The Paradox of American Power: Why the World
The Paradox of American Power: Why the World

The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone

Mar 6, 2002

Joseph Nye argues that U.S. leaders must create a framework that preserves American values congruent with those of other people in the world. "If you're going to play three-dimensional chess by looking at only one board, you're going to lose," he says.


JOANNE MYERS: Our guest speaker today is Joseph Nye, a man who is familiar to many of you from his days in the Clinton White House, and who continues to be at the forefront of discussions on American foreign policy. His book, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go it Alone, is the basis of his presentation this morning.

Just over a decade ago, it all seemed so simple. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War was over, democracy was on the rise throughout the world, and American power and authority was at its zenith, conveying a sense of invincibility to us all. However, by the century's end, many began to see us as being too arrogant, too unilateral, and too parochial, as we declared that we did not need to be bound by either entangling alliances or international treaties.

And then, September 11th. Since that day, current debates on America's place in the world have taken on new meaning. It has been argued that military and economic power alone cannot ensure success and at times may actually undermine, rather than enhance, our objective.

In the Paradox of American Power, which is an outgrowth of the Visions of Governance for the 21st Century Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Professor Nye eloquently explains the principles he believes should govern American foreign policy in the decades ahead. He argues convincingly that in this new century the U.S. must not only maintain economic and military strength, which he calls "hard power," but we must also strive to appeal of our culture, values, and institutions, which he refers to as "soft power."

Joseph Nye is currently the Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy as well as the Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts in December 1995 after serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Studies, where he won two Distinguished Service Medals. He was also Chair of the National Intelligence Council.

Professor Nye first joined the Harvard faculty in 1964 and previously served as Director of the Center for International Affairs and as Associate Dean of Arts and Science. From 1977-1979, Professor Nye was Deputy to the Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology, and chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He is a member of the editorial boards of Foreign Policy and International Security magazines.

He is also the author of numerous books and more than 100 articles and professional and policy journals. His books include Understanding International Conflicts, Governance in a Globalizing World, and Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.

At this time, I have the great pleasure of presenting to you one of our country's genuinely wise men, Joseph Nye.


JOSEPH NYE: Thank you very much, Joanne. It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning.

I thought the best way to begin talking about this new book is to start where I left off in my last book, Bound to Lead, which I wrote in 1989. I say that because it is hard to remember that just a decade ago, the conventional wisdom—not just in the United States, but pretty much around the world—was that the United States was in decline. We were finished. The view was that the Cold War was over and Japan had won.

If you looked on the best-seller list during that time, one of the books was The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, which said that the United States was going to follow Philip II, Spain, and Britain into imperial decline.

I thought this was wrong and in my book Bound to Lead I said thought the United States would be the leading country of the 21st century. It turned out I was right, but I should also report that Paul Kennedy got all the royalties.

In any case, the real beginnings of this new book began when I asked the following question a decade after the last book was published: What do you think about the new conventional wisdom?

The new conventional wisdom, as Joanne just said, is that the United States is on top. We're invincible and invulnerable—essentially there is a sense of triumphalism. I thought this conventional wisdom was also wrong, and dangerously so. So the reason I started writing this book in January of 2001 was to call the new conventional wisdom into question.

I think this wisdom has to be seen against the backdrop of the 1990s, which was an odd decade in the following sense. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no country that could balance the United States. The decade started with the Gulf War, in which American casualties were quite low, and ended with the bombing of Serbia, in which there were no American casualties.

In that climate, I think the American public developed a certain degree of complacency and indifference. When you looked at public opinion polls, two-thirds of the American public said we should be engaged with the world, we should be multilateralist, and so forth. But if you looked at what was actually happening in the United States, the coverage of foreign affairs was declining. For example, the television networks were cutting their overseas coverage by two-thirds, and if you look at the year 2000 presidential election, foreign policy ranked something like twentieth on the list of issues that were important in the campaign.

In addition to this growth of what I call indifference to the rest of the world, there were some who began to call it arrogance. There was a tendency toward what the columnist Charles Krauthammer has proclaimed as the "new unilateralism," that the United States, because it is so strong, because it is unipolar, ought to act unilaterally; we should not let ourselves be tied down by others. And you've got people like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan writing about American hegemony. There was a new attitude that went with this.

I think the danger of all this is that it gave rise to this attitude that I would call "triumphalism," and that was the new conventional wisdom that I wanted to challenge by writing a second book.

At first glance, there were some reasons to be in favor this view. Not since Rome has any country stood so far above other countries in terms of power as the United States does today, which is why French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine coined the term "hyperpower." It's not enough to say superpower because of the scale of the American dominance.

Examples of this include: the American military budget is equal to the budgets of the next eight countries combined; the American economy is equal to the size of the next three countries combined; American culture in the form of television, Hollywood, Internet, and so forth, has a dominant role overseas. These facts, I think, lend a certain credence to those who say we're so strong that we really don't have to pay attention to others.

Now, not everyone agreed with that view. There were some who warned against this new attitude on the basis of the traditional real politique view of international affairs. These realists said there is a balance of power in the world, and whenever it gets seriously out of balance, it is almost a law of Nature that other countries will team together to balance the largest one.

This form of thinking, however, also led a number of people to say: "Well, what country is going to replace the United States, or dethrone the United States?" That led to looking for a new enemy. Who was going to take the role of the Soviet Union as either the balancer or the challenger to the U.S.?

Very often, this role was assigned to China. Indeed, if you read the writings of people like William Kristol and Robert Kagan, they said that China is to the 21st century what the Kaiser's Germany was to the 20th century, and the rise of China and Chinese power will present the challenge to the United States that Germany presented to Great Britain, which of course triggered off World War I in 1914.

I have long regarded that view as nonsense. It's nonsense because the numbers don't add up.

If you look at China today and you project Chinese growth using the same high rate it is now and American growth using the low rate of about 2 percent, the total size of China's economy will be the same as the United States' economy at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. But in per capita income, which is a better measure of the sophistication of the economy, the Chinese economy will not be equal to the United States until nearly the last quarter of the 21st century. That's a long way from the type of threat or challenge that Kaiser's Germany was to Britain at the beginning of the 20th century.

So I think there has been a great exaggeration of the threat from China. It doesn't mean you couldn't have a U.S.-China war over Taiwan or another issue but the argument that it is a global challenger does not really make much sense.

Nor do most of the alliances that people put together. When you look at the efforts last July of Vladmir Putin and Jiang Zemin to form a coalition against the United States, it could have made American diplomatic actions more difficult but it was not really a challenge similar to the challenge that, say, the Sino-Soviet alliance posed in the 1950s. The reason is that both China and Russia need more from the U.S. than they can get from each other.

So this type of thinking, of who is the new challenger and who is going to dethrone the United States, struck me as unimpressive.

The one exception, I would say, is Europe. If you take the European Union and you look at the total size of its population, its technological sophistication, and the size of its economy, Europe could be the equal of the United States. But that depends upon Europe being different than it is now. Europe would have to be much unified than it is now and also willing to invest in military strength at a much higher level. I don't think those conditions are likely, but that is a qualification.

In any case, I think this whole approach to why the new conventional wisdom is wrong—which is that the balance of power will produce a challenger who will dethrone the United States—I think that it is largely barking up the wrong tree. I think it essentially diverts us from what the real problems and challenges are.

Those real challenges, which I spell out in the second and third chapters of the book, are the rise of the information revolution and globalization. These deeper trends in world politics, which were going on before September 11th and were revealed by September 11th, are going to continue, and I think they will have a powerful effect as the century unfolds. Now, let me say a little bit about each one of them.

On the information revolution, what I am talking about is the way in which the technology of computers and communications has essentially brought down the price of being able to communicate globally. An easy way to illustrate this is to look at what has happened to the price of a semiconductor since 1970 and compare it to the price of an automobile in 1970. If the price of an automobile had come down as rapidly as the price of a semiconductor in the last thirty-two years, you could buy a car today for $5.00. That is just an illustration of the dramatic drop in the price of communication.

When the costs of communication decline that quickly and that dramatically, it lowers the barriers to entry into world politics. All sorts of actors who previously were, let's say, priced out of the market now can enter the market.

In that sense, if you look at 1970, if you wanted to be able to reach out all over the world, you had to be a fairly large bureaucracy with a fairly large budget—a transnational corporation or the Roman Catholic Church or something of that sort. Today, instantaneous communication around the globe is available to anybody who has access to a modem and a computer, and it can be accomplished for pennies. Internet telephony costs next to nothing.

I don't know if you saw the front page of The New York Times this morning but there is an article about al Qaeda reconstituting itself on the Internet. This is a dramatic change in international politics.

It leads to a great increase in the role of private actors, whether it be corporations reallocating production around the world; whether it be nongovernmental organizations, which grew from about 6,000 to 26,000 during the decade of the 1990s alone; or whether it be more malign groups, such as terrorist networks.

Now, people will sometimes say: "But look, these NGOs, they don't amount to much. They can cause a little fuss in Seattle or wherever, but they don't really matter."

If that is true, you have to ask yourself: Why was it that NGOs were able to coordinate the existence of a Land Mine Treaty over the opposition of the Pentagon, which is the strongest bureaucracy in the strongest country in the world? I think the people who dismiss this new dimension of world politics are making a serious mistake.

Now, people say: "Is this the end of the nation state?" Of course not. Nation states will be with us right through the 21st century. But now the stage on which nation states are acting is getting more crowded. There are more people on that stage, and that affects the action and the play as it unfolds.

And, of course, the most dramatic of these nongovernmental actors or private actors in international politics are terrorist networks. I think a lot of people saw this coming before September 11th. I and others had written about this being the major new threat. But I think people are only now beginning to realize what technology has done is put destructive powers which were once reserved solely to governments into the hands of deviant individuals and deviant groups.

In the 20th century, if you wanted to kill large numbers of people, hundreds of thousands or millions, you had to have the power of a government to do it. You had to be a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao to be able to kill that many people.

Now it is not fanciful at all to imagine groups being able to do that. In that sense, what we see in terrorism is the privatization of war. That makes a huge difference for how we think about international politics and the nature of the threats that we face.

So I would argue that the information revolution and technological changes are presenting a totally new set of challenges and threats which are not captured at all by that picture of the world as "balance of power—who's the new country who will dethrone the United States?"

The other challenge comes from globalization, by which I mean the development of worldwide networks of interdependence, or sometimes, in shorthand, it has been called the "shrinkage of distance."

To give you an illustration of this, in Afghanistan in the 1990s, conditions were absolutely dreadful. The Americans had withdrawn after the Russians withdrew. There was no longer a Cold War to keep us both engaged. And when you asked people, "What should we do about Afghanistan?" they said, "Well, it's too bad for the Afghans, but I don't know what we can do about it. It's not clear that it matters to us anyway."

Well, on September 11th, we found that events in poor countries halfway around the globe can matter very, very much. And so globalization, I think, has also been dramatized by the events of September 11th.

Now, we sometimes think of globalization in this most dramatic case of terrorism, but there are obviously many other dimensions of it. It is a mistake to think of globalization as unidimensional. For example, economic globalization and ecological globalization and military globalization don't necessarily coincide.

If you want an example of this, you had great increases in economic globalization in the 19th century, up to 1914, then economic globalization declines from 1914 to 1970 when military globalization was increasing. After all, what do World War I and World War II and the Cold War represent if not military globalization?

So the different dimensions of globalization are not necessarily the same, which is an interesting point for the people who protest against globalization to realize; you could stop the good part and still leave the bad part going.

The most dramatic example of economic globalization, I suppose, would be the problems of international financial stability. In 1997, the collapse of a weak currency in a relatively weak country, Thailand, spread to Russia where it collapsed the ruble, then spread to South America and Brazil, and eventually spread right here to New York where the New York Federal Reserve had to bail out Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund. So there is an example where economic globalization rapidly crossed continents.

Ecological globalization could be dramatized by either the questions of global warming—where essentially it doesn't matter whether 25 percent of the greenhouse gases are put into the atmosphere in the United States or in China; the effects on the world are the same, even though they start at different ends of the world—or perhaps the spread of diseases. It is worth remembering that smallpox was first discovered in the Nile Valley in, I think, 1300 B.C. and it reached Australia in 1775 A.D. So it takes about 3,000 years for smallpox to straddle the globe, to go from one continent to the last of the inhabited continents where it reaches. But if you compare that to the spread of AIDS, it's more like three decades from its discovery in Africa to being present on every inhabited continent on the globe. So essentially, we have in ecological globalization a speeding up of these processes.

And then, of course, there is social globalization, the spread of culture, whether it be Hollywood or the Internet and so forth, which means that you really can't isolate one part of the world from another.

So these two forces, the information revolution and associated technologies and globalization, are changing the context of international affairs, and that is posing a new set of challenges that are far more serious than the traditional challenges of whether there will be another Kaiser's Germany to challenge another British Empire.

Now, people who listened to this analysis thus far and are skeptics, like Charles Krauthammer—since I've used him and he has written frequently on this, I will use him as a foil. Now, Krauthammer says: "Ah, how wrong can you be? Look at the success of the war in Afghanistan. That proves that unilateralism works."

Indeed, Krauthammer wrote a column that said unilateralism works. He said: "What did we do in Afghanistan? We got a little help from a few people. You might give honorable mention to the British and so forth, but we did it ourselves. I mean, let's be realistic about this. This proves the point, which I and my fellow unilateralists have been making, which is that the United States is so strong that it doesn't have to pay attention to these others; it can go it alone."

I think this idea is badly mistaken for a couple of reasons.

One, to use his own example of the war against terrorism, is that the military is only about one-quarter of the solution to the war on terrorism. It deals with the tip of the iceberg which is, in a sense, the easiest part. But if you believe, as the paper again says today, that al Qaeda has cells in sixty different countries, and you believe that 75 percent of the Al-Qaeda network still exists, then we have a danger that is not going to be soluble through military solutions along.

You can say: "Is the next step in the war on terrorism Iraq or is it Somalia or is it Yemen?" But then you're really taking your eye off the ball. The only way you are going to be able to deal with the rest of al Qaeda—and remember, al Qaeda is not the only terrorist organization—the only way you are going to deal with them is by careful civilian cooperation across borders. That means intelligence sharing, cooperative police work, customs officials working with each other, immigration officials, financial officials tracing money flows, and so forth. This is the way you are going to wrap up the rest of the al Qaeda network.

The idea that because you have military power you are going to solve this problem is just downright silly. Are you going to bomb Hamburg or Rome or Kuala Lumpur, where many of these cells are located? Clearly not. You have to do this through this type of civilian cooperation.

So I think that somebody like Krauthammer is wrong on his own terms. But I think there is also a larger point that he and the people who argue for unilateralism are missing, which is if you think about power in the world today, power is distributed like a three-dimensional chess game. Instead of the traditional board on which we only look at military power and play our pieces, you have to realize that there are three boards stacked on top of each other.

At the top board, the board of military power, the United States is indeed the only power with global capacity, and I think it is going to remain that way well into the 21st century. So you could say the top board is unipolar, the term that the unilateralists like to use.

But if you go to the middle board, the board of economic relations, it is already multipolar. The United States, Europe, Japan, and China account for more than two-thirds of world activity in the world economy. If you ask, "Can the U.S. act as a hegemony"—another term beloved of the unilateralists—"on the economic board?"— clearly, the answer is no. If you want a new trade round, [United States Trade Representative Robert] Zoë lick has to work with his counterparts to get it going.

When [the CEO of General Electric] Jack Welch wanted to merge GE and Honeywell, he got approval from the American Justice Department but it failed because the Europeans vetoed it. So on the middle board of economics, the world is already multipolar.

On the bottom board of these three chess games, the board of transnational relations—which are things that flow across borders outside the control of governments—there is no principle at work. It's chaotic. And it ranges from beneficial transnational actors—as bankers transferring money on little green screens around the globe—on one end of the spectrum, to terrorist networks transferring means of mass destruction on the other.

On that board, the board of transnational relations, there is no solution except cooperative solutions. This is the place where governments need to work with each other against this privatization of international affairs that I have talked about.

If you take some of the issues that matter—international financial stability, tremendously important; global climate change, what it's going to do to our environment, also extremely important; the spread of infectious diseases, another extremely important issue; terrorism —these are issues which will matter tremendously in daily life, not just in the United States but into all societies of the world.

On that board these issues are inherently multilateral. So even if you say, as Krauthammer and other unilateralists say, "When I want to bomb a country, I don't need anybody else," guess what? You are looking in one-dimensional thinking. And if you are looking at how the world is changing, you have to think three-dimensionally. If you are going to play three-dimensional chess by looking at one board only, guess what? You are going to lose. That, to me, is the real flaw of this approach.

That is what I meant with the title of the book, when I summed this up and said "the paradox of American power." The paradox of American power is that the United States is too great to be challenged by any other state, but not strong enough to be able to solve these issues by itself. And unless the American people come to understand that, and the American Administration comes to understand that, I think we will all be the poorer for it, as will the rest of the world.

The solution to this, in my mind, is two-fold:

  • One, we have to define our national interest broadly to be congruent with the interests of other countries. It means that if you look at what Britain did in the 19th century when it was a preeminent state, it helped to produce global public goods, balance power on the European continent, keep freedom of the seas, and an open international economy. The United States needs to find such goals, should also include improving human rights. And when we talk about global commons—cyberspace as well as outer space - we need to make sure that the things that we stand for are in the interests of others.
  • Two, we need to combine that with a process of listening to others; multilateralism doesn't mean the United States should be outvoted whenever it wants to act on something. It's worth noticing that when Britain abolished piracy in the 19th century, which was a global public good, it started out with the strength of the British Navy actually doing it and followed with a convention in Paris in the 1850s which essentially legitimized it, or multilateralized it.

So multilateralism as a preference doesn't mean that you wait until 189 countries agree on something. It does mean that you listen to the other countries, and it does mean that you try to bring your power within a framework where others feel they have a voice. That is the way for a preponderant power to legitimize its power and to rise to what Henry Kissinger has called the real challenge for this generation of American leaders, which is: how can American leaders today create a framework which will essentially preserve our interests and values in a way that is congruent with others as American power will wane, as it is likely to wane, much later in this century?

So that's what The Paradox of American Power is about, why I wrote it, and now I'd be happy to have your challenges or rebuttals.

Question & Answer

QUESTION: Just one short question: Why do so many people in America think that engagement with the world is a zero sum game, that if America engages with the world, it will lose influence?

JOSEPH NYE: I think if you look at American attitudes, you will find that the American public as a whole actually has a broad view. Consistently, for the last two decades, when the Chicago Council has done its polls of American attitudes, Americans are two-thirds in favor of engagement with the rest of the world and two-thirds multilateralist. And yet, this is the same public that did not pay its UN dues for more than a decade, and only paid them after September 11th.

How do you explain that anomaly? Part of the answer is indifference. If you are an American voter and a pollster comes to you and says, "Should we act unilaterally or multilaterally?" Two-thirds of the Americans would say, "We should act multilaterally." Then that American goes about all his or her daily business and thinks about other things. They're not paying attention to the rest of the world.

But there may be 20 percent of Americans who have an intense view that the UN is a threat to American sovereignty and that it is trying to undercut American values. There is even a "black helicopter" crowd. These people are essentially the people who write to their congressmen, who send mass e-mails and who donate money to their congressmen. The intensity of their preference is the squeaky wheel that gets greased.

So the only way you can explain the anomaly of this absolutely foolish U.S. behavior on UN dues is this difference in a democracy between general views which are likely held and intense views which are exercised through the machinery of the democracy.

On the point about culture and the question of homogenization of culture, there is a section in the book where I talk about "is globalization Americanization?" At this stage in history, it looks like it, because the Americans are the dominant economy and so forth.

But it helps to take history back a little bit and realize that cultures are not static. They are continually changing and the idea that it is all homogenizing is simply mistaken.

The first Asian country that really got involved in globalization in a deliberate, major way was Japan in the middle of the 19th century. Japan has gone through two waves of responding to globalization: after the Meiji Restoration and after World War II. Japan has, in a sense, reinvented itself twice to account for global forces. But anybody who thinks that Japanese culture today is like American culture just hasn't spent enough time in Tokyo.

So I don't see a world in which India is going to be like New York. In fact, New York is actually becoming more like India, which is good for New York. But I do think that it is a great mistake to take such a narrow slice of historical time as to think that globalization is Americanization. It is not.

QUESTION: As I listened to you, I thought of another paradox. On the one hand, if we try to analyze the world cooly, calmly, and rationally, we can find the right solution for most of the world's problems. But the world outside is messy, intractable, and Hobbesian, and you have people killing each other everywhere.

So how do you apply reason and logic to a world that does not move with the dynamic of reason and logic, and how do you interject what I would call the Machiavellian dimension to your rational analysis?

JOSEPH NYE: It is a good point. The good, rational analysis takes into account the factors that you just described. So it is very important to notice what I did not say. I did not say that soft power can replace hard power. I did not say that military force is not an important or necessary condition.

If you think of the response to al Qaeda in Afghanistan, I was a supporter of the war in Afghanistan before it started, and I also believe that the United States had to move quickly—indeed, unilaterally —to get it started.

What I do not agree is that the next step in the war should be like the first step. There are people, such as the al Qaeda terrorists, who do not respect innocent life, who do not respect common values across all major cultures of Islam and Judaism and Christianity. These people, I fear, must be dealt with by force.

But if we leave it there, then we are doing only half the rational analysis. What worries me is that some people now think that only force works, whether it be people like I cited this morning or whether it be [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, and they are stopping their analysis short.

So I would argue that good, rational analysis sees the role of force, but sees that it is not sufficient. I think the only way out of this terrible tragedy in the Middle East is to go beyond this and to realize that there is no solution to the Palestinian and Israeli conflict by force. The sad question is: How many people have to die before people come to this realization?

QUESTION: Allow me to say that your work and the work that you have done together with Rob Keohane has massively influenced two generations of Norwegian political scientists.

In your metaphor about the multi-level chess game, could you put the American Administration's position on national missile defense into that framework of analysis? How do you see that as a possible reading of the unilateral position on the military security point of view?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, the national missile defense issue relates primarily to the top chessboard. The issue is whether you can create a better defense with more stability with or without the ABM Treaty. I would not have brought about the end of the ABM Treaty when the Administration did.

But I also think that we should not be theologically opposed to missile defense. Missile defense is a practical issue, namely: Will it be destabilizing; will it be cost-effective? Those are the right questions.

I think the danger is that people are pressing ahead too rapidly with the wrong type of missile defense at too great expense. But if somebody said, "Could you develop boost-phase missile defense, in which you attack the missile when it is rising and it is much easier to detect?", I would be all in favor of that.

And then, if you said, "But at some point that will run up against a treaty from the 1970s," I would say, "Well then, let's work out a renegotiation of that treaty; or, if you are really convinced that the treaty stands in the way of a rational defense system which is good not just for the U.S. but for stability generally, then I think there is a provision of the treaty for withdrawal." So I do not necessarily agree with the way the Administration did it, but I do not think it is wrong per se.

One of the things that is ironic, though, is that by focusing so many resources on that top board, they don't notice the fact that if I wanted to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction, I would not develop a missile; I would smuggle it in the cargo hold of a ship or an airliner.

That is what I mean about one-dimensional thinking. They put so much emphasis looking at the top board that they are nailing the door shut while they are leaving the windows open.

QUESTION: Because of September the 11th and other reasons, there are voices in Canada that are saying "The United States has become so powerful and seems to enjoy being so powerful so much, why should we spend any money on defense anymore? They are a relatively benign neighbor. Why don't we just leave it to them and we'll go about playing on the other two boards?" Is that a rational response?

JOSEPH NYE: I can understand that. I mean, essentially it says "why don't we get a free ride?"

I think it is a mistake, and I think if other NATO allies want a voice, they need to partner; and if they need to partner, they have to have capability. The danger I see is a situation where allies complain about not having a voice but they won't have a voice because they won't have a capability.

So I think it is actually important for NATO allies to be investing in capabilities.

Now, that does not mean that Canada should have a defense budget like the United States. Heaven forbid! It would break you and be an unwise investment decision. But picking some areas where Canadians can have excellence in their capabilities which allows them to cooperate makes good sense. I mean, I notice Canadian Special Forces are in Afghanistan now.

For some of the Europeans, I think it will require more investments in air power and precision-guided air power.

I think it is unhealthy if America's allies just allow the Americans to do it, because it will diminish the voice they have, and I think a diminished voice is not healthy for the allies. It is also not healthy for the U.S.

QUESTION: You mentioned Paul Kennedy. My question is: how do you answer the argument that maybe Paul Kennedy might be right anyway, and that up to a point the American power may be overstretched?

JOSEPH NYE: I'll repeat the question. Maybe Paul Kennedy is right; he just got his timing wrong.

The best way to save a failed proposition in social science is to stretch the time horizon, and what you do—you know, there is another basic law of social science: never put a prediction and a date in the same sentence or the same paragraph.

So if you want to rescue this, you say, "Ah, but it's just about to become true." For example, John Mearsheimer in Chicago has predicted the decline of NATO and the separation of Germany from the rest of Europe, and Germany developing its own nuclear weapon based on realist real politique analysis. He started writing this in 1990. It has not happened yet. But when you ask him, he says, "Just wait, it is coming."

To give Paul Kennedy credit, Paul had a piece in The Financial Times in January, at the time of the World Economic Forum, in which he almost reversed position with me. He was saying "American power is so strong, I don't know when it is going to end."

But if you wanted to rescue Paul's hypothesis, which he is not doing, and you used that argument that imperial overstretch will occur, the problem is the numbers do not support it. In imperial overstretch, as you expand your empire, the defense of the empire costs more and more until eventually the burden on the economy gets too great and you collapse. This, to some extent, is what happened to the Soviet Union. They were spending 25 percent or more of their GNP on the military.

The percent of American GNP spent on the military has actually been going down, not up. In the Cold War years, in the 1950s, we spent 10 percent of GNP on the military. That has declined to about three percent. Even with the recent Bush increase, it may not even get up to four percent. So the numbers just don't fit this picture.

If the trend went like this, as it did in the Soviet Union, then you might say, "Ah, it's just a matter of time before that will occur." But when the trend goes like this, it is going to be pretty hard to rescue the hypothesis by relying on time to come to your rescue.

QUESTION: My question is: What is the place, role, and the importance that you confer to multilateralism of religions? Frankly, I ask this question because of your answer to an earlier question. I found it a little bit simplistic when you spoke about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam without paying any attention to the plurality of religions in, say, India or China or Japan. What is your position?

JOSEPH NYE: The reason I referred to those three religions was because of the relationship of the conflict in the Middle East, but obviously they are not the only great world religions.

I reject the view, which is commonly expressed, that terrorism is all relative, that one man's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter, which I gather prevented the General Assembly from getting a definition of terrorism last fall. I think terrorism, if you define it as the deliberate killing of innocent people for political purposes, is evil and condemned as evil in all those three great religious traditions that I mentioned. You can have freedom fighters and they don't have to become terrorists, if terrorism is the killing of noncombatants or innocent people.

Look at East Timor, in which, if you believe Jose Ramos Horta, they did successfully wage a fight for freedom without killing Indonesian civilians. Or look at South Africa where, although there were some civilians killed, by and large, the African National Congress did not do a lot of killing of South African civilians.

So I think this argument that one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist is wrong-headed and is not consistent with the three religious traditions that relate to the Middle East, where this proposition has been most often used.

But I am not enough of an expert on Hinduism to know whether there is a similar prohibition on the taking of innocent life.

However, I think it is a serious mistake to think that it is all relative on the question of terrorism. It is not. And I think this is a place where I agree with President Bush when he spoke to the UN, that if we let ourselves think that terrorism is bad when it is against me but it is okay when it is against somebody else, we are going to be succumbing to a principle of disorder which will eventually come to hurt all of us.

I think the more that you can get dialogues which bring out the commonality of values which we share as humans, the better it is. This is why I have long disagreed with my colleague Sam Huntington, who talks about a clash of civilizations. His civilizations tend to be largely based on religious groupings.

I think that is mistaken. I think that you can work to develop and accentuate the common values we hold. Indeed, I think you could argue that what we saw on September 11th was not a clash of civilizations; it was a civil war within one civilization, Islam. There is more difference between Mohammad Atta and Osama bin Laden and a moderate Muslim than between a moderate Muslim and a Christian and a Jew.

I think Osama bin Laden wanted this to become a clash of civilizations. I think if we fall into that trap, we are going to have a far worse world, and the extent to which we get people from different religions together talking about the commonality of values, the more we can avoid that kind of trap.

QUESTION: Area disputes between countries have been one of our most difficult foreign policy problems. Do you have any prescriptions as to how the balance between multilateral and bilateral or unilateral approaches in dealing with these area disputes should be handled]?

JOSEPH NYE: In the last chapter of the book I have a section called "The War Between Unilateralism and Multilateralism," and I point out that these two terms are far too simplistic. Very few people are a pure unilateralist or a pure multilateralist, and there is a whole spectrum of instruments between those polar opposites. You have to choose the instrument at a particular time and in a particular case that fits. So I don't think there is a universal answer to this. I do have seven rules of thumb as to why you would prefer one to the other.

But it does matter which end of the spectrum you start from. When you start from the multilateralism end of the spectrum, you are more likely to be attentive to the views of others. If you start at the unilateralist end of the spectrum, you are far less likely to listen, and I think that is far more dangerous.

QUESTION: I thank you very much for your kind comments about NGOs. And I wear my pin from the Land Mine signing of the Ottawa Treaty.

But my question really goes to the analysis of the transnational society that we see. What do you see as the role of governments? What do they have to do to adjust to the changed transnational globalization that you have described so beautifully?

JOSEPH NYE: I think it is important not to overdo the argument that all that is private is good and all that is governmental is bad. There are some futurologists who have been sort of suggesting that we are getting beyond the nation state and that this is a good thing.

I think what September 11th proved is that we still need governments. Unless you have security, all other values vanish.

When I was working at the Pentagon, I put a phrase into a report that said, "Security is like oxygen; you don't notice it when you have it, but once you begin to miss it, you can't think of anything else."

So it is very important when you talk about governments in relation to NGOs not to think that the NGOs are taking over the world. What the NGOs are able to do, and private actors more generally, is add a context of dimensionality. They can publicize things, they can bring them to our attention, they can help develop greater accountability. These are all things to the good.

But when it comes to providing security, governments have to do it. And when it comes to providing democratic legitimacy, it is worth remembering that democracy, which most of us cherish, has only worked thus far in world history within the context of nation states. Now, there may be some point in a century from now when that will no longer be true, but it is only through a slow process, if ever, that we get there.

So I think governments have to remember to do the things that they have to do, and to do them well. And at the same time, they have to adjust to a world in which there will be far more private forces on the stage with them, some of them benign—like Oxfam, which I give money to—and some of them malign—like al Qaeda, which I don't give money to.

QUESTION: I have a very short question. You refer to the fact that the news coverage is reduced for international news or for information at large. Do you think this trend can be reversed in the American scene?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, there has been a reversal since September 11th. The question is: How well is it preserved?

What we know is that when you have a crisis, what happens in public opinion is you have a spike. So even after the Bay of Pigs, which was a great failure, John Kennedy's popularity went up. After September 11th, George Bush's popularity goes up, the trust in government goes up to levels that are higher than they have been at since the 1960s, and attention to the rest of the world goes up.

What we don't know is how long it stays up. Partly, that will depend on the leadership that the President exerts, because he has the strongest voice within the country. Partly, it will depend on events that we don't have any control over—will there be another terrorist incident, and will that reinforce this or not?

So I think the question you ask is answerable in the short run with a yes, there has been a change. I think how long that short run will persist is very difficult to know.

QUESTION: You said—and I think that it was one of the many important things you said—that there is a need to listen even for a superpower, and I think that means also to understand. Now, would you agree that there is a certain paradox, in that there is an increase in information—an information revolution, as you said—but there is a decrease in mutual understanding?

JOSEPH NYE: There is a tremendous increase in information in the world. I mean, if you want, what you have is information overload. One of the paradoxes of the information revolution—and I discuss this at some length in the book—is what I call the "paradox of plenty." When information is so plentiful and free, then the scarce resource is not information, it is attention. Who gets attention depends on credibility.

So you turn to editors and cue-givers and say, "I can't possibly pay attention to all this information. Which of it should I pay attention to?" You say: "Who do I trust, who has values like mine, who has a discerning intellect that I would respect, to tell me which of this information I should pay attention to?"

That is an important dimension of soft power, which is if you are credible and others are listening to you, then essentially you will have this soft power.

So I think the paradox is that if you want to be credible, if you want to increase your soft power, you have to show that you are listening to others, you do have the capacity, you are not indulging just in propaganda or slanted information.

I think the extent to which the United States shuts itself off, doesn't listen, and presents only what you might call broadcast mode, rather than listening mode, will reduce its own soft power. And that is not just true for the United States; it is true for others as well.

You may also like

MAY 23, 2024 Podcast

U.S. Election 2024 in a Post-Policy World, with Tom Nichols

"Atlantic" staff writer Tom Nichols returns to "The Doorstep" in its penultimate episode to discuss the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation