As a PPE ï¬nalist struggling to ï¬nd justiï¬able reasons to procrastinate, when offered the chance to interview Joseph Nye, the founder of Neoliberalism and theorist of soft power in international relations, and to quiz him on issues of U.S foreign policy, the rise of China and the consequences of the Ukraine crisis, it seemed as good an excuse as I was ever likely to get.
Professor Nye, currently Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, is intimidatingly well educated, with degrees in political science from Princeton and Harvard as well as being a former Rhodes Scholar of PPE at Oxford. His most famous work is on soft power, which is basically the idea that U.S inï¬‚uence is not limited to its banks and tanks, but its cultural ability to inï¬‚uence through persuasion.
He cuts an impressive ï¬gure in his speech. He is aging, but retains a mental sharpness and analytic vigour that demonstrates why he remains one of the major intellectual forces of neoliberal political thought. We discussed some of the crucial world issues of current world policy in the Union Bar after his speech.
One topic that greatly interests Nye is the rise of China. With a fundamental reassessment of American foreign policy and military spending as it moves out of a period of intense engagement in the Middle East, the threat of China as a peer competitor has loomed large in the thoughts of American policymakers. John Mearshimer, Nye’s intellectual sparring partner, claims that this geopolitical shift eastward, and an increasingly assertive China, is bound to lead to greater tension, and an “inevitable US-Chinese conï¬‚ict”.
Nye was not so pessimistic. He tells me that China’s economic and military growth will not match the US any time soon. “While approach-ing the U.S in the absolute size of its economy, on almost every other indicator; GDP per capita, investment, technological research, military power, and soft power, the U.S retains large absolute advantages.”
Nye notes that while, “China can draw on the talents of 1.3 billon people, the U.S, at the heart of the neoliberal economic order, can cherry-pick the best of 7 billion”, bringing the best of them into its educational and business communities through sheer force of attraction.
“In addition, conï¬‚ict requires a perception of threat. Given strong Chinese emphasis to present its rise as peaceful, and to conduct it within existing international institutions, this perception of existential threat does not seem likely to become fundamental to U.S security policy.”
However, as Nye tells me, history does provide a warning about complacency. Just as at the start of 1914, conflict in Europe did not seem likely, a new global conlict does not seem so today. But crises can come at any time. Sarajevo was a single spark that helped light the inferno of international world war. Likewise, to take one example, Sino-Japanese conï¬‚ict would only “require a Japanese or Chinese ï¬ghter pilot to act foolishly and take matters into their own hands” over the current Diaoyu-Senkaku islands dispute.
Individual agency is an important factor in Nye’s conception of world politics, and the job of statesmen is to ensure that they minimise international tension by “removing the kindling and dampening the paper” of potential crises, preventing such sparks from lighting conï¬‚icts. While China is not a major threat to U.S power, mistaken handling of such crises, rather than genuine hatred for the other, could plunge the world once more into conï¬‚ ict, despite this being the last thing leaders on both sides want. This, for Nye, is the lesson of 1914.
For Nye, the Ukraine crisis did not mark a historic Russian victory. “Russia has got away with gains in the short run, put simply, it now has Crimea.
That said, it is likely to suï¬€ er costs in the long term, as it has lost a large proportion of its soft power, and European states no longer trust Putin. It has also caused for itself major security issues by giving a new lease of life to NATO.”
I pressed Nye on the notion that smart power, the subject of his latest book, was merely soft power repackaged. After a slight pause, he responded that smart power is, “The interactive eï¬€ect of hard and soft power”.
This did not seem too distinct from his original theory, and thus these criticisms may be valid, but this does not detract from the centrality of his point. Soft power remains crucial to our understanding of American power in international relations, and the massive costs to U.S inï¬‚uence that the Iraq war has imposed stands as stark evidence of this.
On the issue of global internet management, a security concern that Nye has recently discussed at length, Nye said, “You can’t use hard power on the internet, and we risk fragment-ing the internet if we can’t achieve mutually acceptable collective management, with the freedom of information and economic costs that this brings.”
On China speciï¬cally, “China is likely to crack down in the short term, but in the long term, its internal security depends on it being able to come to some sort of accommodation with opposition movements in its society.”
Finally, on the issue of U.S engagement in dealing with humanitarian issues, he stated that, the US needs to operate a kind of Hippocratic Oath in its foreign policy. Do no harm. If it doesn’t know how it could make a situation better, it is likely to make things worse by blindly intervening. Obama’s policies are far from perfect, but they are also certainly not imprudent.”
Thus, U.S dominance does not imply omnipotence. Sometimes, there are tragedies in world politics that intervention would only worsen. American dominance seems likely to remain, and we should not keep ourselves up at night fearing a Chinese menace.
That said, as Nye states, global leaders need to engage fully in addressing transnational and interstate issues such as the global economy, terrorism and territorial disputes, to avoid adding unnecessary fuel to international tension. The potential match that could light a new major conï¬‚ ict might be hidden in the East of Ukraine, or in the small island chains of the South China Sea.