Interview: Joseph Nye

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Behind the much-televised world of presidents, ambassadors and cabinet ministers, there is another layer of the cast of international relations: the academics who develop theoretical analyses of the same problems wrestled with day-to-day by governments.

One such academic is Joseph Nye, the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, ranked #6 in the country a survey of the most respected political scholars, who has spent years on both sides of the divide.

After graduating from Princeton and Oxford and going abroad to study East Africa and Latin America, he joined the Harvard faculty. Periodically, however, he shifted from academia to government.

During the Carter administration, he chaired the National Security Council Group on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. During the Clinton administration, he was chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs.

Throughout this tenure in the political world, Nye has distinguished himself as an often isolated optimist with regard to America’s future and a tireless proponent of ‘soft power.’

While most Americans today would think of the late 1980s – in which the USA began to pull definitively ahead of the Soviet Union– as a high point of Western power, Nye explains that he spent most of those years battling pessimists who saw America’s influence as on the wane.

These arguments led him to the concept of soft power, a phrase he coined around twenty years ago: ‘I was trying to explain why I thought the USA was not in decline.

I looked at American military power and economic power, but I thought that there’s something missing…soft power is the ability to get what you want not through coercion or payment but through attraction.

That rests on a country’s culture and its values as well as its policies being seen as legitimate.’

As the 1990s proved, Nye was correct in forecasting continued American strength. More controversially, he believes that the same conclusion still holds true today.

‘I think people haven’t realised that what we’re seeing is less an American decline than the rise of the rest of the world,’ he affirms.

‘The US is still in the lead not only militarily but also by staying at the forefront of the Information Revolution.’

Nye compares America’s position today to that of Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, based on its strength in information technology: ‘If you look at Britain after it lost the American colonies in the eighteenth century, Horace Walpole was complaining that ‘we are now reduced to a miserable little island.

‘What he missed was the Industrial Revolution, which gave Britain a second century in power. I think you could make a similar argument today, that the USA is still at the forefront of what has been called the Third Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution.

‘This is going to have a very powerful effect not only on the economy but also on society, through what is sometimes called the Web 2.0, the relationships that rest on peer-to-peer contacts – and the US is still ahead in terms of pioneering that.

‘You’ve seen that this year in American politics; Obama has been able to harness the Internet like no candidate before. I think that by and large the US is still at the forefront of these technologies, and that’s one of the sources of my optimism.’

However, Nye does not deny that America has suffered under President Bush. The end of the Bush administration, he thinks, will offer the country an vital opportunity to recover some of its soft power; all of the new candidates for President have worked at this, but Nye is particularly positive about Obama. ‘I think George W Bush squandered a great deal of American soft power with his policies in Iraq,’ he admits.

‘I think either McCain or Obama will be better than Bush in terms of restoring American soft power. I think Obama has a particular appeal locally because of the fact that he has an African father, he grew up in Indonesia…these are different characteristics in an American president.

‘So I think he will, if elected, by the nature of his life story, do a great deal for American soft power. Now that’s not sufficient; policies also matter, so policies will have to be adjusted. But I think that we’re likely to see some improvement with the end of the Bush administration.’

Nye has additional advice for the government concerning two problems that once confronted Carter and Clinton and have recently risen up again: nuclear weapons and national security. He reasons that non-proliferation is especially important in a world in which Iran and North Korea have faced sanctions over their nuclear ambitions.

‘Trying to slow the rate of spread still makes a difference, because in a world with a large number of nuclear weapons and a lot of uncertainty the chances of their being used are higher. So I think that we should uphold the non-proliferation treaty and that America, too, should continue to reduce the nuclear power it holds.’

He also offers an analysis of America’s much-derided intelligence agencies: ‘One of the things that’s been pointed out by commissions is that better coordination is needed between the agencies. One of the great problems of walled bureaucracies is what are called silos, people who speak only to the people above or below them rather than horizontally.

‘I think the American intelligence agencies – of which there are sixteen – could do a lot more to improve the cross-flow of information. The other thing is an analytical point – to make sure there is a proper statement of the assumptions on which assessments rest.’

In recent years, Nye has devoted himself to applying his concept of soft power to individual leadership. His book The Powers to Lead (OUP), lately reviewed in the Economist, asserts that so-called soft skills have become more important to leaders in the 21st century.

‘In the industrial era, we tended to view leadership as hierarchical, to think of the leader as the king of the mountain, the commander…Today, there’s an argument that in the network and information world, the leader is not king of the mountain but the centre of a circle, and it’s important to draw people to him.

‘The problem with George W Bush was that he saw himself, in his words, as “the decider”… he lacked this contextual intelligence.’

Thus explained, Nye’s concept of soft power does not seem particularly revolutionary. The idea that a country’s culture and values contribute to its stature or lack thereof globally seems painfully obvious even without an academic grasp of international relations or Nye’s theory of complex interdependence (which we lack the space to explain here).

What is truly significant about Nye’s idea, then, is not the idea itself but the essential shift of political responsibility that it entails. ‘A good deal of soft power is produced not by the government but by civil society, everything from Hollywood to Harvard,’ he explains.

Therefore, even average citizens who have lost confidence in their politicians can still influence their country’s future through the civil society of which they are all a part.

Each citizen is a representative of his country, and it is this sense of responsibility that Nye hopes to instil in the future leaders who spend time under his aegis at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

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