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The Future of Power: Ten Questions with Joe Nye

As a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s Government Department in the early 1960s, Joe Nye asked whether Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda would be able to forge an East African Common Market (he correctly predicted that they wouldn’t be able to do so).  Roughly half a century later, he’s probably best known for using concepts such as “soft power” and “smart power” to illuminate the central issues of the day.  Along the way, as a scholar and high-level government official, he has worked on everything from nuclear proliferation and the rise of China to cybersecurity and the nature of American leadership in a world of “complex interdependence.”

Underlying his eclectic interests is a conviction that research should inform policy.  It’s fitting, then, that according to “244 current and former [American] policymakers who served from 1989 to 2008 in national security decision-making roles at the level of assistant secretary, director, and designated policymaking groups within several U.S. government agencies,” he has had greater “influence on U.S. foreign policy in the past 20 years” than any other scholar.  He worries, however, that the bond between academia and government is weakening.  In a widely discussed 2009 op-ed, he observed that “[s]cholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one’s career.  Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers.”

Such jargon was far away when I spoke last week with Professor Nye, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School from 1994 to 2005 and currently University Distinguished Service Professor there.  He gave me a bird’s-eye tour of international relations along with a preview of his upcoming book, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.

POWER GAMES: In Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1991), you thusly countered the declinism of the 1980s:

The United States today retains more traditional hard power resources than any other country.  It also has the soft ideological and institutional resources to retain its leading place in the new domains of transnational interdependence….loose historical analogies and falsely deterministic political theories…may divert Americans from addressing the true nature of their situation.  The problem for U.S. power in the twenty-first century will not be new challengers for hegemony but the new challenges of transnational interdependence (p. 260). 

A little over two decades on, how, if at all, would you revise that assessment? 

JOE NYE: For better or worse, those words still characterize the situation today—but more so. In my 2011 book, The Future of Power, I distinguish power transition between states and power diffusion which is the shift of power from state to nonstate actors.  For reasons I detail there, I do not see China passing the U.S. in overall power in the next few decades, but I do see the current information revolution increasing the role of transnational actors and issues.  Cyberpower is the most dramatic case in point.  

PG: In The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), you asserted that “[t]he key question for the future of American power is whether increases we see in rates of productivity are merely cyclical (and thus likely to be reversed) or structural (and thus capable of being sustained over long periods)” (p. 127). 

A decade on, what’s your verdict? 

JN: The productivity of the American economy declined after the mid-1970s but recovered impressively in the mid-1990s, in part because of the information revolution.  Productivity is now rising, but it is accompanied by high unemployment in the aftermath of the recession.  We do not know yet what the long-term trend will be after this slow recovery from a financial crisis.  It is interesting that the World Economic Forum still ranks the U.S. as the most competitive of the large economies, and that America remains at the forefront of key new technologies like biotechnology and nanotechnology.  

PG: You argued last March that “[t]he greatest danger to America is not debt, political paralysis, or China; it is parochialism, turning away from the openness that is the source of its strength and resting on its laurels.”   

Would you elaborate? 

JN: America’s strength has rested on its ability to attract and draw upon the talents of the rest of the world.  As Lee Kuan Yew once told me, China can draw upon a pool of 1.3 billion people, but the U.S. can draw upon a pool of seven billion, and then recombine them with a creative diversity that is not possible with ethnic Han nationalism.  I think he is right.

PG: In response to the U.S. Department of Defense’s July 2011 Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace, you observed that “[i]n comparison to the nuclear revolution in military affairs, we are chronologically equivalent to 1960, but conceptually more equivalent to 1950.  We are still not clear about the meaning of offense, defense, deterrence, escalation, norms, arms control, or how they fit together into a national strategy.” 

How do you define these terms, and how would you integrate them into such a strategy? 

JN: Cyberspace is new and dynamic.  The impact of the web in creating economic interdependence and vulnerability is only about a decade and a half old.  Currently, the way the Internet is constructed, offense has the advantage over defense, and the type of deterrence through retaliation that characterized the nuclear era is problematic because of anonymity and problems of attribution.  We are not sure how to take the concepts that guided our strategy for the past half century and adapt them to this new era.  One thing, however, seems certain.  The Internet 15 years from now will look very different from today.  This volatility is posing fascinating challenges for strategists.  

PG: Under what conditions would the U.S. transition from relative decline into absolute decline?     

JN: As I mentioned above, I think that the U.S. could suffer absolute decline if it tried to turn inward and cut itself off from the rest of the world.  I do not think it is likely, but it is not impossible in the aftermath of traumatic events.  My forthcoming book with Princeton Press, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, looks at the choices leaders made in the 20th century.  It is fascinating to see how a series of bad choices in the 1920s and 30s set back American power.  

PG: What would be the principal differences between a second-term “Obama Doctrine” and a first-term “Romney Doctrine?”  What, if any, would be the similarities?  

JN: It is almost impossible to answer the question because the Romney foreign policy is so underspecified.  Romney has wanted to keep the focus on the economy.  And even where he has mentioned specifics, we know from the past that positions of other candidates—for example, “getting tough with China”—uttered in a campaign may not be implemented if the candidate has to govern.  

PG: On current trend lines, what will the chief characteristics of Sino-American relations be in 2025?  In 2050?  

JN: Given current trends, China will probably have a larger aggregate economic size by 2025, but still be less than half the American economy in GDP per capita (which is a better measure of the sophistication of an economy).  It will also likely lag behind the U.S. in global military and soft-power resources.  In other words, contrary to the alarmist views that the relations between China and the U.S. will replicate those between Germany and Britain a century ago, it is worth noting that Germany had passed Britain in industrial production by 1900.  The U.S. need not succumb to fear, because it has more time to manage the relationship than Britain had.  As for 2050, much will depend on political evolution in China, and not even the Chinese elite knows how that will play out.  Among the possible futures is one in which China has a successful democratic transition and another in which they remain stuck in an authoritarian middle-income trap.  

PG: Will China’s neighbors indefinitely be able to strengthen their economic ties with China while also strengthening their military and diplomatic ties with the U.S., or will they ultimately have to “choose” one over the other? 

JN: China’s neighbors would prefer not to have to choose.  They would like to benefit from economic relations with China and security relations with the U.S.  Much will depend upon how China behaves.  When we were designing the East Asian strategy in the Clinton administration, I pointed out that trying to arrange a “containment” policy such as we had toward the Soviet Union would be impossible.  As I put it at the time, “only China can contain China.”  If growing Chinese hard power is not accompanied by Chinese soft power, and China acts as a bully, it will push its neighbors into a choice they would rather avoid.  Some think that is happening in the South China Sea today.  

PG: You have concluded that

[t]o cope with the transnational challenges that characterize a global information age, the international community will have to continue to develop a series of complementary networks and institutions that supplement the global framework of the UN.  But if major countries are divided, it is unlikely that even network organizations like the G-20 can set the agenda for the UN and the Bretton Woods financial institutions to act upon.

What types of intercountry divisions are you referring to, and how likely are they to prove manageable? 

JN: Looking back at the UN, it is worth noting that the institutions designed for collective security in 1945 were paralyzed by the ideological divisions of the Cold War.  There were no collective security actions between Korea in 1950 and the Gulf War in 1991.  I doubt that such ideological divisions will become the key problem.  More likely is the increase in diversity and numbers of actors.  As Harlan Cleveland once put it, the problem will be how to get everybody into the act and still get action. 

PG: What is the greatest threat to international stability?  

JN: I would rank nuclear proliferation, and the danger of leakage of nuclear materials from new arsenals, as the greatest threat in the short term of decades, and failing to deal with climate change as the greatest threat in the long term of centuries.  But I would always leave room for surprises.

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