DC event — A Conversation with Joseph Nye: Key Takeaways

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Ali Wyne and Joseph Nye
Ali Wyne and Joseph Nye

On Thursday, April 2, 2015, PS21 held a discussion on American Power with Joseph Nye in Washington DC.

Chair: Ali Wyne: member of the Adjunct Staff at the RAND Corporation and Global Fellow with PS21

Joseph Nye: University Distinguished Service Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School

The full transcript of the event can be had found here: American Power Transcript 

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion:

Overall, Nye’s latest book, Is the American Century Over?, argues that it remains relatively unlikely that an emerging challenger will supplant the US at the top of the global balance of power.

“Being a superpower depends on… how your economy is doing, how your military is doing and so forth,” he said, “but also having the will and capacity to transform those power resources into real influence.”

The US in the 1920s and 30s, he said, had lacked that will. Some countries, such as Brazil, still did.

Assessing whether American was in decline was difficult because of a lack of clarity about what the term meant, Nye said.

“If you look at a country, we don’t know what a normal life-cycle is”, said Nye, noting that Britain began to worry it was in decline from the 18th Century onwards.

Rome, he said, went into absolute decline – economic, political and military – and fell apart without anyone to replace it. Britain, in contrast, went into relative decline against other power even as its standard of living got better.

In the case of the US and the shift to a more multipolar world, Nye said, it was more the “rise of the rest” than actual American decline.

In terms of economic power, Nye said China was already beginning to close the gap with the US. In military power, however the US continued to spend about four times more, and the accumulated capital was about ten times larger. “I don’t see them passing the US in the next three decades (militarily),” he said.

Economically, estimates of when the crossover would take place varied from later this decade to as late as the 2050s, he said. In terms of per capita income, however, China would not close the gap until two or three decades later.

“The problem with stretching… out further into the future is that the further into the future you go, the less valuable it is because there are too many variables,” he said.

Nye said he had spoken to several senior Chinese officials who were keen for Beijing to extend its “soft power’ in Asia. For this, Nye said, Beijing might need to dial back on some of its territorial disputes with neighbours. “If they can’t because of nationalist pressures at home, then I think they’re going to be very hard pressed to develop a successful strategy”, he said. “Using hard power for nationalistic purposes… pushes countries to the Americans’ arms.”

On Russia, Nye said there was not yet a new “Cold War”, but “it is definitely moving in that direction.”

Overall, he said Russia was in decline with an average male life expectancy of 74, widespread corruption, and two thirds of exports depended ton energy.

Particularly since the “coloured revolutions” from 2004, he said he believed Putin had been increasingly keen to whip up patriotic enthusiasm to defend his positon. “Crimea was a great device for that.”

The West needed to make it clear there are costs attached to seizing territory by conquest,” he said. “We have probably been relatively good at it and we haven’t let Putin divide the West, but it’s still possible to make a misstep. And we don’t know what risks Putin is prepared to take, so it’s a very tricky area.”

The US decision to refuse to join China’s Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) had undermined American power and was, he said, “a self-inflicted wound”.

“Some people say is shows we’re in decline”, he said. “I think it just shows we know how to make foolish decisions, but we’ve known how to do that for hundreds of years.”

Overall, he said, China would have to alter its economic model to boost domestic consumption.

“I don’t think they’re going to collapse, or there is going to be another Tiananmen (Square)”, he said. “But with my relative optimism goes this qualification, they’re going to have to overcome some problems and I don’t know whether they’re going to be able to do it.”

Chinese, official, he said, had told him they were more concerned with internal order than external order. But there were, he said, a wide variety of Chinese opinion, some much more hawkish than others.


On the Middle East, Nye said the US had made a major strategic blunder in the invasion of Iraq. “I think it’s a mistake for use to get too heavily involved.  I think it’s going through a period of revolution which is likely to last twenty years or more.  If we think that by going in and trying to reconstruct these countries like Bush thought about Iraq: A) we can’t do it.  And B) in the process of trying to do it, we turn ourselves into the dominant problem. What I think we should be doing in relation to these countries is trying to contain the damage from spreading.”

Europe, he said, also remained hugely important to the US. “We probably share more values with the European than any other part of the world,” he said. “Europe is going through a difficult period now (both the strain with Russia and the Eurozone crisis), but I think there is no way the Americans can turn their back on Europe.”

Despite the risk of great power conflict, Nye said he felt nuclear war was unlikely although not entirely impossible.

“Nuclear (weapons) have something like a crystal ball effect, he said, giving leaders an insight into the terrible costs of war that leaders in 1914 of 1939 lacked. “Now that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Humans make errors and that’s why we have to be continually worrying about and guarding against the potential dangers… but if you ask me if it’s likely, I think no.”

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