TIME nation

The American Century Isn’t Over

I'm the Foreign Editor at TIME, handing international news in the magazine and online. Previously I covered energy and environmental issues for TIME, and was the Tokyo bureau chief in 2006 and 2007.

China won't end U.S. dominance—but political gridlock and isolationism could

As Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye takes a seat, he glances at the portrait that looms over the conference room. “There he is,” says Nye.

“He” is Henry Luce, the founder of TIME and LIFE magazines. (Hence the portrait–we’re at TIME’s offices.) In a 1941 editorial in LIFE, Luce urged the U.S. to enter World War II to defend democratic values and “create the first great American century.”

That term became shorthand for the period of U.S. geopolitical dominance that began around the end of the war. But from the moment the American century was born, Americans have fretted over threats to the country’s pre-eminence. In the 1950s the Soviet Union seemed poised to bury the U.S.; in the 1980s the Japanese were going to outwork lazy Americans.

Today a rising China is the great rival. A 2013 Pew poll of 39 countries found that most people believed China already was or would eventually become the world’s leading superpower–and that included nearly half of Americans.

To which Nye says: Not so fast. A pioneer in the theory of soft power and the dean of American political scientists, Nye knows geopolitics. In his new book, Is the American Century Over?, Nye makes a strong case that American geopolitical superiority, far from being eclipsed, is still firmly in place and set to endure. And the biggest threat isn’t China or India or Russia–it’s America itself.

It’s easy to forget what a global behemoth the U.S. remains today. Take military power: the U.S. not only spends four times more on defense than the No. 2 country, China, but it also spends more than the next eight countries combined. The U.S. Navy controls the seas, and the country’s military has troops on every inhabited continent. America’s armed forces have become more dominant since the dawn of Luce’s American century–not less. For nearly 50 years after World War II, U.S. power was checked by the Soviet Union. No longer.

The relative decline of American economic clout might seem obvious. By one measurement, China has already passed the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy. But that’s in part a trick of perspective. In 1945, thanks largely to the devastation of World War II, the U.S. produced nearly half the world’s GDP. By 1970 that share had fallen to about one-quarter, but as Nye points out, that was less a matter of American decline than a global return to normality. Nearly half of the top 500 international companies are owned by U.S. citizens, and 19 of the top 25 global brands are American.

But the most important reason the U.S. will continue to dominate is the lack of a viable rival. Nye dismisses each in turn: the European Union is too fractured, Japan is too old, Russia is too corrupt, India is too poor, Brazil is too unproductive.

As for China, Nye expects that as the country keeps growing, it will take up more space on the international stage. But Beijing faces major internal challenges that could derail its rise: a polluted environment, an aging population and inefficient state-owned industries. More important, China conspicuously lacks the ingredient that has made the U.S. unique–an openness toward immigrants. “As Lee Kuan Yew once told me,” Nye says, referring to the founding father of modern Singapore, “‘China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the U.S. can draw on the world’s 7 billion.'”

It’s the potential loss of that openness that worries Nye. Should the U.S. decide to shut its borders or turn its back on international affairs–two recurring impulses in U.S. history–all bets are off. If political gridlock becomes permanent or income inequality keeps rising, that too could threaten American supremacy. “The question is whether we’ll keep living up to our potential,” says Nye.

He bets yes–and believes that on the whole, that’s a good thing for the world. A strong U.S. has helped keep tensions in check in East Asia and has worked to integrate a rising China into the existing international system. In July a NASA probe will visit Pluto for the first time ever, and our exploration of the solar system–led from start to finish by the U.S.–will be complete.

America is far from faultless: the invasion of Iraq and intransigence on climate change stand out as two major mistakes. But it’s difficult to imagine that the world would be a better place if Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China were running things. “I believe this is a different country,” says Nye. Henry Luce couldn’t have said it better.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME nation

Man Arrested After Police Find Marijuana in Container Marked ‘Not Weed’

It was in a sour cream container under the front passenger's seat

Nebraska police arrested a 21-year-old man from Lincoln after finding 11.4 grams of marijuana in a container marked “Not Weed” underneath the front passenger’s seat of a car, the Associated Press reports via the Lincoln Journal Star. The driver, who admitted the pot in the 16-ounce sour cream container belonged to him, was cited for possession, though the sheriff’s office said the three passengers in the car were “not under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” according to the newspaper.

TIME Economy

The Real Meaning of $9 an Hour

Walmart’s decision on Feb. 19 to raise its base wage to $9 an hour, $1.75 higher than the federal minimum, has been heralded as a major victory for American labor. Wall Street punished the world’s largest retailer for the pay hike–which will cost the firm $1 billion this fiscal year–by driving down its shares. But labor economists and liberals lauded the raise as a new wave of “Fordism,” referring to Henry Ford’s historic 1914 decision to double wages in his factories, which not only boosted productivity and reduced turnover but also created more customers for his company’s products.

Walmart’s move is seen by some as a sea change for the retail sector. “Walmart sets the standard, and the fact that they’ve kept wages so low has made it hard for others to raise them,” explains Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Now it’s likely that pay for other low-income workers will rise, not just in retail but also in other sectors like home health care, child care and fast food, all of which compete for the same workers as Walmart.

The question is, how much will it matter? Labor’s share of the economic pie has been decreasing since the 1970s, thanks to globalization, which has outsourced low-wage jobs (and technology, which has destroyed them outright); the shrinking of unions; and pressure from Wall Street to reduce costs, which turbocharged all these trends. The corporate share, meanwhile, is at record highs. That means Walmart’s move to $9 an hour won’t make much difference in macroeconomic terms. The $1 billion it will effectively put in the hands of 40% of its 1.3 million U.S. employees is a tiny fraction of our $16 trillion economy. Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO, estimates that even if all low-wage employers followed Walmart’s lead, it wouldn’t move the needle on labor’s share by even a single percentage point. “That’s not to say that the Walmart workers’ victory isn’t an important step forward for low-wage workers,” he says. “But it also shows what a small piece of the pie they’ve been getting.”

Indeed, the Walmart workers who have spent much of the past year in parking lots with bullhorns were asking for $15 an hour and better schedules. “When I started, I saw how many of us were working for one of the richest companies in the world and yet we had to be on public assistance,” says Kelly Sallee, 22, who has worked for Walmart for eight months and took part in wage protests in Dayton, Ohio. Despite the pay increase, employees like Sallee, who says she’d like to work full time but can’t get enough hours, are still struggling for improvements in scheduling, an important labor-rights issue. Retailers across the country use software to optimize scheduling around store traffic. This often means less notice given for when workers must report to their jobs and erratic cuts in some of their hours, which labor activists believe may also be intended to decrease the number of workers on full-time benefits. Walmart denies this and says it would prefer more full-time workers to multiple part-timers. The company also says that the $9 it will pay is better than the $7 and change paid by many other retailers, even some unionized ones, and that it gives more notice of shift changes than many others. It says that workers can ask for more hours via Walmart’s intranet system and that 1 million hours a week regularly go unclaimed.

But the fact that Walmart workers, who aren’t unionized in the U.S., got anything at all shows the PR pressure that companies like it are coming under as economic inequality gains clout as a political issue. Twenty-nine states have raised the minimum wage, and presidential candidates from both parties are expected to wrestle with the challenge for the next 18 months. Whether or not Walmart’s top brass, a conservative bunch, has experienced an ideological shift is not the point. That it is concerned about turnover costs as a better economy gives laborers more options for where to work is most significant.

An extra couple bucks an hour will certainly help low-wage workers, and they’ll be more likely to spend it than the rich, meaning it will drive more economic growth. It will not be a net job destroyer, as some believe. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that while a $9 minimum wage could put from zero to 500,000 low-end jobs at risk as companies try to limit staffing, it would also lift 1 million people out of poverty and increase earnings for 16.5 million workers. As Sawhill puts it, “That’s not quite a free lunch, but it’s pretty cheap.” That’s a reason for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. But even if it doesn’t, Walmart workers have proved they can move the most powerful retailer in the world to change. That means they, and others, can do it again. And that, more than anything else, may be the real victory.

TIME cities

Rahm Emanuel Seeks to Avoid Runoff in Chicago Mayoral Election

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks with residents at a senior living center during a campaign stop on Feb. 23, 2015 in Chicago.
Scott Olson—Getty Images Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks with residents at a senior living center during a campaign stop on Feb. 23, 2015 in Chicago.

The incumbent must receive at least 50% of the vote in Tuesday's election

It’s Election Day in Chicago, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the four candidates that are vying for his spot spent the past couple of days scrambling for last-minute votes.

Emanuel needs to get over 50% of the vote in order to avoid a runoff in the non-partisan contest. He’s raised about $15 million in the race, according to the Chicago Tribune, and has received vocal support from President Obama, who praised his former White House chief of staff during a visit to Chicago last week. The president has appeared in a radio spot, is featured in Emanuel’s latest ad, and even stopped by a campaign office during his visit.

Emanuel’s biggest challenge comes from Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who has criticized the mayor for spending big in the race—saying it’s proof that wealthy donors are funding his campaign.

According to a recent Chicago Tribune poll, Emanuel had 45% of the vote while Garcia had 20%. Challengers Alderman Bob Fioretti and Businessman Willie Wilson each had 7% of the vote and candidate William Walls held 2% of the vote.

[Chicago Tribune]

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