Joseph Nye says immigration is a bright spot for the United States
Immigration increases U.S. hard and soft power, he says
Editor’s Note: Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Is the American Century Over?” The views expressed are his own.
As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, candidates inevitably jockey for position on the contentious issue of immigration. The problem is that most focus on short-term issues and fail to take a longer historical view of the effect immigration has on America as a world power. Because if they did, they would see that at a time when declinists are again proclaiming the end of the American century, immigration is one of the bright spots about our position.
Population alone does not determine national power, but it is an important component, particularly if those human resources are educated and assimilated. It is encouraging, therefore, that the United States is one of the few developed countries that is projected to avoid demographic decline and keep its share of world population, partly as a result of immigration.
Most developed countries can expect to experience a shortage of people as this century progresses, whereas the U.S. Census Bureau projects that between 2010 and 2050, the American population will grow by 42%, to 439 million. According to U.N. demographers, today’s top-ranking states in terms of population are China, India and the United States. By 2050, they project the order will be India, China and the United States. Because of its one-child policy in the past century, China’s population will age and actually shrink. As many Chinese say, they fear that their country will “become old before we become rich.”
So, 50 years from now, the United States will probably remain one of the top three or four most populous countries, with an age distribution that will be younger than that of other developed countries. Not only is this relevant to economic power, but given the fact that nearly all developed countries are aging and face a burden of providing for the older generation, immigration can help reduce the sharpness of our policy problem. We should particularly encourage the education of young immigrants. Studies show that as immigrant college graduates increase, so does the increase in patents per capita. A quarter of high-tech start-ups have an immigrant founder, while 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
And immigration also benefits America’s soft, or attractive, power. The fact that people want to come to the United States enhances American appeal, and the upward mobility of immigrants is attractive to people in other countries. America is a magnet, and many people can envisage themselves as Americans. Many Americans “look like” citizens of other countries. Moreover, connections between immigrants and their families and friends back home help to convey accurate and positive information about the United States. Rather than diluting hard and soft power, immigration enhances both.
Of course, many worry about the impact that these arrivals will have on the makeup of U.S. society. But the reality is that popular fears about assimilation and the effect of immigration on a coherent sense of American identity are nothing new.
The 19th-century “Know-Nothing” Party was built upon opposition to immigrants, particularly the Irish. A century later, the country elected an Irish Catholic president. The U.S. remains a nation of immigrants with a creed of opportunity for newcomers. During the 20th century, America recorded its highest percentage of foreign-born residents in 1910 – 14.7% of the population. A century later, about 40 million people, or nearly 13% of Americans today, are foreign-born citizens.
Yet despite this being a nation of immigrants, a recent Pew poll showed that 36% of Americans want legal immigration decreased.
It appears that both the numbers and origins of the new immigrants have caused concerns about immigration’s impact on American culture. Data from the 2010 census showed a soaring Hispanic population, and at 16% of the total population, Hispanics have replaced African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority. But while critics fear they will not assimilate, most of the evidence suggests that the latest immigrants are assimilating at least as quickly as their predecessors.
A few years before his recent death, I asked Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and an astute observer of both the United States and China, whether he thought China would overtake the United States as the leading power of the 21st century. He said “no,” because the United States is able to re-create itself by attracting the best and brightest from the rest of the world and melding them into a diverse culture of creativity. China has 1.3 billion people to recruit from domestically, but in his view, its Sino-centric culture makes it less creative than the United States, which can draw upon a talent pool of more than 7 billion people. That is, as long as we remember that we are indeed a nation of immigrants.