Joe Nye and the American Century

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A Life in the American Century

By Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Polity Books/2024

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE March 15, 2024

Joe Nye and the American Century

While the scholar-practitioner model for harnessing intellectual capital for public purpose is not uniquely American, no country does it better than the United States.

Since Franklin Roosevelt brought his “brains trust” (it evolved into “brain trust”) to Washington in 1932, successive administrations have called on their “best and brightest” to translate ideas into practical policy. And few have done it better over the decades than Joe Nye, as he chronicles in his memoir, A Life in the American Century

Nye, now 87, was four years old when Henry Luce famously proclaimed the start of the ‘American century’ in a Life Magazine editorial in February 1941. Luce urged Americans to forsake isolationism and embrace the role of ‘Good Samaritan’ in promoting democracy at home and abroad.

Nye — as part of that cohort of American thinkers that ruled the world intellectually after the ‘greatest generation’ took off their uniforms and came home to find their country was now a superpower — has personally lived up to that aspiration but without Luce’s missionary zeal.

Schooled at Princeton, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar in 1958), and Harvard, Nye inherited Henry Kissinger’s Harvard office (but not his politics), eventually becoming dean of the Kennedy School. Author or contributor to dozens of important books and an equal number of studies, he continues to be an active commentator in print and in person.

As a leading proponent, with Robert Keohane, of neoliberalism in international affairs, their Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (1977) maintains that environmental and economic issues deserve commensurate attention with military might in a globalized world. They also argued presciently that while states matter, transnational actors such as multinational corporations, foundations, terrorists, religious groups, and nongovernmental organizations must also be fitted into the equation.

Nye’s memoir describes his own activities in support of democratic internationalism as both scholar and practitioner. The Nye ‘method’ — developing a superb network that crossed party and international lines — comes through in almost every page. So does his cultivation of his many contacts and connections to develop public policy that served Americans and the global community, beginning with his postgraduate work in East Africa.

Nye is perhaps best known for his work in defining ‘power’ as more than military might. If power is defined as “the capacity to affect others to get what you want, that can be accomplished in three ways: coercion, payment, and attraction.” Given its heterogeneous and merit-driven culture, Nye assessed the US as uniquely placed to persuade others.

In Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (1990), Nye developed the concept of “soft power”; the ability to influence others through attraction rather than coercion or payment, writing that “If you can get others to want what you want, you can economize on sticks and carrots.” Nye told me, when I questioned him in a forthcoming episode of the Global Exchange podcast on the balance between hard and soft power, that hard power is essential. Middle-power Canada has soft power but it needs to invest more in its hard power.

Nye tested his ideas — notably on the linkage between politics and economics, nuclear non-proliferation and then his formulations on hard, soft and smart power — through his teaching and active participation in associations bringing together the best thinkers and doers of town and gown from the US and around the world.

Given its heterogeneous and merit-driven culture, Nye assessed the US as uniquely placed to persuade others.

Nye played a leading role and remains active in groups such as the Trilateral CommissionAspen Strategy GroupCouncil on Foreign Relations, the American Ditchley Foundation, as well as the Global Commission on Internet Governance and the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace. His memoir provides snippets of their conversations, debates and discussions, drawing from his diaries and reports.

But Nye acknowledges that the views and advice of the scholarly community only go so far. “Launching policy ideas from outside government is like dropping pennies into a deep well. Sometimes you hear a splash; sometimes you think you hear it but are just fooling yourself.” So, says Nye, you settle for indirect influence through your students, or as a public intellectual; or, you get into the ring of politics and governance.

Nye stepped into the ring, providing foreign policy advice to various Democrats and doing real jobs within government, observing that “government differs from academia in its enormous pressure on time and the power of being able to make decisions. It is intense but narrow. University life is less directly concerned with time and power, and that allows one’s curiosity to range more broadly and provides a chance to ask deeper questions.”

Nye served in the State Department during the Carter administration as Undersecretary of Security, Science and Technology, and chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He found practical ways to contain nuclear proliferation, and non-proliferation remains one of his continuing pursuits.

Nye differentiates among hawks, doves and owls, arguing that neither the “hawk’s position of peace through strength and military build-up nor the dove’s position of peace through disarmament was sufficiently stable, and both involved great risks.” Instead, Nye came down with the owls, focusing on risk reduction rather than the number of armaments or weapons, and suggested a practical list of “dos and don’ts”.

In the Clinton administration, Nye was chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and then at the Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Policy. During the Obama administration, he sat on the Defense Policy Board and the State Department’s Policy Advisory Committee. While Nye’s name was not as widely known beyond the political or diplomatic spheres as Henry Kissinger or Richard Holbrooke (Nye recognized it was better for his family and himself living in New England than the hothouse of Washington), it has been a measure of his influence that every Democratic president from Carter onward invariably sought the advice of Joe Nye.

Nye’s observations on policy versus operations are trenchant: “It was like choosing between the temptations of omnipotence and omniscience. In policy, you have your hands on the levers but lack the time to see the broad perspective; in intelligence, you can see everything but are not supposed to touch the policy levers.”

As NIC chair, Nye set about improving the quality of intelligence estimates with better procedures for warning and planning, including basic economic reasoning, bringing in outsiders, including women, from the research community and other government agencies, and better use of sources outside the intelligence community, including open source intelligence that he likened to “the picture on the cover of the box of a jigsaw puzzle.”

This result was shorter, sharper NIC reports, with brief summaries and assessments in a box of the probabilities that they thought might unfold outlining possible conditions that might make the analysis wrong. But still, there were frustrations because in important meetings “Intelligence officials are supposed to behave like good Victorian children, seen but not heard unless asked.”

Nye was particularly interested in Japan (and was offered the job of US ambassador in the Obama administration) China and the rise of the Indo-Pacific.

Is the American Century over? It is a question that Nye has reflected on throughout much of his career and when I posed it to him recently, he said the US is ‘in a trough’…but his current assessment is still ‘No’.

Structuring the chapters of his memoir around presidential administrations, Nye provides portraits of successive presidents.

Initially intensely critical of Richard Nixon, who “destroyed any residual faith” he had “in the Republican party”, Nye now sees him as having “redeeming features as a thoughtful and perceptive analyst of international relations. Pure evil and pure good are rare in this world.”

Of Carter, he concludes his “failure to articulate his larger strategy gave an impression of inconsistency” but “If Carter’s foreign policy were a stock, we might predict its price among historians to rise over time.”

Nye describes Clinton as a “B+” president who could have been an “A” if he had had more self-restraint but acknowledges his friend David Gergen’s response that, if so, “Then he would not have been president in the first place.”

If George H.W. Bush had one of “best foreign policies of the 20thcentury” then for Nye, George W. Bush “had one of the worst” with no experience and advisors who “failed to understand the limits of American power” and “succumbed to hubris”.

Obama, writes Nye, “promised youth, vitality, and progress on race relations–all good for American soft power” but the Nobel Peace Prize award to Obama, as the recipient himself noted, was “premature.” But Obama, who possessed perhaps the best emotional intelligence of recent presidents, “respected truth, and broadened moral discourse at home and abroad on major global issues.”

By contrast, Trump was a “difficult president because of his low contextual intelligence regarding international affairs and a high level of narcissism that limited his emotional intelligence.” But, writes Nye, Trump “intuited and mobilized a populist discontent about the uneven economic effects of global trade on parts of the country, and resentment of immigration and cultural changes, particularly among older non-college white males.”

Is the American Century over? It is a question that Nye has reflected on throughout much of his career and when I posed it to him recently, he said the US is “in a trough” that he called a “slough of despair”. But his current assessment is still ‘No’, because, he says, the United States consistently demonstrates remarkable resilience. He points to five key American advantages: its geography, i.e., absence of belligerent neighbours (due in part to Canada); its energy self-sufficiency (due in part to Canada); its large, transnational financial institutions and the international role of the dollar; its demographics thanks in part to immigration; and its lead in key technologies (bio, nano, and information) thanks to its universities.

Seen from Europe, writes Nye, the American century is a mixed blessing, with Europeans anxious about American economic domination but wanting American military protection through NATO.

Nye warns that American primacy in the 21st century will not look like that of the 20th century. He repeats what he wrote in 2015: “The greatest danger we face is not that China will surpass us, but that the diffusion of power will produce entropy, or the inability to get anything done.”

Looking to the future after a lifetime of advancing new ideas and sustaining networks to reinforce democratic alliances, Nye offers “guarded optimism” for the future. A sobering assessment, and like the man himself, it is fair and realistic.

A Life in the American Century deserves a place on the shelves of those involved or interested in policy formation and implementation.  Importantly, Nye’s memoir is a testimony to the American system’s superior capacity to bring its talented scholars into government. Its universities reward them when they return, recognizing the tremendous value of their practical experience for their students and their research. Canada should do the same.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.