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.

Follow Ali Wyne on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo Credit: James Thew/

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.