The Interview: Joseph S. Nye

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The Interview: Joseph S. Nye

Will China change its stance on Syria or in the South China Sea? What is the future of cyberwarfare? Can America’s shift to the Pacific find success?

The Diplomat’s Assistant Editor Zachary Keck sat down with Dr. Joseph Nye of Harvard University to discuss Syria, China, ‘Soft Power’, America’s ‘Pivot/Rebalance’ to the Pacifc, cybersecurity and more.

1.  You’ve often discussed the notion of China’s soft power, noting both its potential sources and its continued weaknesses. What impact, if any, do you think Beijing’s refusal to break with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria will have on its soft power, both inside and outside the Arab world?    

China’s ability to get what it wants through attraction and persuasion rests on a number of factors: its culture (witness the Confucius Institutes it promotes); its values (particularly a successful growth model); and its foreign policies (for example, the pledge not to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries). But China’s refusal to support UN resolutions against the Assad regime has hurt more than helped.  While Iran applauds the non-intervention policy, most Arab states and publics find China less attractive because of its policy on Syria.

2. Remaining on the subject of Chinese soft power, The Diplomat has featured a number of articles noting that China has usually preferred to use non-military vessels to enforce its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Do you think Beijing has pursued this policy in order to retain soft power and how might China’s recent more military-centric South China Sea policy affect its soft power?

China has tried to steer between its soft power objectives in Southeast Asia and its tangible possession goal of controlling resources. The use of civilian enforcement vessels helped somewhat in reducing the offensive nature of Chinese actions in the eyes of Vietnam and the Philippines, but only slightly. The same nationalist pressures that lie behind Chinese actions are reciprocated amongst the publics of its smaller neighbors, regardless of the bureaucracy that controls the vessels.

3. You and Princeton University’s Robert O. Keohane developed the notion of asymmetrical interdependence, whereas even when two countries are highly inter-connected the side that is relatively less dependent on the other can use this as an instrument of coercion. In this context, how much do you anticipate the nature of Sino-American interdependence changing as a result of rising labor costs in China?

As I argue in The Future of Power, some analysts mistakenly think China can bring America to its knees by dumping its large holdings of dollars, but that asymmetry is balanced by another, China’s dependence on access to American markets for the success of its export led growth model. If China dumped its dollars, it could bring the U.S. to its knees but would bring itself to its ankles. If rising labor costs were to make Chinese goods less competitive, and if China were able to truly change its growth model to one based on domestic consumers, it would depend less on the American market and the balance of asymmetries and thus bargaining power would be affected. But this is not likely to happen soon.

4. You are credited with authoring the United States’ post-Cold War basing policy in East Asia during your time at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. The current administration is in the process of slightly modifying this policy with its efforts to disperse America’s presence throughout Northeast and Southeast Asia and make it less centered on large permanent bases. What are your thoughts on the desirability of making this change?

The basing changes being implemented by the Obama Administration make sense, but they are marginal in the light of the main point that forward basing not only enhances military capabilities, it also makes extended nuclear deterrence credible in ways that mere paper treaties cannot. That was the heart of our initiative in the Clinton administration. What would worry me would be efforts to remove our forward bases from Japan and Korea and base those troops in the continental U.S. on some misguided theory of reducing the Pentagon budget.  Because of host nation support, this would not really save much money, and it would certainly undercut the new focus on Asia.

5. You’ve written a lot about cybersecurity and cyberwarfare in recent years. According to recent reports, the Obama administration has waged what essentially amounts to America’s first sustained cyberwarfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear program. How concerned are you that this might sort of be opening “Pandora’s box” in terms of unleashing future state-centric cyberwarfare?

The actions described in David Sanger’s new book under the codename “Olympic Games” began in the Bush administration and were apparently ramped up by the Obama administration. While there is a danger in opening Pandora’s box, one has to ask the counterfactual question of what would have happened if Obama had exercised restraint or stopped the program. I suspect that technology would have escaped in some form sooner or later, and that the Iranian nuclear situation would be even worse than it is.

6. The Obama administration took office pledging to pursue a “smart power” approach to foreign policy; that is, one that combines hard power resources like military capabilities and economic coercion with soft power approaches aimed at achieving outcomes through Washington’s ability to persuade and attract others. How successful have they been at this?

The administration has been more successful in some areas than in others, but I would cite Libya as an example of a smart combination of hard and soft power. Obama waited until he had the soft power narrative provided by the Arab League and UN resolutions, and then limited the U.S. share of the hard power response so that the burden was shared with others.