Interview #18 – Joseph Nye

Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., is University Distinguished Service Professor and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 2009, a poll of international relations scholars listed him as one the most influential in the past twenty years and the most influential on American foreign policy. He received his bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Princeton University, studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard where he joined the faculty in 1964. From 1977-79, Nye was a Deputy Under Secretary of State and chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. From 1993-94, he chaired the National Intelligence Council, and from 1994-95, he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He won Distinguished Service medals from all three agencies. Nye has published fourteen books, and more than 150 articles in professional and policy journals. Recent books include Is the American Century Over?, The Future of Power, The Powers to Lead, and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. He is the recipient of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Award, the Charles Merriam Award from the American Political Science Association, France’s Palmes Academiques, and numerous honorary degrees.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Liam Kraft (Virginia Review of Politics): Thanks so much again for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.

Joseph Nye: My pleasure.

Liam Kraft (Virginia Review of Politics): In reflecting on the current status of U.S. foreign policy, Elliot Cohen has written that “our politicians and our foreign-policy establishment … have lost the ability to make the case to the country for prudent American management of an international system whose relative peace for 70 years owes so much to Washington’s leadership.” What do you think is the best case to be made to the American people for continued American management of the international system in the present-day?

JN: Well I think Elliot’s correct that the foreign policy leadership hasn’t explained it well enough, the evidence being the 2016 election. But I also think it’s worth remembering that if you look at public opinion polls, such as the recent one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, something like nearly 60% of the American people want an outward oriented foreign policy, including one with American leadership. So we don’t want to overstate the problem.

But is there a problem? Clearly yes, because candidate-Trump was able to portray this as a system which has hurt the United States. So I think the answer to your question is that the leadership has to make more clear to the American people why the system that was created after 1945 has been both wealthier and safer. And that is a case I think that can be made, but it hasn’t been made adequately.

LK: What do you think that American management of the international order in the present-day should look like, and how is it different from how it’s been in the past?

JN: Well, what’s sometimes called the liberal international order or the American international order, which was established after World War 2, has four major strands. One was a set of security alliances, which are anchored in NATO and in the U.S.-Japan security treaty and the U.S.-South Korea treaty in Asia, but which have provided an important stable anchor against potential aggressors.

The second strand has been the economic strand, which goes back to the Bretton Woods institutions which were created in 1944, which have basically provided a situation where you’ve seen unprecedented growth in the world economy.

And the third strand has been the strand of protecting the global commons. The law of the sea is a classic example of that. But more recently, the efforts to deal with climate change which led to the Paris agreements that President Trump withdrew from. But that was an example of the third strand.

And the fourth strand is essentially a promotion of values relating to democracy and human rights. And that strand has been more imperfectly observed over the period of the last 70-75 years, particularly during the Cold War-era. But nonetheless, a world that’s been led by the United States looks different than a world that would’ve been led had Germany or Japan prevailed in World War 2, or had the Soviet Union prevailed in the Cold War.

LK: It seems that this administration has expressed a greatly reduced emphasis on a values-based foreign policy. Do you think that we can attribute that to Trump, or do you think that there are greater pressures at play that may be driving the U.S. into a less values-based, more transactional, and competition-based foreign policy posture?

JN: Well there have always been different ways of approaching, or pursuing, values. And the United States has sometimes followed the policy of what John Quincy Adams espoused at the time of the Greek civil wars in the 1820s, which was, “we wish well the liberties of all, but protect only our own.” I call that the “City on the Hill” tradition. Others have taken a more activist view that we should indeed intervene to promote democracy and human rights, including to the point of military intervention. George W. Bush’s second inaugural address is a good example of that. I think what you’re seeing, even before 2016, was a reaction against that second strand. And you can see that in some of the policies of the Obama administration. And you certainly see it in many of the statements that Trump has made. But these two extremes, the City on the Hill and the liberal interventionism – there are many points in between on that spectrum. And there are various ways of exercising influence to deport values which don’t either rest simply on sitting on the hill serenely, but also don’t involve military intervention. Most administrations have found different resting points between those two.

I think right now what you’re seeing is a reaction against the fact that George W. Bush took us too far toward the idea of intervening, a sense of trying to create democracy in Iraq, and there was a reaction against that even before Trump. But I think Trump has accentuated that because of his own attitudes and lack of interest in promotion of these values.

LK: In talking about values, I think that it’s probably important to bring up the broader wave of populism that has hit the U.S. and Europe. What do you think are the biggest drivers of populism in the world today? What changes in policy do you feel are essential if we’re to get past this period of the rising threat of populism unscathed?

JN: Well there are various types of populism, and we don’t want to lump them all together. Some aspects of populism can be positive if we think back in history. But let’s address just the sort of the extreme nationalistic populism which has a xenophobic dimension to it. We’ve seen that before in American history with people like Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace. So it’s not totally new. But the recent strand that we’ve seen both here and in Europe – I think the two major causes are economic and cultural. The economic causes are often related to globalization and the development of a global supply chain which means that firms have incentives to move jobs and factories to low cost labor. And that leads to plant closings and a sense of discontent among those who suffer from it. One problem, however, is that the loss of jobs may have as much or more to do with technological changes as with open trade, and indeed, many economists think it has a greater effect. And even if you close borders, you don’t stop some of those technological changes. So in that sense, it’s easy to blame foreigners in the form of trade when the causes may be far more complex. But that’s one set of causes – the economic.

But the other set of causes, which perhaps are even more important, are cultural. And that’s changes in people’s status and sense of identity. That is often stimulated very much by immigration, particularly in parts of Europe where you find large scale immigration threatening traditions and cultural identities. In the United States, immigration obviously played a role. Though we’re a country which was built on immigrants, we have a long history of complaining about immigration, but then eventually accepting it and prospering from it. But there’s another dimension to the United States, which is the cultural changes that have occurred since the ‘60s and ‘70s in terms of race and gender. That has often led to reaction against these changes, which are reinforced then by questions of immigration. So those two causes are somewhat interrelated; they affect each other but they each are independent. There’s a very interesting academic article by my colleague Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, and they look at survey research data for both Europe and the United States and identify both sets of causes, but I think they place more emphasis on the cultural causes.

LK: Still talking about the role of values in U.S. foreign policy, how do you think that value promotion as a foreign policy priority should relate to the management of critical bilateral relationships? So, for example, in U.S.-China relations, one argument that’s given is that we have to be careful not to let criticism of the regime’s record on human rights and authoritarianism crowd out cooperation on arguably more important security issues, like the South China Sea, or North Korea, or even trade. Do you think that this argument carries any legitimacy or is it missing the point?

JN: Well there are always, in foreign policy, trade-offs as a country tries to reach multiple goals, some of which are correlated and others which diverge. If you had a pure human rights policy, you wouldn’t have a foreign policy. On the other hand, there’s no reason you can’t have a foreign policy that includes a human rights dimension. So it becomes a practical matter of how you deal with a particular country on a particular issue, but it doesn’t mean you check your values at the door.

LK: Moving on to China, do you see a China that is actively picking up the slack from a Trump administration that has been questioning the traditional U.S. role in global governance, or do you see China failing to avoid the Kindleberger Trap that you’ve pointed to in recent years?

JN: Well I just returned from Singapore from a meeting that included a number of high-ranking Asians last weekend, and there’s a clear feeling among many of these Asians that the U.S. has created something of a vacuum in leadership under the Trump administration, and that China has been moving to try to fill it. In that sense, I think that China has tried to move in. Xi Jinping gave a speech at the World Economic Forum a year ago touting China’s leadership in free trade or liberal trade. But when one looks carefully at China’s trade record, it’s far from liberal or a perfect market economy. So, the Chinese have moved to fill the vacuum, but their behavior hasn’t always been up to their words. At the same time, it’s worth noticing that China is now the major trading partner with all Asian countries, that the United States is not the leading trading partner with these countries. And when Trump announced withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that just increased the feeling of vacuum on the part of Asian leaders.

LK: What is your assessment of Chinese soft power in the present-day, and in what ways does Chinese leadership on areas like technology and climate change affect the soft power or appeal of the Chinese model, as well as China’s hard power?

JN: Well China gets a good deal of soft power, which is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment, through the success of its economic model. And it deserves credit for raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and in that sense, there is a firm basis for attraction toward China, or for Chinese soft power.

The Chinese have also talked about how to increase their soft power, and they have made major efforts to use Chinese cultural institutions to make the country more attractive and to enhance their soft power. But they have certain drawbacks or limits to what they can do. One is the fact that they can’t free their civil society from party control, and that means that some talented Chinese who would attract others (for example, Ai Weiwei) are assets that are not being utilized as they would be in a freer country. The other problem the Chinese have is that they have territorial disputes with a number of their neighbors, and that makes them less attractive. It’s hard to make people think of how attractive Chinese culture is through the establishment of a Confucius Institute, if Chinese warships are chasing your ships away from a contested island or reef. So those are limits on Chinese soft power.

China gets soft power from its economic performance and culture, but those two limits – the internal constraints of party control and civil society, and its external conflicts with neighbors – limit the soft power. At the same time, as China adheres to agreements like the Paris Climate Accord, that helps them. That helps restore a bit of their attractiveness to others.

LK: In terms of U.S. soft power, although this isn’t a new phenomenon, it seems that the differing goals and priorities of the various agencies of U.S. foreign policy sometimes create a U.S. foreign policy whose commitment to promoting soft power is certainly less than cohesive. For example, the State Department might speak emphatically about human rights and democracy promotion, whereas ultimately the CIA is going to place national security prerogatives above soft power considerations. Do you think that there’s any room for greater bureaucratic coordination in such a way that might produce a more consistent U.S. foreign policy and perhaps one that features a more coordinated effort to strengthen soft power?

JN: Well, that’s what presidents are for, which is to provide leadership which overcomes differences among bureaucratic agencies. And one of the things that’s interesting in the current Trump administration is that the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has described Trump’s budget or the White House budget as a hard power budget, and they recommend cutting the budget of the State Department by 30%. At the same time, it’s interesting that General Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, had warned Congress that if you cut the State budget, and you cut out soft power, “you’re going to have to buy me more bullets.” So that’s a little bit counterintuitive, in the sense that yes there’s bureaucratic dispute about soft power, but not from the directions you would first imagine. And if you had a different White House leadership, you might be able to have a more coherent policy.

LK: In one of your Project Syndicate articles, you examined the question of “How much does Trump matter?” What do you think are the areas or issues of U.S. foreign policy that Trump seems likely to pose the most long term damage or impact on, and which areas or issues do you think are the most insulated from Trump on U.S. foreign policy?

JN: Well if you go back to the four strands that I argued were created after 1945, though Trump talked about weakening our alliances, and in fact, he called NATO obsolete during his campaign, it only took him a few months into his administration to decide that NATO was not obsolete. And he quickly reaffirmed the U.S.-Japan security treaty which is anchored to the American position in East Asia. So of the four strands, the security strand seems to have been the most resilient, and the economic strand, particularly related to trade, seems to be the area that’s most threatened. We’ll have to see what damage Trump does to the World Trade Organization, and to the rules-based system for multilateral trade. We’re in the midst of watching that drama play out right now.

On issues of the global commons, the third strand, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, but that won’t take effect until really near the end of his term, and many people think that this is a longer term important problem, and that while Trump’s actions are something of a short-term setback, the real questions are going to play out over a longer period.

That then leaves the values question – that’s the fourth strand – and there Trump has definitely moved the United States pretty far along that spectrum away from defense of democracy and human rights. But, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve seen that go up and down over the decades. So I would think, of the four strands, the one that is probably most endangered will be the economic strand, particularly trade. And we’ll have to see how that plays out.

LK: You’ve characterized Russia as a power that is fundamentally in decline. What are the major risks that Russia poses currently on the international stage, and how concerned should the U.S. be about the current deteriorating state of relations between the West and Moscow?

JN: Well, we definitely should be concerned about Russia, because it has the capacity to do enormous damage, and declining countries are often more risk-acceptant than rising countries. Remember that Austria-Hungary was in decline and it was the major power in 1914 that was most acceptant of the risks that led to the disaster of World War I. So we should worry about Russia. On the other hand, the ability to affect what happens in Russia is somewhat limited. When you see something like the invasion of Ukraine, or the interference in the 2016 election, or the recent poisoning of a former Russian intelligence person in Britain, it’s appropriate that we use sanctions to indicate to Russia that there are certain limits and certain prices that are paid by outrageous behavior. Otherwise, they’ll have no interest in moderating that behavior. But at the same time, we have to remember that world politics is a bit like a hockey game. You can put somebody in the penalty box, and that can have a severe effect, but at some point, the game has to go on.

LK: Regarding the appointment of John Bolton to the position of National Security Advisor, Stephen Walt asks the question, “What sort of political system allows someone with his views to serve in high office, where he helps talk the country into a disastrous war, never expresses a moment’s regret for his errors, continues to advocate for more of the same for the next decade, and then gets a second chance to make the same mistakes again?” Similarly, we see the naming of Larry Kudlow as Trump’s chief economic advisor, one of the most unrepentantly wrong pundits about the 2008 financial crisis. To what extent do these kinds of appointments represent more of a systemic problem with the marketplace for policy ideas?

JN: I think they represent the particular personality of Donald Trump, who wants to be reinforced in his own views rather than people who check his views. And I think there are serious mistakes in both instances, but I don’t think it’s a problem of the marketplace for ideas as much as a problem in the fact that the 2016 election, by about 80,000 votes in 3 key states in the electoral college, produced a president whose personality type is unlike any we’ve seen before.

LK: Talking about the realm of policy ideas, in 2009, you warned of a growing gap between academics and government. Recently, the debate has started rising up again between scholars such as Hal Brands, who attributed much of the blame to the biases and out of touchness of academics, and John Glaser, who very recently contended that the problem lies far more “with the policymaking establishment that is resistant to external input”. Where do you stand on the gap between foreign policy scholarship and practice? Is it productive to assign blame to either side or do we have to be looking at both in order to make progress on this front?

JN: Oh, blame can be shared equally between the two sides. On the one hand, many academics have turned toward an excessively narrow disciplinary approach to their academic work. On the other hand, many policymakers have failed to realize that there’s value to be gained from having people who can help you take a longer term perspective toward the policy issues that are crowding your inbox. And what one finds when one is in the policy position is that you’re drinking from a fire hose. You don’t have time to step back and do a careful and thoughtful analysis. In that sense, if you are provided with helpful and digestible pieces of history, which can go beyond simple analogies and metaphors, but can stretch out some of the possible scenarios and futures that might arise from your current decisions, that can be useful or helpful. But it has to be presented in a manner which is accessible to the policymaker, and many academics don’t do that.

LK: Thanks so much again for your time Dr. Nye!