Soft Power and Smart Power
An Interview with Joseph Nye Jr.
Joseph Nye Jr. is one of the most influential figures in postwar international relations. He has combined a career as a leading academic at Harvard, where he was Dean of the Kennedy School of Government between 1995 and 2004, with service to multiple Presidents stretching back to Jimmy Carter. Under Bill Clinton he was Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and under Barack Obama a member of the Foreign Affairs Policy Board. His memoir - “A Life in the American Century” - is about to be published in the US and will be published in the UK in March. In it, he looks back over his storied career and discusses the challenges facing the US, and the wider world, today.
In this interview Joe discusses some of the now famous terms he coined, including “soft power” and “smart power” (the successful combination of hard and soft power). We also talked about America’s changing role in the world, challenges to liberalism, the field of international relations, and career advice for someone who wants to work in it today.
You describe yourself as being a public intellectual and you're almost the exemplar: you've been in and out of government, been a Dean at Harvard and written books that still have an impact in the discipline. Its quite an all-round performance. There is one point in your book where you say that the academic is allowed to be curious while when you're in government you don't really have that opportunity. Then later on you refer to moving out of government with the sudden loss of adrenaline and having to deal with the humdrum side of academic life. So how did you manage to balance these two roles and which - in the end - did you enjoy most?
Well, I enjoyed both, but as the economists say, looking at my revealed preferences, I eventually went back to academia. But I think the main difference between academia and policy is not just power, which is obvious, it's also time. When you're in government, it's like drinking from a fire hose, your inbox is constantly overflowing. There are people who demand you testify before Congress. There are foreign diplomats who want to come see you and it's urgent. And the idea that you can sit down and think through a problem. It's very hard to do.
I used to sometimes put on my calendar a meeting which didn't have a description. It just said: Intelligence. But it wasn't. I had my principal deputies come in and said for an hour now we're going to think about what do we really do about North Korea or what is going to happen with the issue of the Senkaku Islands off of Japan. By putting it on the calendar, I was sometimes able to rescue enough time to do some degree of thinking. And transmit it to my key deputies. But in the ordinary course of the day's events you just don't have time.
Whereas in academia you try to write an article or a book and you don't get it just right. So you put it aside or you rewrite it, or you do two or three versions, and if it's published a year later than expected, it doesn't matter all that much. Well, if you are writing a memo for the President or the Secretary of State about a Foreign Secretary who is about to come in and visit that afternoon, and you say no, I'm going to get it just right, I'm going to polish it up from this B plus, I'm going to make it an A and you get it in 10 minutes late, it's an F total failure. So that's the difference between academia and government.
The power aspect is also important and that affects this question of how do you accumulate power to get things done and at the same time stay honest to yourself and to your basic ideas. And that's true for the role of public intellectual as well as when you're in office. And so power is clearly very important, but the less obvious problem is time.
In some ways issues of power have dominated your academic work from the start. From your early work on complex interdependence and then more obviously, soft power. It is also taken up with how America exercises power and how seriously American power is taken, and then the role of individuals in influencing that power. So is it fair to say that power is the dominant issue in your career - both in terms of understanding it and exercising it?
I think that's an accurate statement. Bob Keohane and I co-authored “Power and Interdependence” in the mid-1970s. We were intrigued that the OPEC countries were able to take hundreds of billions of dollars from the richest countries in the world without military force being used. Hans Morgenthau, the great international theorist, said it was the greatest transfer of wealth that he'd seen without the use of force, and so we were trying to understand how you cope with this new dimension of power. And we argued that asymmetrical interdependence provides power and that non state actors such as the transnational oil companies can also provide power.