Peter Cutler is living the quiet life of a Princeton professor when the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate asks him to become his foreign policy adviser. Cutler takes the job and his gambit pays off: the presidential candidate wins and Cutler is appointed to be Under Secretary of State in the new administration. As he becomes more and more absorbed in the new environment, he is shocked to learn how ruthless political life in Washington really is. When it seems that things cannot get more complicated professionally and personally, Cutler’s ex-girlfriend appears and he falls again for the woman who now works at the Pentagon… No, this plot is not from a new, seventh season of House of Cards. It is from a political fiction titled The Power Game: A Washington Novel written by renowned political scientist Joseph Nye.
Nye, considered by many to be the doyen of American political science and international relations, turned 85 years old on January 19. Always soft-spoken and humble, he has been a larger-than-life figure in American social sciences and in the foreign policy community. While his concepts (from complex interdependence to soft power) have influenced generations of scholars and policymakers and become well-known the world over, little is known about what led Nye to study each subject he has spent the past 60 years investigating.
What is also often forgotten these days is that the prominent academic Nye, much like his fictional alter ego Peter Cutler, spent significant parts of his career in government service, going through the famous revolving door between academia and policy several times over the decades. On this special anniversary, I uncover the intellectual origins and inspirations and the historical-political contexts of several of his works and also discuss his once prominent, but these days rather overlooked policy career. In doing this, I am guided by his own words spoken at various events and appearances (including the Fletcher School Center for Strategic Studies’ event “Engaging Practitioners: Joseph Nye in Conversation with Director Monica Toft” that I co-organized in 2020) and those he shared with me during my personal interviews with him.
Why has Nye chosen the different research agendas he has worked on throughout his academic career – from integration theory to complex interdependence to soft power? Nye believes he “didn’t go through the front door,” never settled on the most obvious research topics, but he instead always followed his curiosity and searched for new directions in scholarship.
Pan Africanism and East African Integration
At the start of his career, Nye’s research agenda focused on Africa, development, and regional integration. He first became interested in Africa when studying at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and had frequent discussions with an African classmate. When he moved back to America, he began pursuing his PhD at Harvard University. There he studied with John Kenneth Galbraith and Edward Mason, both legendary economists and public intellectuals, who had just returned from a World Bank mission to Africa. The backdrop to all this was the age of decolonization when several African nations were gaining independence. Inspired by Galbraith’s and Mason’s tales from the trip, he became interested in studying East Africa, specifically whether the Uganda-Tanzania-Kenya common market established earlier by the British colonial leadership would survive after independence. Nye got a grant from the Ford Foundation to spend a year and a half in East Africa to write his thesis and address such questions as to how politics and economics will interact in making this common market work (or not work), and what would come of African leaders’ pledges to escape the traps of colonial boundaries and to follow a larger pan-Africanism. He came to the conclusion that African integration was not possible because of inherited colonial boundaries and the pressures for autarchy. This research served as the basis for his book Pan Africanism and East African Integration (1965).
Integration Theory and Central America
Based on his research on Africa, Nye became interested in integration theory, particularly the work of Ernst Haas developing integration theory for Europe. After looking at the East African common market, Nye examined the Central American common market and addressed the question of whether regional integration has a future or not in that part of the world. The result of this research led to his book Peace in Parts (1971), in which he theorized about world politics done at the regional level.
Power and Interdependence
In 1973, the world was hit by the oil crisis in the Middle East. Nye was inspired by Hans Morgenthau’s ideas published during this period arguing that the transfer of vast resources and power through the oil trade from the rich and formerly all-powerful developed countries of Europe and North America to the erstwhile poor countries of the Middle East constituted a revolution in world politics. Through this process, developed countries were weakened, but since they could not afford taking military action against the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, they were left looking for political and economic instruments in regaining their lost power. The oil crisis and Morgenthau’s work got Nye and Robert Keohane thinking about the relationship between military force and economic cooperation, which led to their groundbreaking work Power and Interdependence in 1977. To this day, their work is often interpreted as a rebuttal to realism. However, Nye and Keohane was not arguing that realism was “beside the point,” instead, they wrote that analysis should start with security-focused realism, but should not stop there — realism should be supplemented in contexts it cannot explain (like the oil crisis in 1973).
Power and Interdependence was a very different way of looking at international politics from the then mainstream
To explain such scenarios, Nye and Keohane came up with three models: a) the overall-structural model, which emphasized traditional forms of power, b) the issue-structural model, which looked at the distribution of power resources in particular issue areas, and c) the model of complex interdependence, where states were supplemented by non-state actors, their major instruments were not military power, and their major objectives included domestic and economic goals besides the traditionally defined national security goals. In their view, scholars should apply to the context they wish to analyze the model that best approximates the situation at hand.
Nye believes that their Power and Interdependence was a very different way of looking at international politics from the then mainstream. Kenneth Waltz wrote his Theory of International Politics a year later, and for Waltz, international politics at the time was all about bipolarity and military power. Waltz’s new version of realism became known as neorealism, while Keohane and Nye’s theory was named neoliberalism, even though Keohane and Nye did not deny the importance of realism. In Nye’s view, the enduring legacy of Power and Interdependence is due to the fact that he and Keohane approached international politics “through a side door, when everybody else was coming in through the front door,” just like the way he found his research focus on Africa and integration theory.
Undeniably, Nye’s most famous concept is soft power. In 1988, Paul Kennedy published his famous book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which he argued that the United States was in decline as a great power due to its imperial overstretch, just like many great powers had declined before it in history. Nye disagreed with the idea that the United States was in decline and in response wrote the book Bound to Lead (1990). In writing this book, Nye was thinking about how we can measure a state’s power. It was clear to him how we should go about measuring military and economic power, but when he was totaling these up, he noticed something was still missing. “The American ability to get others to do with what we want is not just based on military and economic power, but it is also based on the ability to get them to want what we want, to attract others to our goals,” he explains. Nye was working on Bound to Lead during the period when Waltz’s neorealism was still quite dominant. In Nye’s interpretation, for neorealists, if you had a structure of power based on military and economic capabilities, that explained everything. Nye sensed that something was missing. With that, the concept of soft power was born. This was an aspect of power that neorealists completely ignored at the time, even though classical realists had recognized its significance. Nye was aware that classical realists Hans Morgenthau and E. H. Carr had understood the power of ideas, but Nye felt that, with neorealism, most of the subtlety of classical realism had dropped out, so he wanted to fill that gap with soft power.
The concept of soft power has become very prominent in academia and policy around the world in the past three decades
Nye himself has returned to the concept of soft power and elaborated on it in several books since Bound to Lead. While Bound to Lead warned against declinism, Nye wrote The Paradox of American Power in 2001 to caution against American triumphalism and unilateralism in the wake of George W. Bush’s War on Terror. He advised American policymakers that unilateralism and military preponderance may not gain the United States as much leverage in international politics as the use of multilateralism and soft power. In 2004, Nye expanded on these ideas and further elaborated on his central concept in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Written as a response to the increasing isolation of the United States as a result of the Iraq War of 2003, Soft Power warns that “winning the peace is harder than winning the war, and soft power is essential to winning the peace.”
The concept of soft power has become very prominent in academia and policy around the world in the past three decades. Nye’s own biggest surprise about the success of soft power was when in 2007 Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needed to invest in soft power. “Wow, when I was sitting at the kitchen table in Lexington, Massachusetts,” in the late 1980s, “scribbling out long-hand some ideas” that would later become soft power, “I would have never imagined that those ideas would one day wind up coming out of the mouth of the President of China,” Nye remembers.
Nye in the Revolving Door
Even though the general public may have known relatively little about the origins of his research agendas, Nye’s scholarly works, theories, and concepts have been at the forefront of academic and policy discourse on international politics for decades. That cannot be said about his policy career, which has in recent decades been overshadowed by his much-revered academic accomplishments. However, Nye is part a long line of American scholars of international relations who have been in and out of government throughout their professional lives, from Henry Kissinger to Thomas Schelling to Francis Fukuyama to Kurt Campbell to Condoleezza Rice to Thomas Christensen and the list could go on.
Carter and Nuclear Non-Proliferation
While Nye’s scholarship has emphasized that the non-military forms of power (economic power, soft power) also matter, he does not underestimate the role of hard power in international politics. His policy career is also proof of this. Nye first walked through the revolving door to government to serve in the Carter administration as Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science, and Technology from 1977 to 1979. Although he was formally a principal at the State Department, his main job was chairing the National Security Council’s Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and coordinating its interagency work. The focus of his job, and that of the working group, was to work out guidelines for nuclear supplies to restrict the sale of plutonium or uranium, which were at that time in high demand as fuel for nuclear reactors in the wake of the aforementioned oil crisis of 1973, but the sale of which Nye and his team deemed dangerous because of their potential use for building nuclear weapons. Their policy solutions were novel and not in line with the preferences of the broader policy community at the time. “I think we turned out to be closer to the mark on it, but it was wildly unpopular in some circles at the time,” Nye recollects.
Clinton and the Nye Initiative
As a foreign policy expert and commentator, Nye is usually considered a generalist, because he has long commented on American power and world order. Therefore it is often overlooked that Nye was an Asia expert long before it was trendy to be an Asia expert. He returned to government service during the Clinton administration. Nye first became Chair of the National Intelligence Council in 1993. He asked his former Harvard colleague Ezra Vogel to join the NIC staff as the national intelligence officer for East Asia so he could work on an estimate concerning China’s expected trajectory. Nye was then appointed Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs, the official overseeing all defense policy other than the former Soviet Union. Nye also brought in another Harvard colleague, Kurt Campbell, as his Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia. At the Pentagon, Nye and his colleagues began working on a new Asia policy. This policy even got its name after Nye: the Nye Initiative. Introduced initially to restore “the tools of American influence and engagement” in Asia and to get the U.S.-Japan relationship back on track, the Nye Initiative over time became the backbone of the Clinton administration’s Asia (and China) strategy. Its basic ideas were the strengthening of U.S.-Japan relations and the reinforcement of the U.S. commitment to maintaining its forward military presence in Asia, both in order to reassure allies and to introduce a balancing component to U.S. policy toward China.
Never Go Through the Front Door
When Nye says he “did not go through the front door” when choosing his research agendas, he also defines his general approach to his work. Throughout his life and career, he has engaged topics and issues that were not obvious or low-hanging fruit, and addressed them in novel ways, producing novel theories or concepts. Even in his policy career, he tackled issues or focused on areas that were not handed to him by his predecessors and came up with solutions or policies that were not necessarily popular at the time. He is a true pioneer in international affairs, whether he is studying questions as an academic or formulating policy in government. He willingly enters the unknown just like his alter ego Peter Cutler: “I took a deep breath, picked up the paddle, and dipped into the dark water. The stroke erased the bubbles from the shells and replaced them with new ones. I paddled slowly toward the shore where the dock and cabin should be. There was no bright lantern to guide me tonight. I was steering by memory and my faith in small things. The canoe glided smoothly and picked up speed. Each stroke, I said to myself, was a small act of engagement.“
Happy 85th Birthday, Joe Nye!