Sunday, September 11, 2011

Joe Nye at the School of Int'l Service, American U

Joseph Nye visited American University on Thursday, September 8,  for a talk about his latest book, Future of Power. The room was packed and the small number of books available sold out within minutes. Although the book had come out earlier this year and Dr. Nye had been actively promoting it in person and in the media, this talk was particularly timely, since I had spent the first half of the week reading on Realism.

Photo courtesy of Manith Hang

Nye started the talk by briefly outlining the major points in his book. It seems that his theory has come a long way from the initial concept of "Soft Power", evolving and taking on further dimensions. Here are some highlights:

Power is the ability to affect others to get the things you want. Tools:
1. Sticks: threats and coercion
2. Carrots: payments, economic incentives
3. Soft Power: getting others to want what you want [and although Soft Power does not solve all problems, it can help you save a lot on carrots and sticks].

Smart Power, on the other hand, combines all three, and is thus most effective and valuable.

Major power shifts of the 21st Century:
Power Transition: shift among states, namely from West to East (i.e. Asia)
Power Diffusion: from states to non-state actors

Power Transition

According to Nye, the center of world politics is rapidly shifting towards Asia, which he sees more of a "recovery" than emergence. Yet, he specifically underscored his belief that it applies to all of Asia - which is not a unitary entity - and not just China. Skeptical of Americans' most recent "scare", Nye warned against too much hype around "The Rise of China" and the basic Realist belief that wars often start due to perceived threats. Firstly, he suggested that a more economically (or militarily) powerful China will not necessarily engage in conflict with the U.S. Secondly, he argued that although China might be doing better overall - whether in terms of total economic prosperity or relative to its own former military capabilities (as it is still too far away from the U.S. in those terms) - when taken per capita, it is easy to see that it can in no way compete with the United States.

As for Soft Power... Indeed, the Chinese government has been making a concerted effort to improve its global performance over the past several years. Nye said, however, that China doesn't seem to realize that much of American Soft Power doesn't come from its government but rather its civil society as well as its values. Noting China's authoritarian political system, as well as its top-down and centralized "Soft Power activities", he argued that China will most likely achieve very little success in that regard.

Nye discussing his then newly published book with Al Jazeera's Riz Khan, in April 2011

Power Diffusion

The Information Revolution of the past several decades has also significantly affected the nature of global politics. Various ICTs have become much more affordable and widely available, giving rise to new non-state actors as well as empowering the already existing ones - whether positive or negative (the latter will largely depend on the perspective). What is more, Nye pointed out the significance of the "new alternative" power capabilities and vulnerabilities, emphasizing the importance of thinking beyond the military security realm, per se. He rejected the idea that the state is no longer relevant; however, he pointed out that it now has to function in a much more crowded environment.

The 3D Chessboard:

Based on his categorization of three "kinds" of power, Nye has developed the idea of a three-dimensional distribution of power around the world. According to him:

- First Dimension: Military relations --> are still largely unipolar, with one dominant power (the U.S.) in the lead

- Second Dimension: Economic relations --> largely multipolar, with a number of major actors dominating the field

- Third Dimension: Transnational relations --> chaotic distribution of power, often held by non-state actors, results in a large number of issues of a new nature.

Nye seems to be focusing mostly on the latter dimension, emphasizing the need for state actors to cooperate so as to be able to find a solution to the problems they face. Again, he is not discounting the importance of the other aspects of power; yet, he insists on a holistic approach that incorporates elements of all, i.e. "Smart Power".

There were a couple of things that struck me about his talk, particularly in light of my recent exploration of Realist thought. Keeping to his criticism of it, Nye pointed out that power, especially the 21st Century power, is not a zero-sum game: it's not a "power over" but rather "power with" others. States should not perceive military threats from other states simply because their overall economic indicators seem to be improving. On the contrary, they should start paying more attention to "non-traditional" transnational threats and devise innovative approaches to dealing with them. That is where he suggested that the U.S. and China should cooperate, for example, instead of engaging in a competition over perceived threats.

Yes, got it signed :)

It was interesting to see Nye emphasizing the the third dimension of power (i.e. the transnational issues) to that extent, as well as focusing so much on the short to meduim-term. Indeed, it might be decades before the various dimensions of power really shift towards Asia (and here I mean for real), but what would he suggest as a reasonable course of action after that point has been reached? What is more, what if China - precisely due to its authoritarian nature - does use its newly found riches to keep investing heavily in military capabilities, despite the inadequacy in terms of per capita income? Nye does reject the Realist perspective, and yet he still seems to be trying to make a "rational choice" argument, falling victim to several of the latter's most prominent fallacies: wishful thinking, readjustment of desires with the perceived set of given (and increasingly limited) opportunities, and - the very basic - tendency for irrational choices.

What is more, I'm still stuck with the question: if this is where anarchy persists, and if this is the more "problematic" dimension, why should states try to dominate over those non-state actors if he is indeed advocating against a Realist approach? Does that imply that there should, still, be an aspiration to achieve hegemony - even if just regional - so as to have a more stable and predictable "system" for states to operate in?

Yet, I should admit I have just started reading the book and most of these questions might be answered or clarified there already (i.e. more thoughts coming later, after I've gone through it). Dr. Nye had a noteworthy quote about Realism, however, which is quite telling and is hopefully explored further in the book:

"Realism is a good place to start the analysis of international politics, but it's a lousy place to end it."

I certainly look forward to reading more!

Lastly, I found it interesting that Nye specifically pointed out that in the U.S. power is still overwhelmingly thought of in traditional (i.e. Realist) terms. John Mearsheimer, however, had suggested that the American public is averse to Realpolitik and the discourse surrounding it, and that is why policymakers - among whom Realism is actually quite alive and kicking - often tend to cloak their actions in liberal rhetoric.

That was Mearsheimer ten years ago and quite obviously a lot has changed since, both in U.S. foreign policy as well as in domestic public discourse: both seem to have become much more Realist, despite the increasing realization of the significance of the so-called "Soft Power" dimension. I'm curious to see if the American public sentiment will stick to this trend (or rather, dare I say, will keep reacting to all the rhetoric from certain political circles), creating yet another intellectual/practitioner divide over theoretical analysis that has been trying to chase reality.

Most of all, I'm curious to see how it affects American public diplomacy and its effectiveness.

And, to end with another highlight, since it's the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, here is a Joe Nye piece from New York Times, reflecting on the events and subsequent developments:


  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking post ... It would be great if you could follow-up when you are done with reading the book...
    Some impressions in brief:
    - Much of what he says has already been said.
    - Realpolitik has been around and prominent and is unlikely to grow less influential.
    - I don't think a "rational choice" argument is used only by Realism.
    - I think more attention should be paid to the economic dimension (no one has yet disproved the Marxist dictum that "politics is concentrated economy") and not only to economic relations per se but to economic processes and development and their interaction with economic relations between nations.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Some thoughts:
    - Indeed, most of this is nothing new. It's not even new coming from him. He just put it all in a book format.
    - It does seem that regardless of their "ideological" and "intellectual" inclinations, most would agree that Realpolitik is the fundamental driver in international politics. Everything else comes after. That doesn't mean, however, that there can or should be no aspiration for something better, right? :)
    - Indeed, the economic dimension might have lost its significance over the past decade or so as the military and the "soft power" dimensions rule the day (at least in public rhetoric). And yet, in the end of the day, they're all referring to "power" in whatever shape or form, which is only a means to a greater end: influence. I realize it's inevitable, especially in international politics, and yet it is sad...