freedom of the seas. Everyone pays homage to Grotius' vision of an open maritime commons, even if some — yep, I'm looking at you, China — would abridge the great jurist's principles in practice. That makes maritime security a relatively clean, straightforward venture. What Nye sees, by contrast, is a kaleidoscope of shifting issues, interests, and stakeholders. One hopes he'll follow up with some specific thoughts about how to bring clarity to a jumbled world.