Hard Times for Soft Power: A Q&A with Joseph Nye

Harvard political scientist reflects on a career of reframing power politics for a more complex, interdependent world.

Image of Joseph Nye at the Manshel Lecture

Last December, the Weatherhead Center recognized the upcoming retirement of University Distinguished Service Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr. by dedicating the 2016 Manshel Lecture on American Foreign Policy to him. One of the most influential foreign affairs scholars of our time, Nye served as Center director from 1989 to 1992—though his roots at the Center trace back to its infancy in 1961, when he was a research assistant to Director Robert Bowie.

Nye's accomplishments run deep. He began his distinguished career as a Harvard faculty member at the Kennedy School of Government in 1964, and became the school's dean in 1995. He held security appointments in both the Carter and Clinton administrations, and his thought leadership has influenced heads of state and policy makers around the world. He is perhaps best known for coining the term “soft power,” which describes the ability of states or institutions to attract and persuade others through noncoercive means.

The Weatherhead Center sat down with Nye to discuss the fate of soft power in the context of current US foreign affairs—and also asked him to share his memories of early days at the CFIA.

Q: Isn’t it poignant that you're retiring at a time when the curtain is coming down on soft power? 

A: I don't think the curtain’s going down on soft power. I think that the Trump administration is making a mistake by ignoring soft power. But it'll be back. Power is the ability to affect others, to get what you want. You do this through coercion or payment or attraction. It's very rare that you have only one form of power; you use many types of power. I think despite the fighting over the budget, there will still be plenty of soft power in the government budget.

A lot of a country’s soft power is generated not by government but civil society. And that's everything from our universities to our popular culture, like Hollywood. To foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and so forth, to our practice of a free press and open discussion. These are the things which generate soft power. 

Q: Has US soft power taken a hit already? 

A: I think it probably will.  

There is a consultancy called Portland in London that publishes an index of soft power every year that ranks the top thirty countries. The United States last year was number one. China incidentally was number twenty-eight. Russia was twenty-seven or something like that. I suspect that next year it's unlikely the United States will be number one. 

Q: Do you think Trump represents a new kind of power, driven by force of personality? Corporations and heads of state are already making promises that align with his positions. 

A: That kind of power has been around for a long time. It’s also not clear how much of that is attraction as much as it is coercion. Is it really saying, “if you want to prosper, you should do this now”? There’s really nothing new about soft power; it's a component of human behavior. It's just that I tended to isolate it and describe it as something we needed to pay more attention to, in the book I published in 1990, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. I didn't discover it; it had been there since the beginning of time (laughs).

Q: Does anyone in the current administration embrace soft power?

A: When someone like Mulvaney [Trump’s budget director] announces that his budget is a hard power budget and that he's taking money out of the State Department to give it to the Defense Department, that's discouraging. It's very shortsighted. On the other hand it's encouraging to see General Mattis, secretary of defense, say “if you take money out of the State Department that means I have to buy more ammo.” Or you see someone like Lindsey Graham, a defense hawk, a Republican from South Carolina, making a statement saying we have to invest in soft power. The Trump administration doesn't get it. But some do. 

Q: Some say we are at a point of an unprecedented political and ideological divide in our country right now. Do you believe there is any truth to this?

A: Well these are difficult times and you can look at statistics that show polarization and so forth. I don’t want to belittle that. But people who think that the sky is falling down, many of them haven't lived through the 1960s. We had three major political figures assassinated—two Kennedys and Martin Luther King; a president driven from office by the unpopularity of his war policies—Johnson; and we had another president driven from office due to his abuse of the political and judicial process—Nixon. 

We had riots in the streets and large parts of cities being burned. We had killings at Kent State, where the National Guard shot down students who were protesting. Whatever you think about the current period, we haven't gone through those things yet. 

Yes, we have a difficult time now, but it’s worth noting this country's lived through even more difficult times in the past. You have to remember George Wallace and his campaign of open racism and populism which everybody complains about now—we've had populism both in the form of Wallace and the person of Joe McCarthy. 

Image of crowd protesting Trump's travel ban

Q: Can you see new forms of soft power emerging? 

A: Social media are playing a much larger role. In the past, during the Cold War, you had the Voice of America, for example. And now you have Facebook. And the interesting question will be how will social media avoid being manipulated with fake news. 

We’ve seen the beginnings of efforts to counter this…by using social media for positive purposes. It’s like a game of cat and mouse; it goes back and forth. I don't see the cat or the mouse winning the definitive battle. 

Q: Isn’t it true that today anyone can launch their own platform, but in the past, they couldn't make their own Voice of America very easily.

A: That's right. And that diffusion of power which information technology’s produced is a very different type of world. I wrote a book in 2011 called The Future of Power in which I said two great power transitions are going on in the world. One was horizontal, from West to East, Europe to Asia, and that's the rise of China and India and so forth. But the other is vertical, from governments to nongovernmental actors. And that's driven by the information revolution, particularly cyber technology, which allows nonstate actors to have access to information and instruments of power much greater than in the past. And of those two—one which I call a power transition and the other power diffusion—power diffusion is much more new to us. It’s also much more difficult for us to understand and cope with. Both are having a profound effect on international politics. We've got to keep an eye on both at the same time. 

Q: If there's a greater flow of information wouldn’t that support the growth of democracy in other countries, such as China? 

A: Maybe. This is one of the great questions: as more citizens can get access to more information, they are going to put on more demands. But the question is to what extent will authoritarian governments be able to control and manipulate that? What we see is that governments like Russia and China have been able to manipulate this. 

One of the intriguing questions is what's going to happen to China in the long term. Bill Clinton made a statement when he was president in which he said the Internet is going to change China and that trying to control the Internet was “like nailing Jell-O to the wall.” Well, the Chinese government and party have been very good at nailing Jell-O to the wall. With that said, it's still a different China than it was. There are just many more Chinese who know a lot more. And when you go to China…one of the things that’s striking is how much so many people know. Many of them have virtual private networks or know how to work around the “Great Firewall” and are quite aware of what's going on in the rest of the world. The question is what will that mean over time, when it comes to the ability of authoritarian governments to manipulate the press? I don't expect it'll produce democracy, as we think of parliamentary democracy. But I think it's going to make it much harder for the party to exercise the kinds of controls that we used to worry about in the 1930s, so called totalitarianism where you tried to control the thoughts that were going on in people's minds, the dystopias that George Orwell wrote about.

Q: Don't we have this in North Korea right now? 

A: Yes. And the interesting thing about North Korea is that it really is a remnant from a different age. There are very few North Koreas. The Kim regime has proved extraordinarily adept at preserving itself despite this. When you look at maps of the Korean Peninsula taken by satellites at night, the northern half of the peninsula is dark and the southern half is lighted. Eventually I think you are going to see the whole peninsula lighted. 

Q: Isn’t it amazing that a country like North Korea can still keep control when information is literally floating through the air?

A: It is extraordinary. I was struck by reading a recent essay that was comparing the great dystopias of the 1920s and 1930s: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 (which was written in the 1940s). They were both focused on the totalitarian model of the 1930s. In hindsight, Orwell was less prescient than Huxley. Orwell predicted a world of North Koreas and there really aren't many. There's one. Huxley predicted a world in which hedonism and mass media and entertainment corrupted the meaning of truth and disrupted values. I think that probably is the greater danger. Brave New World I think may be more of a threat to us than 1984

Q: I want to switch the topic to something that you mentioned at the Manshel Lecture, that you underestimated or overlooked the power of religion. 

A: Yes. When Bob (Keohane) and I did our early work on transnational relations, we did have a chapter on the Catholic Church. So we didn't totally ignore it. But the church was an institution; I don't think we paid enough attention to religious movements which were less organized but quite powerful. We now focus on Islam, but many people would say the spread of Evangelical Protestantism into countries like Brazil or into Central America is equally impressive. There was the idea that the Catholic Church was the only religion that controlled Latin America, but that’s not true.

There are many things happening in religion besides the current fixation on Islam. And I don't think in retrospect that we paid enough attention to that. 

Image of Joseph Nye quotation

Q: But aren’t we fixated on radical Islam because it poses threats to our security?

A: That’s the one that gets the attention because you're seeing terrorism associated with a fringe of radical Islam. It’s not just religion that's driving this. As some people have said the problem with some of these Islamist terrorists is not too much religion but too little. Many of them are people who don't fully understand the religion but have been misfits in their society and then turn to a distorted version of religion as something to put order into their lives. 

Q: So they are using our soft power against us? 

A: They are using our soft power against us. They're also using the soft power of religion to attract others. Bin Laden didn't point a gun at the people who flew those planes. He attracted them with a distorted version of religion to commit mass murder. Soft power can be used by bad people as well as by good people. What we have to realize is that you can only deal with those bad people by isolating them. And that requires police and intelligence work and the ability to attract their co-religionists. The secret to dealing with the radical fringe is to be attractive to moderate Muslims through our own values and approaches. And that's why it's so mistaken to have travel bans based on religion or other forms of discrimination because we're alienating the people we need most if we're to defeat radicalism as terrorism. 

Q: Turning back to your history with the Center, can you reflect on what role it played in the development of your career? 

A: I regard it as being critical to my intellectual development. It proved to be extremely important in developing my ideas, because I branched out to look at the ways in which economics and politics interacted to affect international affairs. That led to work that was quite interdisciplinary. So I benefited from a place that had great political scientists like Stanley Hoffman and Henry Kissinger but also great economists like Tom Schelling and Ray Vernon, and sociologists like Alex Inkeles.

Q:  What was your major focus of research while at the CFIA? 

A: The work that was seminal in terms of developing my career was done in the early 1970s with Robert Keohane. We did a book on what we called transnational relations—things that cross borders outside control of governments, and how that was affecting world politics. At the time of the Arab oil embargo in 1973, we looked at the way international politics was being changed by economics. Then we wrote a book together called Power and Interdependence. It took the study of international politics away from just bombs and bullets and security affairs and broadened it to include transnational actors and interdependence. 

As a place, the CFIA was a congenial home for developing ideas. You had more people from different backgrounds than you would have if you lived in just one department.

Q: Do you have any memories from that time?

A: Oh yes, our building was bombed. We were invaded and Ben Brown [advisor to the Fellows Program] was taken off to the hospital. Another time we were invaded and my office was totally trashed; all my books were thrown on the floor. Typewriters were thrown through the partitions. That was, of course, the Vietnam War. There was a rumor that the CFIA was the seedbed of planning, because Henry Kissinger had had his office there. For my sins, or as a reward…when Henry went to Washington I was given his office. The first thing I did was put a peace sticker on the window. That did absolutely no good when the bricks came flying through. 

It was bad. And all this was based on rumors; it wasn't true. But at that time there was such anger about the Vietnam War that anything which was regarded as a target, that might have something to do with Vietnam, was regarded as fair game by the protesters, some of whom were students but a lot of them were not. 

Q: But you were working on a school of thought that centered around peaceful cooperation and interdependence between nations, not power politics. So the protesters made a mistake, didn’t they?

A: I think that was kind of irrelevant. I was opposed to the Vietnam war. 

For people who were trying to send a message to Washington by trashing Henry Kissinger's former office or the building which was allegedly the seat of planning for the Vietnam War…it didn’t matter what people really thought. I sometimes use the crude metaphor that you were like the hydrant the dog came upon, you were handy. 

Q: Overall, you sound pretty optimistic that our country will prevail and be resilient? 

A: I don't want to sound like Pollyanna; we can have bad things happen. 

I do think that we have seen a coarsening of our political discourse. We’ve seen a polarization of political attitudes which is reinforced by geographical division, by gerrymandering of congressional districts. These things are bad. 

But there were times in our past when we didn't live up to our values in ways which are even worse than our failure to live up to our values fully now…

With a certain amount of historical perspective you realize that there is a resiliency in what's called Madisonian government which is based on checks and balances. There is still a political culture which does care about a rule of law. There’s an independent judiciary and an independent press. When things are distorted, they fight back. 

Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Joseph S. Nye, Jr., is retiring this year as a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has served as assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and deputy under secretary of state for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. In 2011, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 Global  Thinkers. For a full list of Nye’s publications, visit his faculty page at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

Photo Captions

  1. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. celebrating at the reception following the Manshel Lecture on December 12, 2016. Photo credit: Martha Stewart
  2. Thousands gather in Boston, MA, on January 29, 2017 to protest President Trump’s executive order to restrict travelers from predominantly Muslim countries. Photo used with permission for the Weatherhead Center