Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era

June 6, 2013


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome back to this podium a special friend of the Carnegie Council, and one whom we greatly admire, Joe Nye. With each presentation, he has taught us something new about the meaning or the use of power, leadership, or the combination of the two. Today he will be talking about all these concepts, and more, when he discusses his latest book, entitled Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.

For more than two decades, Professor Nye has devoted much of his writing to asking fundamental questions about the nature of American power and how that power has been used on the global stage. Having served as chairman of the National Intelligence Counsel; assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; deputy under-secretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology; Professor Nye has had a front-row seat in observing how individuals can use—or even misuse—power.

Whether invoking concepts such as hard or soft power to describe why America went from being a second-rate power to becoming the world's sole superpower, Professor Nye's theories have influenced leaders around the world as well as leaders here at home. In fact, it has been said that his concept of smart power, which combines the use of soft power (or skills that attract and persuade) with hard power (or organizational capacity and Machiavellian skills), helped shape the foreign policies of both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Since the founding of our nation, there have been presidents that mattered. In Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, Professor Nye examines eight of them, spanning the time period from Theodore Roosevelt to George Herbert Walker Bush, to see how they exercised their power. We learn about what it means to be transformational or transactional, ethical or effective, and the diverse ways these presidents communicated with and inspired the public.

In looking back at America's rise and how this came about, a few will say that our global role was the result of divine Providence, and presidents played but a minor part; others will argue that the role of our leaders was crucial; while the remainder of you may posit that America's primacy was neither, but an accident of history that would have occurred regardless of who occupied the Oval Office. Opinions may vary, but before forming yours, you may be interested in knowing what one of our country's most astute political observers has to say about presidential decision-making during America's rise to world primacy in the 20th century.

To learn more, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Joe Nye. Thank you so much for coming.


JOSEPH NYE: Thank you, Joanne.

It's nice to be back at the Carnegie Council, one of my favorite organizations. I am delighted to see it flourishing.

I also thank you for that kind introduction, though I should remind you of a caveat, listener. My children, when they were growing up and people would call the house and say, "Is Dr. Nye there?" they would always say, "Yes, but he's not the useful kind." [Laughter]

This new book that I have written combines two interests that I have had. One is American power and the role we play on the world stage. The other is leadership. Sometimes those two things are not joined together.

There is a view that leaders perhaps are less important than the larger forces of history. If you remember your reading of War and Peace, you will of course remember that, even with a leader as important as Napoleon, Tolstoy felt it was all the larger forces of history that were driving what was happening in Europe at that time.

I have tried to test this question of do leaders matter—in this case, particularly, do presidents matter—by looking at the subject that I have been particularly interested in, the rise of American power. So the question I ask in the book is: If the United States starts out the 20th century as a second-tier power and it ends up the 20th century as the world's only superpower, did it matter who was president? Would it all have occurred or turned out the same way anyway, or did individual leaders make a big difference?

There's a wonderful story that Walter Isaacson has at the beginning of his biography of Henry Kissinger, in which he says that Henry Kissinger told a group of reporters, when he was flying to the Middle East at one point, that when he was a professor at Harvard, his belief was that it was the larger forces of history; in other words, that individuals didn't matter but history made all the different structure. But then, after he went into the White House, he decided individuals did matter. [Laughter] So where you stand on this question may depend on where you are sitting at a particular time. But it is a topic that intrigues me.

What I have tried to do to test it is by doing what I call a counterfactual history of the 20th century, counterfactual meaning that I leave everything the same but change one thing, which is who was president, and imagine that when you have a president who made a crucial decision, you take away that president and substitute for him the next-most-likely person to be president; and then, knowing what you know about that other person and the decisions they would have made, would history have turned out differently or not. So the little book is an effort to basically look at the century with that question in mind: Did presidents matter?

But there is a second question that also intrigues me in the book, and that is, which kinds of presidents? Very often, we think of leaders as being at two ends of a spectrum of style. One end is called transformation or transformative leaders. These are leaders with a large vision who want to make major changes in the world, often an inspirational style. At the other end of the spectrum, we place transactional leaders, leaders who make the trains run on time. They're good managers. They also prevent the trains from derailing.

Nobody is a perfect transformational or transactional leader. There are obviously characteristics that each leader has to some degree. But, by and large, you can distribute leaders along that spectrum and use those categories as a rough first approximation.

Generally speaking, when theorists or analysts or editorial writers look at leaders, they like and they prefer transformational leaders. These are the people who say big things, take grand actions, and essentially look like they are going to reshape or change history. Transactional leaders are often treated as mere managers—yes, good that they managed all right, but in the larger course of history, it is the transformational leaders that matter.

So I looked at these key American presidents who were making decisions related to the various stages of America's expansion, or expansion of American interests in the world, and I looked at ones who were transformational and transactional, and then asked basically what difference was there between, not just whether you had a leader, but what type of leader.

To my considerable interest, in terms of what I discovered as I wrote the book, about half the leaders mattered and about half didn't, but it wasn't the half that I necessarily would have predicted. It wasn't always the transformational leaders who were the most important. Let me explain to you what I mean by that, why the conclusions of the book are slightly, if not counterintuitive, maybe at least counter conventional wisdom.

I will talk about five transformational leaders and then I will talk about two transactional leaders who I think were crucial.

Starting the century, let's think of Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt, who is a personal hero of mine, was truly a transformational leader when you look at domestic politics. He made major changes in instituting the progressive movement that basically saved American capitalism, and he certainly earned his place on Mount Rushmore.

In foreign policy he also did a number of important and impressive things. He helped negotiate the end of the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won a Nobel Prize. He built up the American Navy, the so-called "great white fleet" that he sent around the world. He prepared for the building of a canal across the isthmus. These are big things.

But using the high bar that I have set for testing, we have to ask, if he weren't president, would something like that have happened anyway? I think the answer is probably yes. This is a period when you had maximum growth in the American economy, in terms of America surpassing Britain and other European countries. The Americans had the full wind in their sails, if you like.

I suspect that, maybe not in the same fashion or the same place, there would have been an isthmus canal. It might have been in Nicaragua instead of Panama if it hadn't been for Roosevelt. There probably would have been a build-up of the Navy.

If you ask what difference Roosevelt made, he made a difference, but I suspect that within a decade or so history would have looked roughly the same whether T. R. were president or not. So there is a transformational leader, very important leader, but who I would argue wasn't crucial to the way history unfolded.

Now, Roosevelt was followed by Taft, obviously, but after that by another transformational leader, also part of the progressive movement, Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson would not have become president had it not been for the fact that Teddy Roosevelt violated his promise not to run for a third term, ran against Taft in 1912, split the Republican vote, and Wilson came in as a Democrat with a minority of the electorate behind him.

Woodrow Wilson, when he comes into office, is basically focused on domestic politics. He doesn't have a foreign policy vision. He, indeed, spends much of his first term in office trying to stay out of the war in Europe, which starts of course in 1914. He runs for office in 1916 on the promise that he has kept us out of war and, therefore, will continue to keep us out of war.

But then Germany recommences unrestricted submarine warfare, starts sinking ships, both American and British, with a loss of American lives. They also begin to meddle a bit in the Western Hemisphere—the famous, or infamous, Zimmerman telegram relating to Mexico—and Wilson realizes that the policy that he has pursued for four years, which is try to mediate the war, stay out of the war, and so forth, is not going to work.

He has three major options. One option is let the status quo continue, which he doesn't feel is tenable because of the new German actions. The second is what is called "armed neutrality"—you stay out of the war but you arm American ships to try to do something about the U-boats. The third is to reverse a major tenet of American foreign policy, which is no entangling alliances, stay within the Western Hemisphere, stay out of Europe, and he decides to call for sending a massive American army to Europe—big, big change, transformational change, in American foreign policy.

Now, you could say, "Okay, but it if hadn't been for Wilson, would we have gone into World War I?" Probably yes. If Teddy Roosevelt had been elected in 1912, he probably would have taken us into World War I probably even sooner than Wilson did. Teddy Roosevelt believed that, in terms of the balance of power, it was essential that the Americans came in on the side of the Allies, that if Germany won, in the long run it would be more dangerous to our interests.

So Wilson takes a transformational move, but Roosevelt would have also. The big difference, and the reason that Wilson makes such a difference, was not that he took us into the war but how he explained it and what his ambitions were.

If Roosevelt had taken us into the war, he would have said "for balance of power." Wilson hated the balance of power. He thought it was immoral, that this is the way big countries treat little countries, like cheeses to be cut up for their convenience. He said, "We have to change the way world politics is done. We are going to replace the balance of power with collective security, which means that, instead of a balancing of power, all the good countries will unite against the aggressor country, and that essentially will create world peace."

This doctrine of collective security, which he starts with his Fourteen Points and then negotiates at Versailles and is encompassed in the Covenant of the League of Nations, which is part of the Treaty of Versailles, he brings back to the American Senate. Henry Cabot Lodge, a senator from Massachusetts, basically says, "No. There have to be a few amendments to protect American sovereignty."

Wilson says, "You can't touch my treaty. You have to leave it just the way it's negotiated"—even though we now know that some of the Allies said they would have tolerated some changes. Rather than compromise with the Senate, where moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats would have formed a majority, he tells the Democrats not to do anything. He goes on a whistle-stop tour of the western United States, trying to persuade public opinion that they should have the Treaty of Versailles passed just as it's written.

During that tour of the West, he suffers a stroke. The stroke debilitates him, not kills him. He comes back to the White House a very sick and embittered man.

When the Democratic leadership of the Senate says to him, "Can we compromise on this treaty now?" he says, "Absolutely not." So there is no compromise. As a result of that, the United States does not join the League of Nations. One of the great ironies of history is that if Wilson's stroke had killed him rather than debilitated him, the United States probably would have joined the League of Nations.

But the net effect of Wilson's transformational action was by promising not merely to change American foreign policy, sending troops to Europe, but to try to change the world as well, the whole way world politics was organized, he actually led to the extreme isolationism of the 1930s. In other words, the American reaction over time to Wilson's great promises and the feeling that we had been deceived led to an intense reaction, so that by the 1930s you have 70 percent of people answering polls saying "stay out of Europe, stay out of another war."

That brings me to the third transformational president who was crucial, which was Franklin Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt comes into office in 1933 without any foreign policy agenda. He is focused, properly, on the Depression. He is thinking of domestic politics. And that's true in the election of 1936 as well.

Roosevelt changes his view in 1938, after the Munich Agreement and Kristallnacht in Germany. He decides that Hitler is going to be a threat to the United States, and that the United States is going to have to do something about Hitler, and that is going to get us involved in Europe. But every time he gently tries to persuade people of that, or give a speech that hints at it, like his famous Quarantine Speech about the Spanish Civil War, he gets intense reaction from the body politic, and he always draws back very quickly.

So here you have Roosevelt, who sees a problem but, as he said to one of his close advisors, "What do you do if you are a leader in a democracy and you look over your shoulder and nobody is following?"

Roosevelt's answer to that was to hope that events would educate the American people. He doesn't turn to grand rhetoric. Remember, this is a man who gave wonderful "fireside chats," very skillful at this, related to the domestic economy. But it doesn't work when he's trying it on foreign policy.

So Roosevelt tries to engineer some things which will get the Americans into the war. For example, there is a famous incident in which an American destroyer, the Greer, has an encounter with a German U-boat, and Roosevelt says to the American people something that was a complete lie: "The U-boat attacked the Greer." In fact, we know now that the Greer fired first. But even that's not enough to get the Americans to change their position.

So what Roosevelt does is he makes preparations for the circumstances in which public opinion may change. So we institute a draft, we begin to build defense spending. We have lend-lease to Britain to help Britain stay alive, which Roosevelt justifies, not as a response to Hitler or some grand threat. But he justifies it as if your neighbor's house is on fire and he has to borrow your garden hose, you say, "Sure, borrow the hose and give it back when the fire is out"—which is not a lie, but it certainly is not an accurate description of what he had in mind.

In those circumstances, then Roosevelt, having failed in all his efforts to get us into World War II, is saved by the attack on Pearl Harbor. It's arguable that if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt could not have gotten the Americans into World War II in Europe.

Then you could say, "Well, wait a minute. You've just said Roosevelt was important. But here's a man who couldn't accomplish what he set out to do and he basically accomplishes it by accident. Then how do you call him important?"

Let me give you an example with my counterfactual exercise. Imagine that, as Philip Roth speculates in his novel The Plot Against America, in 1940 the Republican Party had nominated Charles Lindbergh instead of Wendell Willkie, an internationalist. Lindbergh was a staunch isolationist and an admirer of Germany. And imagine that you had that type of president, a President Lindbergh, when Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Would it have made a difference? I think probably yes. First of all, you might not have had Pearl Harbor. But if you had Pearl Harbor, you would have seen American policy focused on the Pacific, not on Europe. If that had occurred, the world in 1945 might have been not bipolar, with the United States and Soviet Union as the grand superpower survivors of the war, but with a Europe that was divided between Stalin and Hitler, communist and fascist. With the United States in the Western Hemisphere and Japan, with its greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, we would have seen a multipolar world, and perhaps a quite violent multipolar world.

So the fact that you had a President Roosevelt rather than a President Lindbergh at the time of Pearl Harbor I think did make a difference. The individual made a big difference there.

That brings me to the fourth of the key transformational leaders, which is Harry Truman. Harry Truman, of course, was an accidental president. You may remember that in 1944 Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented fourth term. He thought it might be useful to switch his vice-presidential candidate. His vice president in his third term was Henry Wallace, who was very sympathetic to the Soviet Union, had some illusions about the Soviet Union.

Roosevelt decided it would be better to pick this—not obscure, but not terribly important—senator from Missouri, and he makes Truman the vice president. He makes Truman vice president, but he doesn't give him any authority. Roosevelt during the first few months of 1945 continues with the Manhattan Project, building the nuclear weapon. He negotiates with Stalin at Yalta. He doesn't tell Truman about any of this. Truman is basically there as a placeholder for domestic politics.

Then Roosevelt goes and dies, and all of a sudden you have Harry Truman president instead of Henry Wallace president. The question that you can ask is: What difference did that make? I suspect that a Henry Wallace president would have been much slower to respond to Stalin's various probes and movements of expanding Soviet positions after World War II.

Basically, Truman tries—he doesn't have a grand vision—he tries initially just to carry out Roosevelt's policy. But as he responds to events, as he sees the conditions in Europe, the efforts the Soviets are making, he responds in quite an innovative and imaginative way.

You have not only the Marshall Plan but the creation of NATO. Or, to put it in this larger historical perspective, if Woodrow Wilson made a big change in American foreign policy by sending American troops to fight in Europe, Harry Truman made an even bigger change by leaving them there—and they are there to this day. That was a huge change. In that sense, Truman, I think, made these changes. I doubt that President Wallace would have had a Marshall Plan and a NATO and a permanent American presence abroad. So there I think is another case where the individual mattered.

Finally, of the transformational presidents, let me mention Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan is often credited with ending the Cold War—you know, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" In fact, he did play a useful role.

But the person who deserves most credit for ending the Cold War, the truly transformational leader, was Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev wanted to transform the Soviet Union to save it. He was a reformer. Perestroika was a restructuring. When that didn't work, he tried glasnost, which is opening up, to light a fire under the bureaucrats. But when you asked people what they wanted, they wanted out.

I always say that Gorbachev was like a man who has a loose thread on his sweater. He starts pulling on it, and by the end he has no sweater at all. If Andropov had lived, the tough KGB chief who had died of kidney failure, I think the Soviet Union could have lasted another couple of decades. So the real cause of the timing of the end of the Soviet Union I think is Gorbachev.

Where Reagan deserves credit is not just the defense buildup that put pressure on the Soviets, but was Reagan's sense of compromise. Very often people look at Reagan and they say, "A Reaganite foreign policy is just to be tough." Reagan was much more subtle than that. He knew that you could talk tough, but then you bargained.

When he went to the Geneva Summit in 1985 and decided as he looked at Gorbachev, "I can do a deal with this man," that was a very important point. Reagan does get credit, but again not the credit that is often given, that "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" ended it; rather, Reagan's sense of how to bargain and intuiting that Gorbachev could be worked with.

So those are the transformational leaders that made a big difference in the expansion of the American era.

But I mentioned that I was also impressed by some of the transactional leaders, two in particular, Dwight Eisenhower and the first Bush, George H. W. Bush, sometimes called "Bush 41," being the 41st president. It turns out, as I look back over this history, they were as important as these much more flamboyant transformational leaders. Let me tell you why.

Eisenhower ran for president because he didn't want Robert Taft, who was an isolationist, to become president and have America repeat its experiences after World War I. So by becoming president and staying in Europe, Eisenhower essentially consolidated the big change that Truman had made. That itself is very important, because it made this American presence abroad bipartisan.

But there is something else about Eisenhower that is extremely important. That's what you might call a non-event. We sometimes in history look so much at big events that we forget that non-events can be as important.

In 1955, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came to Eisenhower and said, "We're going to have to use nuclear weapons against China. We can't defend these offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which are right on the shoreline of China, because China has conventional superiority there. So we are going to have to use nuclear weapons and we recommend it."

Eisenhower's comment was: "My God, you boys must be crazy. We can't use those awful things against Asians again within 10 years." That's an extraordinary decision.

Imagine that, instead of Eisenhower, another World War II general who wanted to be president, Douglas MacArthur, had been president. We would have used the weapons. Indeed, MacArthur recommended in 1950 that Truman use nuclear weapons in Korea.

The fact that Eisenhower said no—a "non-event"—means that the world today is very different than if nuclear weapons were used as normal weapons of war. So if you ask historically did a transactional leader make a huge difference because of a decision he made, and you counterfactually substitute, let's say, MacArthur for Eisenhower, the answer is the transactional leader in this case was as important as the transformational ones I have mentioned.

I will conclude with George H. W. Bush, Bush 41. Bush 41 used to say, famously, "I don't do the vision thing." He had been Reagan's vice president. He knew he couldn't compete with Reagan in terms of rhetoric. He felt awkward trying to give these very dramatic-type speeches that Reagan gave. So he explicitly avoided it.

In November of 1989, when the Berlin Wall comes down, it is cause for great jubilation. Many of Bush's advisors come to him and they say, "We have to make political capital out of this." Bush's response was, "No, I'm not going to dance on the wall. I'm not going to gloat and isolate Gorbachev."

Instead, a month later, he met with Gorbachev at the summit in Malta and began a process which oversaw one of the most remarkable changes in the history of the 20th century, which is a Germany and Europe divided by a Berlin Wall and an Iron Curtain, with 400,000 heavily armed Soviet troops in East Germany, from that picture in 1989 to, two years later, a Germany which was reunified, inside NATO, without a shot being fired, which was a truly dramatic change. Most people thought it couldn't be done. Margaret Thatcher opposed it. Brent Scowcroft initially opposed it. And yet, Bush presided over this by just very careful, low-keyed management.

In that sense, if I look at these two transactional leaders, Eisenhower and Bush, they weren't flashy, they weren't transformational in their objectives, but they were extremely good managers. They had what I call contextual intelligence, which is they had a background and knowledge that allowed them to understand how foreign policy really works.

Foreign policy is particularly complex as an area for leaders to make decisions because it involves not merely understanding the distribution of power and the different cultures of a number of different countries, but how they interact with each other as an international system. In that kind of complexity, it is extremely important that a leader have contextual intelligence.

Another way of putting it is that when you are faced with that kind of complexity, perhaps the first principle for a leader to remember is the Hippocratic Oath: Above all, do no harm. Unless you know that your actions are going to make things better, it's better not to act.

In that sense, it is interesting comparing the two presidents Bush. George W. Bush, Bush 43, came into office not interested in foreign policy. Remember the 2000 campaign had almost no foreign policy in it. But he was transformed, as the country was transformed, by 9/11. The shock basically gave a new sense of mission.

He developed a vision, which was to get at the roots of terrorism in the Middle East by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and creating a democracy in Iraq which would then spread throughout the region. Alas, he was unable to implement the vision. It's a little bit like Woodrow Wilson, with too ambitious a vision which fails. His failure, I think, set things back.

I suppose the moral of this story would be that we are better off if we would have a president who has the ability to manage like a transactional leader and the ability to promote a vision and change like a transformational leader, and perhaps sometime in the future some genetic engineer will find out how to produce that kind of leader. [Laughter] What we do know is, comparing the two Bushes, who shared half their genes, that thus far nature hasn't solved the problem. [Laughter]

So I would argue that what we want to look for in the lessons that I have drawn from this account of the 20th century is, as we look at the 21st century, to have a better understanding of the context. The context of American power in the 21st century is that we are not in decline—I have written elsewhere why I think that is a poor metaphor for understanding our position—but we are seeing the "rise of the rest."

I think this is well summarized in the report on the year 2030 that was issued by the National Intelligence Council, a body I once chaired, in which they said: "In 2030, the Americans will be the leading country, but there will be many others with whom we will have to share. We will be primus inter pares ['first among peers or equals'], but the pares will be more important."

That context is a context which a next president, or the next several presidents, are going to have to both understand but also explain to the American public if we are going to have a foreign policy in the 21st century that avoids some of the mistakes of the 20th century and which allows us to play the role of leadership which we need to play.

So that's the moral of my little story of counterfactual history of the 20th century.

Many of my judgments in there are controversial. I haven't talked about John F. Kennedy, though I was once head of the Kennedy School of Government. I'm a little bit harsh on, Woodrow Wilson, even though I once won a prize at Princeton called the Woodrow Wilson Prize. And I have praised George H. W. Bush, though I was a veteran of the Dukakis campaign. So it's not exactly predictable and it's not where I would have started before I started to write the book, or where I would have concluded before I started to write the book. But I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you will have fun reading it.

Thank you very much.


QUESTION: David Musher. Thanks for a brilliant talk.

Had Taft been elected president instead of T. R. and Woodrow Wilson, what do you think would have happened?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, there is a chapter on Taft in the book. I think that Taft—he did get four years of presidency before Roosevelt split the vote—tried to carry out Teddy Roosevelt's policies. He didn't have the same skill or style that Teddy Roosevelt had.

I think that Taft would have gone into World War I. Taft, though, would also have gone into the League of Nations. Taft gave a whole series of speeches in favor of the League of Nations. I think we would have had a more modified version of Teddy Roosevelt, a more modest version of Teddy Roosevelt, if Taft had won in 1912.

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.

Bill Clinton and Strobe Talbott spent a great deal of time sustaining Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia, whereas George H. W. Bush spent a great deal of time discouraging the Soviet states from separating themselves from Gorbachev's Russia. What do you think would have been the case had George H. W. been reelected in 1992 in terms of the Soviet situation?

JOSEPH NYE: George H. W. Bush was heavily criticized by William Safire for not supporting independence of the non-Russian Soviet states. Remember, he criticized Bush for giving what he called the "chicken Kiev speech," in which, instead of supporting Ukrainian independence, he sort of said "keep things peaceful." What we know from Bush's behavior is he would have tried to slow things down, smooth things out. You probably wouldn't have had quite as abrupt an ending to the Soviet Union.

Whether that would have made a big difference, whether we would still have Vladimir Putin today or not, there are so many other causal factors that go into that that I don't think I'd draw a direct line on that.

But in the first year or two of the Clinton administration—in which I served, so this is self-critical—Clinton was still getting his feet on the ground. It might have been that a reelected Bush might have been able to smooth that process somewhat.

Whether that would have made an ultimate difference to the Russia we face today I think is, as I said earlier, a more dubious proposition. So many of the causes of what's happening in Russia today are deep and structural—it's basically a one-crop economy with a terrible demographic problem and such terrible corruption that they can't deal with their real problems. Could that have been avoided by a smoother transition? I don't know.

QUESTION: Why do you think that Franklin Roosevelt seemed initially to favor the Vichy government rather than the free French?

JOSEPH NYE: Franklin Roosevelt never liked Charles de Gaulle. There is a personal thing there. He thought de Gaulle was puffed up. He was basically very much focused on saving Britain. And de Gaulle, to some extent, was a nuisance. De Gaulle kept insisting that he should be one of the decision-makers, and Roosevelt regarded that as a distraction and an annoyance. So I think that meant that he didn't pay the attention to France, or have enough knowledge of France, as perhaps we would have liked.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson. Thank you for being so insightful.

But let's continue with FDR because the United States could not have become such a major power without a strong economy and domestic situation. Now, there was the transition from Hoover, who was transactional and a good manager and everything else but couldn't cope with a real crisis, to FDR, an enormously transformational leader. So how do you explain all this?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, I think in domestic policy that FDR was indeed transformational. It's interesting that during the 1930s, up until 1938, he was very transformational in his domestic objectives, not so much in his foreign policy objectives, partly because Roosevelt had a great sense of what the public needed. He didn't really cure the Depression, but he restored American self-confidence—a little bit like Ronald Reagan; Roosevelt and Reagan have those characteristics in common.

I think he made a big difference in terms of his constant experimentation. Even though some of his domestic experiments contradicted each other or were reversed and so forth, that feeling that there is activity in the center, that they are trying to make a difference, was very important for American restoration of self-confidence. And there were in the 1930s some pretty nasty movements on both the far left and the far right. But Roosevelt's ability to restore confidence in the center of the political spectrum I think was very important.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

There are two pure counterfactuals by your criterion of who else would have been president that you didn't discuss, and they are absolutely pure because we know who the other presidents would have been. One of them was Kennedy vs. Nixon and the other one was Bush vs. Gore. Could you tell us a little bit about those two?

JOSEPH NYE: Those are good. Let me go backwards.

With Bush vs. Gore, if 500 votes had been counted differently in Florida in 2000, I think President Gore would have responded by sending Americans to Afghanistan. I don't think we would have had the invasion of Iraq. So that counterfactual I think would make a big difference.

If Nixon had defeated Kennedy in 1960, it's a very hard one to answer because Kennedy only got three years, so we are judging sort of mid-course and we don't know how he would have acted. I don't know whether Nixon would have made the same bets and the same mistakes on Vietnam that Kennedy made. Kennedy's first year was not a great success. He had the Bay of Pigs, he had the meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna that helped to heighten the Berlin Crisis. Kennedy did a lot of good things, but he made some mistakes—he moved on from that to increasing our involvement in Vietnam.

Some people have written books saying that Kennedy, if he had been reelected, would have pulled out of Vietnam. Others dispute that. But we really won't know. So it is a hard counterfactual to work out because it's a presidency interrupted prematurely.

What we do know is that coming into office Nixon would have had much more experience than Kennedy and perhaps might have avoided some of the mistakes of Kennedy's first year.

QUESTION: Jim Traub.

I have a question about the overall method of choosing the nearest rival as the counterfactual because I wonder if it winds up giving presidents an advantage for having a kind of eccentric rival or hypothetical rival, which doesn't tell you so much about the president as about the fact of who was running against him.

If we choose as Wilson's hypothetical rival William Jennings Bryan, Wilson looks better. If we choose as Eisenhower's rival not Douglas MacArthur, who of course didn't run against him, but Adlai Stevenson II, who did, the difference is less great than it would be otherwise.

So I wonder if there wouldn't be a more valid method of something like what in baseball is called "wins above replacement," where you choose a kind of hypothetical baseline and judge a president by that, which tells you more about the larger surround that he is working with than about the coincidence of who he happens to run against.

JOSEPH NYE: That's a very good point. In fact, as you may have noticed, I violated my principle to follow closer to what you are suggesting. So when I talked about Roosevelt in 1940, I wasn't really—I mean Wendell Willkie was an Eastern establishment Republican internationalist. So if you said if Willkie had been in office at Pearl Harbor, I don't think there would have been a big change. So I switched to your principle by using Philip Roth's nice hypothetical.

You're right, it's probably better not to describe it as just the most likely. It works well when you are doing Truman or Wallace. It doesn't work as well when you're doing, let's say, Roosevelt and Lindbergh. So I accept the amendment.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

You have noted that some of the transformational events associated with some of our great presidents might have happened anyway because of historical forces. I wonder if you'd look just at the domestic scene, where with Reagan we had the air traffic controllers' strike broken; and with Roosevelt, national parks and conservation; with Wilson we had the federal income tax; FDR's experiments.

Would it be a general proposition that individual presidents make much more difference with respect to domestic policy than foreign affairs?

JOSEPH NYE: I take your point that there were tremendous transformational actions. But I'm not sure that I would see it as domestic vs. foreign. Sometimes a president may be able to do things domestically and not internationally. More often than not, presidents are elected for domestic purposes. Unless there is a war, it is very rare that an American election turns on foreign policy. That means his "mandate" or the sense of momentum is often more on the domestic than the international front.

Another case that you didn't mention is Lyndon Johnson, who was truly transformational domestically. Kennedy may have suggested action on civil rights, but it was Lyndon Johnson who got it done. If you read the Robert Caro books, he makes clear that Johnson was absolutely crucial to that extraordinarily important transformation in American domestic politics. And yet, Johnson also got us deeper and deeper into Vietnam.

I think there is a case of a president who was truly transformational on the domestic front and, I think, by following the path of least resistance on Vietnam, made things worse.

QUESTION: Krishen Mehta.

In the current presidential leadership under President Obama, with the likely events that could unfold if Iran does go for nuclear weapons and the unfolding situation in Syria, does this provide opportunities for changed nuances or responses under President Obama than under a President McCain or a Romney?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, it's an interesting question. One of the great ironies of the 21st century is we've had two presidents—the first who came in as a transactional leader in foreign policy and became transformational and failed; the second who came in talking as a transformational president, particularly in his campaign and in his first-year speeches like Cairo and Prague and Oslo and so forth, and then became quite transactional and prudent. Going from what a president says in a campaign to what actually happens is often hard to predict.

We do know that John McCain has talked about a far more activist policy. With Romney, frankly, we don't know what his real foreign policy positions were. He was careful essentially to include the whole Republic spectrum because he didn't want foreign policy to be the focus of the campaign. So I can't answer the question—I don't think any of us can answer the question—on Romney.

But McCain has made a number of statements in the campaign, but also has made them now as senator, urging a much more interventionist position. He was much more activist on Libya than Obama, though Obama eventually acted. And of course, now in the debate on Syria he has become much active in his intervention.

What we don't know is whether in office, when he had all the intelligence and all the various pressures and looked at American public opinion, which is against intervention in Syria, and thought about the positions in the Congress—we don't know how he would have acted as president. It's one thing to say something as a senator. It's another thing to say it when you are at the center of all those various forces as president.

My hunch is that McCain would have been more active on Syria. But again, you have to be very careful when you do counterfactual history to allow for the other causes that come in. One of the points is that the president does see things slightly differently, because there are more forces impinging upon him, than a senator does.

QUESTION: Didier Choix.

I'm surprised that you didn't define Richard Nixon as a transformational president, given what he did with China. In the long-term perspective, don't you think that was a major, major event?

JOSEPH NYE: Yes, I do. I didn't have time this morning. In the book I do describe Nixon's opening China as a transformational move, a very important one. Nixon had the sense to take the Vietnam experience, which was a very negative experience for the United States, and more or less—I might call it "change the channel." By getting a focus on China and Russia-China, it took us out of this mess in Vietnam.

The reason I didn't discuss it this morning, though I do mention it in the book, is I think the Vietnam experience as a whole set back, rather than advanced, the creation of the American era, a little bit like Woodrow Wilson's efforts set us back.

I think that we misunderstood what was happening in Vietnam. We used this metaphor of ideological dominoes—if one goes communist, the next goes communist, and so forth. If we had had a different metaphor in mind, which is checkers—red, black, red, black—and realized the importance of nationalism and that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and realized that China—let's call the Soviet Union red, China black, Vietnam red, Cambodia black, on this checkerboard—none of these countries wanted to be controlled by the other, regardless of whether they called themselves communist or not—we could have gotten a reasonable outcome—not an ideal outcome, but a reasonable outcome—without the loss of lives and treasure that we squandered and without the reaction of the 1970s. I think that is an example of overreaching which actually set back.

Now, where Nixon gets credit is to some extent in extricating us from that mistake. But it wasn't something that advanced the American era. He was doing repair.

It's also worth remembering that Nixon believed that the world was already becoming multipolar. He and Kissinger both wrote that the United States is declining, the world is going to be multipolar. The argument that the Soviet Union was about to vanish and the world was going to be unipolar never crossed his mind—didn't cross many people's minds either.

So I give Nixon a lot of credit for what he did. But in terms of not discussing it this morning, looking just at this sort of key decisions that expanded the influence of the United States, he did a great repair job, but he didn't solve the problem.

And we should also remember something else, another foreign policy decisions that Nixon made, which was to destroy the Bretton Woods monetary system, take away the convertible dollar into gold, which unleashed a terrible inflation which plagued his successors, Ford and Carter, and antagonized his allies. So he did some things right. He did some others that weren't so great.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for taking us on this wonderful journey this morning. It was truly wonderful. Thank you.

JOSEPH NYE: Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: It was absolutely a terrific talk.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less