The Future of Power


By Joseph S. Nye

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The Future of Power examines what it means to be forceful and effective in a world in which the traditional ideas of state power have been upended by technology, and rogue actors. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a longtime analyst of power and a hands-on practitioner in government, delivers a new power narrative that considers the shifts, innovations, bold technologies, and new relationships that are defining the twenty-first century. He shows how power resources are adapting to the digital age and how smart power strategies must include more than a country’s military strength.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, unsurpassed in military strength and ownership of world resources, the United States was indisputably the most powerful nation in the world. Today, China, Russia, India, and others are increasing their share of world power resources. Information once reserved for the government is now available for mass consumption. The Internet has literally put power at the fingertips of nonstate agents, allowing them to launch cyberattacks from their homes. The cyberage has created a new power frontier among states, ripe with opportunity for developing countries. To remain at the pinnacle of world power, the United States must adopt a strategy that designed for a global information age.



In his inaugural address in 2009, President Barack Obama stated that “our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America. We must use what has been called ‘smart power,’ the full range of tools at our disposal.”1 Earlier, in 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had called for the U.S. government to commit more money and effort to soft power tools including diplomacy, economic assistance, and communications because the military alone could not defend America’s interests around the world. He pointed out that military spending then totaled more than half a trillion dollars annually compared with a State Department budget of $36 billion. In his words, “I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power.”2 What does this mean? How will power work, and how is it changing in the twenty-first century?

To answer such questions, we need to have a better understanding of power than is typical in most current discussions. Let me give two examples, one personal and one public.

In the mid-1970s, France agreed to sell Pakistan a nuclear reprocessing plant that could extract plutonium, a material that could be used either for civilian purposes or for bombs. Concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons, the Ford administration tried to stop the plant by buying off Pakistan with high-performance aircraft, but Pakistan refused the deal. Both the Ford and Carter administrations tried to prevail upon France to cancel the sale, but the French refused on the grounds that it was a legitimate sale for civilian purposes only. Nothing seemed to work until June 1977, when I was in charge of Jimmy Carter’s nonproliferation policy and was allowed to present French officials with new evidence that Pakistan was preparing a nuclear weapon. A top French official looked me in the eye and told me that if this were true, France would have to find a way to cancel the completion of the plant. Subsequently, he was as good as his word, and the plant was not completed. How did the United States accomplish this major objective? No threats were issued. No payments were made. No carrots were dangled or sticks brandished. French behavior changed because of persuasion and trust. I was there and saw it happen. This hardly fits the usual model of power that is prevalent in most editorials or in recent foreign policy books that do not consider persuasion a form of power because it “is essentially an intellectual or emotional process.”3

More recently, in August 2008, China and Russia provided sharp contrasts in the use of power. As French analyst Dominique Moisi wrote at the time, “Whereas China intends to seduce and impress the world by the number of its Olympic medals, Russia wants to impress the world by demonstrating its military superiority— China’s soft power versus Russia’s hard power.” Some analysts concluded that the Russian invasion of Georgia proved the “irrelevance” of soft power and the dominance of hard military power.4 In reality, the story turned out to be more complicated for both countries in the long run.

Russia’s use of hard power undercut its claims to legitimacy and sowed fear and mistrust in much of the world. European neighbors became more wary. An immediate cost was Poland’s reversal of its resistance to an American antiballistic missile system. When Russia appealed for support on its Georgian policy to other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China and others withheld their support. An analysis one year later concluded that Russia’s appeal to its neighbors did not sound very seductive. “Ideally, it would present an attractive model for its neighbors, politically and economically. Young generations would learn Russian because they wanted to, and the post-Soviet alliances would be clubs its neighbors are lining up to join.” As Russian analyst Alexei Mukhin summed the matter up, “Love bought with money will not last long. That is purchased love. It is not very reliable.”5

In contrast, China ended August with its soft power enhanced by its successful staging of the Olympic Games. In October 2007, President Hu Jintao declared China’s intent to increase its soft power, and the Olympics were an important part of that strategy. With the establishment of several hundred Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture around the world, increased international broadcasting, attraction of foreign students to its universities, and softer diplomacy toward its neighbors in Southeast Asia, China made major investments in soft power. Opinion polls showed an increase in its international reputation. By accompanying its growth in hard power with an attractive soft power narrative, China was trying to use smart power to convey the idea of its “peaceful rise” and thus head off a countervailing balance of power.


More generally, as the U.S. economy floundered and China continued to grow in the great recession of 2008–2009, Chinese authors launched “a flood of declinist commentary about the US.” One expert claimed that the high point of U.S. power projection had been 2000.6 The Chinese were not alone in such statements. In a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, majorities or pluralities in thirteen of twenty-five countries believed that China would replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower.7 Even the U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council projected that American dominance would be “much diminished” by 2025. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev called the 2008 financial crisis a sign that America’s global leadership was coming to an end, and even a sympathetic observer, Canadian opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, suggested that Canada should look beyond North America now that the “the noon hour of the United States and its global dominance are over.”8

How can we know if they are correct or not? That question has fascinated me for two decades, and this book is the culmination of my exploring the sources and trajectory of American power. To answer the question, we need to understand better what we mean when we speak of power and how it is changing under the conditions of a burgeoning revolution in information technology and globalization in the twenty-first century. We also need to avoid certain pitfalls.

First, we must beware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Nations are not like humans with predictable life spans. For example, after Britain lost its American colonies at the end of the eighteenth century, Horace Walpole lamented Britain’s reduction to “as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia.”9 He failed to foresee that the Industrial Revolution would give Britain a second century of even greater ascendency. Rome remained dominant for more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power. Even then, Rome did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed, for all the fashionable predictions of China, India, or Brazil surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threats may come from modern barbarians and nonstate actors. Moreover, as we shall see, the classical transition of power among great states may be less of a problem than the rise of nonstate actors. In an information-based world of cyberinsecurity, power diffusion may be a greater threat than power transition.

At an even more basic level, what will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the twenty-first century? A second pitfall is to confuse power with the resources that states possess and to limit our focus solely to states. What resources will produce power? In the sixteenth century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain the edge; in the seventeenth, the Netherlands profited from trade and finance; in the eighteenth, France gained from its larger population and armies; and in the nineteenth, Britain’s power rested on the nation’s primacy in the Industrial Revolution and on its navy. Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or nonstates) with the best story that wins.10 As we shall see in Chapter 5, the Information Revolution and globalization are providing new power resources for nonstate actors. On September 11, 2001, a nonstate actor killed more people in New York than the state of Japan did at Pearl Harbor in 1941. This can be called the privatization of war. Today, it is far from clear how we measure a balance of power, much less how we develop successful strategies to survive in this new world. Most current projections of a shift in the global balance of power are based primarily on one factor— projections of growth in the gross national product of different countries. These projections ignore the other dimensions of power discussed in this book, not to mention the difficulties of combining the different dimensions into successful strategies.


Smart power is the combination of the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction. Soft power is not the solution to all problems. Even though North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il watched Hollywood movies, that had little effect on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. And soft power got nowhere in attracting the Taliban government away from its support for Al Qaeda in the 1990s. It took hard military power in 2001 to end that. To clarify that point, in my 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics I introduced the term “smart power” to refer to the combining of hard and soft power into successful strategies. A few years later, Richard Armitage and I cochaired a bipartisan Smart Power Commission at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It concluded that America’s image and influence had declined in recent years, and that the United States had to move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.11 The Smart Power Commission was not alone in this conclusion, and others have joined the call for smart power strategies.

The Pentagon is the best-trained and best-resourced arm of the American government, but there are limits to what military power can achieve on its own. Promoting democracy, human rights, and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of a gun. It is true that the American military has an impressive operational capacity, but the practice of turning to the Pentagon because it can get things done leads to an image of an overmilitarized foreign policy. Top military officials understand this. In the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Secretaries Clinton and Gates have called for more funding and more emphasis on our soft power, and I could not agree with them more. Should we choose to exert American influence solely through our troops, we should expect to see that influence diminish in time.”12 Smart power is not simply “soft power 2.0.” It refers to the ability to combine hard and soft power into effective strategies in varying contexts.


Power always depends on context. The child who dominates on the playground may become a laggard when the recess bell rings and the context changes to a well-ordered classroom. In the middle of the twentieth century, Josef Stalin scornfully asked how many divisions the pope had, but in the context of ideas five decades later the Papacy survived, whereas Stalin’s empire had collapsed.

Today, power in the world is distributed in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar and the United States is likely to remain supreme for some time. But on the middle chessboard, economic power has been multipolar for more than a decade, with the United States, Europe, Japan, and China as the major players, and with others gaining in importance. Europe’s economy is larger than America’s. The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations that cross borders outside of government control, and it includes nonstate actors as diverse as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets at one extreme and terrorists transferring weapons or hackers threatening cybersecurity at the other. This chessboard also includes new transnational challenges such as pandemics and climate change. On this bottom board, power is widely diffused, and it makes no sense to speak here of unipolarity, multipolarity, hegemony, or any other such clichés that political leaders and pundits put in their speeches.

Two great power shifts are occurring in this century: a power transition among states and a power diffusion away from all states to nonstate actors. Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the giddy pace of technological change continues to drive globalization, but the political effects will be quite different for the world of nation-states and the world of nonstate actors. In interstate politics, the most important factor will be the continuing “return of Asia.” In 1750, Asia had more than half of the world population and product. By 1900, after the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, Asia’s share shrank to one-fifth of the world product. By 2050, Asia will be well on its way back to its historical share. The “rise” in the power of China and India may create instability, but it is a problem with precedents, and we can learn from history about how our policies can affect the outcome. A century ago, Britain managed the rise of American power without conflict, but the world’s failure to manage the rise of German power led to two devastating world wars.

In transnational politics—the bottom chessboard—the Information Revolution is dramatically reducing the costs of computing and communication. Forty years ago, instantaneous global communication was possible but costly, and it was restricted to governments and corporations. Today, this communication is virtually free to anyone with the means to enter an Internet café. The barriers to entry into world politics have been lowered, and nonstate actors now crowd the stage. Hackers and cybercriminals cause billions of dollars of damage to governments and businesses. A pandemic spread by birds or travelers on jet aircraft could kill more people than perished in World War I or II, and climate change could impose enormous costs. This is a new world politics with which we have less experience.

The problem for all states in the twenty-first century is that there are more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful states, because of the diffusion of power from states to nonstate actors. Although the United States does well on military measures, there is increasingly more going on in the world that those measures fail to capture. Under the influence of the Information Revolution and globalization, world politics is changing in a way that means Americans cannot achieve all their international goals acting alone. For example, international financial stability is vital to the prosperity of Americans, but the United States needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Global climate change too will affect the quality of life, but the United States cannot manage the problem alone. And in a world where borders are becoming more porous than ever to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, nations must mobilize international coalitions and build institutions to address shared threats and challenges. In this sense, power becomes a positive-sum game. It is not enough to think in terms of power over others. We must also think in terms of power to accomplish goals that involves power with others.13 On many transnational issues, empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of relevant power.

Contextual intelligence, the ability to understand an evolving environment and capitalize on trends, will become a crucial skill in enabling leaders to convert power resources into successful strategies.14 We will need contextual intelligence if we are to understand that the problem of American power in the twenty-first century is not one of decline, but of a failure to realize that even the largest country cannot achieve its aims without the help of others. That will require a deeper understanding of power, how it is changing, and how to construct smart power strategies. That will require a more sophisticated narrative than the classical stories of the rise and fall of great powers. America is likely to remain the strongest country of the twenty-first century, but that will not mean domination. The ability to get the outcomes we want will rest upon a new narrative of smart power. Americans will need to stop asking questions about who is number one, and entertaining narratives about dominance, and start asking questions about how the various tools of power can be combined into smart strategies for power with rather than merely over other nations. Thinking more clearly about power and stimulating that broader narrative are the purposes of this book.

I have tried to write a short book in a style that is accessible to the intelligent reader rather than aimed at an academic audience, but with a careful analytical structure disclosed in the footnotes. While I continue my exploration of the future of American power, I have tried to elaborate concepts in a way that are applicable to other countries as well. What are the problems of converting power resources into strategies that produce desired outcomes? What are the problems of “imperial overstretch” in international goals and “domestic underreach” in mobilizing resources? How can the two be brought into balance? How are the various dimensions of power changing in this century, and what does that change mean for the definition of strategic success? What will happen to American power or Chinese power or the power of nonstate actors in a cyberage? No one has the final word on the contested concept of power, but because we cannot avoid talking about it, I hope to introduce more clarity into the discussion and a larger perspective into strategic visions. That would be smart power.




What Is Power in Global Affairs?

For a concept that is so widely used, “power” is surprisingly elusive and difficult to measure. But such problems do not make a concept meaningless. Few of us deny the importance of love even if we cannot say, “I love you 3.6 times more than I love something else.” Like love, we experience power in our everyday lives, and it has real effects despite our inability to measure it precisely. Sometimes, analysts have been tempted to discard the concept as hopelessly vague and imprecise, but it has proven hard to replace.1

The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell once compared the role of power in social science to the centrality of the concept of “energy” in physics, but the comparison is misleading. Physicists can measure relations of energy and force among inanimate objects quite precisely, whereas power refers to more ephemeral human relationships that change shape under different circumstances.2 Others have argued that power is to politics as money is to economics. Again, the metaphor misleads us. Money is a liquid or fungible resource. It can be used to buy a wide variety of goods, but the resources that produce power in one relationship or context may not produce it in another. You can use money in a housing market, at a vegetable market, or in an Internet auction, whereas military capacity, one of the most important international power resources, may produce the outcomes you want in a tank battle, but not on the Internet.

Over the years, various analysts have tried to provide formulas that can quantify power in international affairs. For example, Ray Cline was a high-ranking official in the CIA whose job was to tell political leaders about the balance of American and Soviet power during the Cold War. His views affected political decisions that involved high risks and billions of dollars. In 1977, he published a distillation of the formula he used for estimating power:



After inserting numbers into his formula, he concluded that the Soviet Union was twice as powerful as the United States.3 Of course, as we now know, this formula was not a very good predictor of outcomes. In a little more than a decade, the Soviet Union collapsed and pundits were proclaiming that the United States was the sole superpower in a unipolar world.

A more recent effort to create a power index included a country’s resources (technology, enterprise, human, capital, physical) and national performance (external constraints, infrastructure, ideas) and how they determined military capability and combat proficiency.4 This formulation tells us about relative military power, but not about all relevant types of power. Although effective military force remains one of the key power resources in international affairs, as we shall see in the next chapter, the world is no longer as unconstrained as in nineteenth-century Europe when historians could define a “great power” as one capable of prevailing in war.5

Military force and combat proficiency do not tell us much about outcomes, for example, in the world of finance or climate change. Nor do they tell us much about the power of nonstate actors. In military terms, Al Qaeda is a midget compared to the American giant, but the impact of terrorists relies less on the size of their forces than on the theatrical effects of their actions and narratives and the overreactions they can produce. In that sense, terrorism is like the sport of jujitsu in which the weak player uses the strength of the larger against himself. This dynamic is not caught by typical indices of military power.

In certain bargaining situations, as Thomas Schelling demonstrates, weakness and the threat that a partner will collapse can be a source of bargaining power.6 A bankrupt debtor who owes $1,000 has little power, but if it owes $1 billion, that debtor may have considerable bargaining power—witness the fate of institutions judged “too big to fail” in the 2008 financial crisis. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il “is probably the only world leader who can make Beijing look powerless. . . . Diplomats say Mr. Kim brazenly plays on Chinese fears. If the Chinese do not pump aid into his crumbling economy, he argues, they will face refugees pouring across the border and possible unrest.”7

Any attempt to develop a single index of power is doomed to fail because power depends upon human relationships that vary in different contexts.8 Whereas money can be used to measure purchasing power across different markets, there is no standard of value that can summarize all relationships and contexts to produce an agreed overall power total.9


Like many basic ideas, power is a contested concept. No one definition is accepted by all who use the word, and people’s choice of definition reflects their interests and values. Some define power as the ability to make or resist change. Others say it is the ability to get what we want.10 This broad definition includes power over nature as well as over other people. For my interest in actions and policies, a commonsense place to start is the dictionary, which tells us that power is the capacity to do things and in social situations to affect others to get the outcomes we want.11 Some people call this influence, and distinguish power from influence, but that is confusing because the dictionary defines the two terms as interchangeable.

There are many factors that affect our ability to get what we want. We live in a web of inherited social forces, some of which are visible and others of which are indirect and sometimes called “structural.” We tend to identify and focus on some of these constraints and forces rather than others depending on our interests. For example, in his work on civilizations, political scientist Peter Katzenstein argues that the power of civilizations is different from power in civilizations. Actors in civilizations command hard and soft power. Social power operates beneath the behavioral level by shaping underlying social structures, knowledge systems and general environment.12 Even though such structural social forces are important, for policy purposes we also want to understand what actors or agents can do within given situations.13 Civilizations and societies are not immutable, and effective leaders can try to shape larger social forces with varying degrees of success. As the famous German theorist Max Weber puts it, we want to know the probability that an actor in a social relationship can carry out his own will.14

Even when we focus primarily on particular agents or actors, we cannot say that an actor “has power” without specifying power “to do what.”15 We must specify who is involved in the power relationship (the scope of power) as well as what topics are involved (the domain of power). For example, the pope has power over some Christians, but not over others (such as Protestants). And even among Catholics, he may wish to have power over all their moral decisions, but some adherents may reject his power on some issues (such as birth control or marriage outside the church). Thus, to say that the pope has power requires us to specify the context (scope and domain) of the relationship between the pope and any individual.

A psychopath may have the power to kill and destroy random strangers, but not the power to persuade them. Some actions that affect others and obtain preferred outcomes can be purely destructive and not dependent on what the victim thinks. For example, Pol Pot killed millions of Cambodian citizens. Some say such use of force is not power because there was no two-way relationship involved, but that depends on context and motive. If the actor’s motive is pure sadism or terror, the use of force fits within the definition of power as affecting others to get what the actor wants. Most power relationships, however, depend very much on what the victim thinks. A dictator who wishes to punish a dissident may be misled in thinking he exercised power if the dissident really sought martyrdom to advance her cause. But if the dictator simply wanted to destroy the dissident, her intentions did not matter to his power.


  • "Excellent...Nye offers an illuminating distillation of the power relationships shaping a world in which the state with the best military can lose to the adversary with the better story."—The Financial Times
  • "As power moves from west to east and from the palaces of dictators to the street, it is not just the identities of power brokers that are changing: so is the very meaning of power. No one is better placed to explain these trends than the scholar-statesman Joe Nye... The Future of Power contains important essays on both 'cyber power' and 'American decline', but what is most useful is Nye's subtle exegesis of the mechanics of more conventional forms of power."—The New Statesman
  • "A concise, forceful statement of what Nye refers to as the liberal realist position in the US academy and in US politics... (which) paints a plausible scenario for the continuance of the US at the heart of the international system."—Times Higher Education Supplement
  • "While the British generally take a wary attitude to international gurus, it is worth bearing in mind that what Nye... think(s) today has a habit of becoming the global consensus tomorrow."—Mary Dejevksy, The Independent

On Sale
Feb 1, 2011
Page Count
320 pages

Joseph S. Nye

About the Author

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. He is the author of several books, including The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone and Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. PublicAffairs also published his political thriller, The Power Game.

Learn more about this author