Briefly Noted

| March 2016
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phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgIs the American Century Over?, Joseph S. Nye Jr., (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 152 pp., $45 cloth, $12.95 paper.

In his latest work, Is the American Century Over?, renowned Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr., sets out not only to dispel the myth of American decline but to argue that the United States will remain the dominant player in the world order—albeit a changing one—for decades to come. Decline, writes Nye, stems from two factors: “a decrease in relative external power, and domestic deterioration or decay.” In the first instance, Nye sees a dearth of compelling challengers (or realistic coalitions of challengers) to American preeminence: Europe is marred by disunity, and its economic ties, shared values, and cultural affinities with America virtually preclude a challenge to U.S. power. Japan has little chance of matching the United States on economic terms, and little interest (or appetite) in allying with China to balance against U.S. power in Asia. Russia is itself in decline, and while it does have substantial resources, it cannot on its own constitute a formidable counterweight to American interests.

Nye devotes an entire chapter to China’s rise, which he terms a “recovery,” reminding readers that China boasted the world’s largest economy prior to the Industrial Revolution. While granting China’s impressive present-day growth, Nye demonstrates that its economy still pales in comparison to America’s in “composition and sophistication.” Two examples: trade is abundant, but China severely lags in the services sector; and Chinese technological achievements are significant, but are based on “a strategy of copying foreign technologies more than domestic innovation.”

Chinese military capabilities are rapidly growing, too. But as Nye points out, Beijing is still decades behind the United States in terms of materiel, and China has just a few thousand troops (primarily peacekeepers) stationed away from its shores, a dramatic gap in power-projection capabilities compared to the quarter-million American personnel deployed around the globe. Nye also looks at Chinese efforts to accumulate soft power through aid programs, the Olympics, and the establishment of Confucius Institutes in other countries, including the United States. Finally, Nye notes that China’s rise is hardly happening in a vacuum: India and Japan, among others, are positioning themselves to contest Chinese power in Asia.

Is American decline coming from within? Again, Nye is skeptical. In a chapter titled “Absolute Decline: Is America Like Rome?,” he looks to history to put contemporary social and cultural cleavages in perspective. “Past culture battles over slavery, prohibition, McCarthyism, and civil rights were more serious than any of today’s issues,” Nye reminds readers. On the economy, the picture is mixed. The Great Recession continues to stymie growth, but American advantages in information technology, the benefits of the shale revolution, and towering investment in research and development all point to continued dynamism. Meanwhile, the U.S. military remains unrivaled. Still, as power gradually shifts from West to East and diffuses from states to nonstate actors, the country will have to work diligently to mold new institutions and networks to confront transnational issues such as climate change, and to enhance the credibility of its existing alliances.


51rynr9zdmL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, Stephen Breyer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 400 pp., $27.95 cloth.

Does the U.S. Constitution grant the American president unlimited executive powers during a state of emergency? How should the Supreme Court balance competing constitutional interests, security needs, and civil liberties in an age of state surveillance and global terrorism? And, finally, should the court uphold the Constitution without regard to foreign legal trends and institutions, or should it become progressively more open to developments and ideational influences from abroad? Justice Stephen Breyer dedicates his formidable new book to these and other questions about the evolving role of domestic courts under an increasingly transnational judicial system. Some of the topics he considers include the court’s ability to review presidential and congressional actions in order to safeguard individual liberties and constitutional rights; its role in treaty interpretation and harmonization, and in clarifying the reach and extent to which the U.S. Constitution guarantees protections abroad; the admissibility of cases brought by foreign litigants under the Alien Tort Statute in seeking remuneration for human rights violations committed outside of the United States; the constitutionality of Guantanamo Bay cases arbitrated in military tribunals and their repercussions for state secrecy, executive privilege, and presidential wartime authority; and the growth of an interdependent “world of laws” and its relation to such transnational problems as environmental risks, financial insecurity, and terrorism.

Breyer argues that the court cannot afford to remain oblivious to developments from abroad and ignorant of the legal traditions and interpretations of foreign judicial bodies concerning today’s most consequential issues. If the court disregards the global political, social, and economic milieu within which it is inevitably situated and with which it finds itself confronted on a daily basis, it will risk endangering the prestige and soft power of the rule of law and will render itself immaterial in the transnational legal dialogue. Consequently, Breyer believes the court must become more attuned to the dynamic nature of a new global legal order—an order that is itself enhanced by the United States’ rich constitutional tradition of inalienable rights and equality under the law. It is this conception of the rule of law, he writes, that will ensure that the court remains a vital organ in building and sustaining a democratic, humane, and just society at home and a more just international order abroad.

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Category: Briefly Noted, Issue 30.1

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