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As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Joseph S. Nye, Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

DEVIN STEWART: Professor Nye, thank you so much for coming today and participating in our Thought Leaders Forum. It's great to have you here.

JOSEPH NYE: Nice to be with you.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me about how you see the world today. How do you describe the world in moral terms? How is it unique today?

JOSEPH NYE: I think what's different about the world today is the extraordinary complexity. I suppose if one lived in the Middle Ages, there was a fairly clear moral hierarchy and moral divisions. Today, with modern communications bringing so many different cultures together, with a whole new set of problems created by technologies, communications, there are many, many more choices that people have to make, and probably there is less of a clear moral hierarchy than there would have been in an earlier period. So, I suppose, if you sum that up in one word, complexity.

DEVIN STEWART: Please tell me a bit more about this moral hierarchy. Do you see the world as more flat or equitable today?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, there are some things that have become better—for example, the Millennium Development Goal of cutting world poverty in half looks like it will be met, partly because of the success of China and some other Asian countries. On the other hand, there are some parts of the world, the bottom billion, who have made virtually no progress. So that means that there is greater inequality. As some of the poor get richer, that increases the gap with the others of the poor. So I don't think the world is more equal, but I do think there is something better in having had a billion people raised out of poverty.

In terms of moral complexity, though, poverty isn't the only problem. There is also the question of getting people to understand different cultures and tolerate different cultures and acceptance of diversity. I think that in some ways we are making progress on that and in some ways we are not. There are some deep cultural divisions that are particularly difficult.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of how we can resolve those cultural tensions?

JOSEPH NYE: I tend to be in favor of more contact, more person-to-person, face-to-face relationships. I think that helps to humanize each other. But, obviously, you can't have everybody in the world meet everybody else. So you have to couple that increased contact with a respect for diversity.

Woodrow Wilson once said he wanted "a world made safe for democracy." In my new book on American presidents and the creation of the America era, I'm fairly critical of Wilson. Perhaps what we need is more of what John F. Kennedy called "a world made safe for diversity." [Editor's note: Check out Joseph Nye's Public Affairs talk on this book, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.]

DEVIN STEWART: You said earlier that face-to-face contact was important. Do you think that is more valuable than virtual contact?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, virtual contact has to be used to supplement face-to-face contact because, as I mentioned, not everybody can be brought into face-to-face contact with everybody else. Virtual contact allows a much broader portion of the world's population to have contact with each other.

What we do know is that virtual contact is not the same as face-to-face contact. Psychologists have sometimes said that only half of human communication is oral or verbal and the other half of it is actually various signals that we give to each other through our physical actions and gestures and so forth. So there is the remaining importance of face-to-face communication even in a virtual era. But the answer is not going to be either/or; there is going to be a need for both.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is to look at the notion of a global ethic. Does that mean anything to you; and, if so, what does it mean?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, I would think that a global ethic would require the combination of two things. One is a greater understanding and broader compassion of how we treat each other. That goes back to my point about diversity, accepting differences, but also concern for the conditions of others. So there is, if you want, let's call it the horizontal dimension of a global ethic: how do we treat others; how do others treat each other; our concern about their condition.

There is another dimension, though, which is true today but that wouldn't have been true in the same sense in the past. I might call this a vertical dimension, which is how we treat the planet and what we are leaving to future generations. A hundred years ago we would not worry about the net impact of our actions on the planet as a whole and not be so concerned about the question of what we were leaving to future generations physically. In today's world, we are finding a situation where humans can have lasting and damaging effects on the planet. That means that the legacies that we have for our children and grandchildren and others could be strongly affected.

So I would argue a global ethic then has two dimensions, how we treat other and how we treat our common home.

DEVIN STEWART: Now, you talked about how we treat each other and how we treat the planet as comprising a global ethic. Would you say that these also constitute the greatest moral challenge today, or is there something else that concerns you?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, obviously, there are many sub-components of that. Nuclear war is bad for both dimensions, how we treat each other but also the effects on the planet. Climate change is something that is long term and certainly affects how we treat the planet for our progeny, although it is less immediate than future-oriented. So there is a variety of dimensions to both the horizontal and the vertical aspects of the global ethic that I described.

DEVIN STEWART: When you think about those challenges, is there a commonality you could extract and advise businesses or organizations or individuals to behave accordingly?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, businesses and other organizations should, as a matter of good business practice, be concerned about the perceptions of their legitimacy and what I call their soft power, [Editor's note: link to Dr. Nye's Public Affairs talk on soft power] their ability to attract others. So it's good for your brand as well as good for your personal moral obligation.

But in this case, I think that there is less of a distance between one's personal moral concerns and the prosperity of one's business because of the broad concern for these issues that go into this global ethic.

DEVIN STEWART: You've talked a lot about concern for future generations and the legacy of environmental damage today. What would you like to see happen in the next 100 years? We are trying to look ahead during this project.

JOSEPH NYE: It would be nice to see a world in which several things happen. One is, on the legacy for future generations related to climate, that we learn how to have less carbon-intensive growth so that we don't have quite the same damaging effects that we are having now on the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

But there are other things that we would want to see in the next 100 years. We'd like to see an increase in the tolerance for different viewpoints and greater diversity. We'd like to see a reduction in poverty, a continued improvement of the life opportunities for more people inhabiting this planet. We would also like to see a reduction in the amount of violence, if possible. So there are several things I would cite as important dimensions for the next hundred years.

DEVIN STEWART: Now, speaking about legacy, you have been known for a lot of ideas. I'm sure you have talked about soft power maybe thousands of times. But what idea would you like to be best known for? Please tell us about that.

JOSEPH NYE: I guess "soft power" will be probably engraved on my gravestone. But there are other thoughts that I've had that I think have been also important: the concept of complex interdependence, the ideas relating to ethics in foreign policy that I have described in some detail in my new book. I think these ideas also are important, though I suspect that once you have a label put around your neck, it stays there. So soft power is probably going to be the one that sticks.

DEVIN STEWART: For our posterity's sake, can you give us a one-minute description of that idea for students today? And, also, what is the moral dimension of soft power?

JOSEPH NYE: Power is the ability to affect others to get the things you want. You can do it three ways: you can do it with coercion, threats; you can do it with payments; or you can do it with attraction and persuasion. Threats and payments are sometimes called "carrots and sticks." Attraction and persuasion I guess you might call "honey." If you can use more honey more effectively, you may be able to economize or minimize the amount of carrots and sticks.

The moral dimension of soft power would be that it allows more autonomy in the target of power. If I pull out a gun and shoot you to steal your wallet, it doesn't matter what you think. If I try to persuade you that I am a guru and you should give me your money, in both cases it may be theft, but in the second case you have much more autonomy, much more choice; it matters much more what you think.

So I think that we would have a preference for soft power when it can be used. More often than not, in international policies you need both. It is that combination of hard and soft that I call "smart power." [Editor's note: link to Dr. Nye's Public Affairs talk on smart power.

DEVIN STEWART: Now, drilling down a little bit, how do you predict whether the user of soft power will have some greater effect? And how about the target? Who is more susceptible to soft power?

JOSEPH NYE: Soft power doesn't always work. Hard power doesn't always work either. But if you look at some of the problems—let's say, North Korea's nuclear weapons—it is doubtful that you are going to get rid of them through soft power. Probably the hard power of sanctions imposed by the Chinese would be more important. But over a very long term, as people begin to see options for a different type of society and are attracted to that, that may have an effect on the nature of the regime and how their actions would be in North Korea.

It's worth remembering that in the Cold War, the Berlin Wall fell, not under a barrage of artillery, but under hammers and bulldozers wielded by those whose minds had been changed by the ideas that constitute soft power.

DEVIN STEWART: Your recent new book is about presidential leadership. Please tell us about how you see moral leadership.

JOSEPH NYE: I argue that a president, or any leader, has to think of leadership in three dimensions:

  • What we would call the ends or the goals that the leader has—are they moral; are they concerned about other people and, their wellbeing?

  • The means that a president or any other leader uses—if force is used, is it discriminate and proportionate? Is it wielded in a way that is respectful of the autonomy and institutions of others to the extent possible?

  • And in terms of consequences, does it basically fill a role of increasing welfare or how people are doing? Does it make people better off, not just one's own followers, but also with minimal damage to the interests of others?

So in the chapter on ethical foreign policy in the book, I actually go into this in some detail and give a moral scorecard to each of the presidents along those three dimensions.

DEVIN STEWART: Who scored the best and worst?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, surprisingly, George H. W. Bush, Bush 41, probably comes out best on this scorecard. People would say, "Well, what about Ronald Reagan, who had such moral clarity?" That was true of his ends, his speeches and the goals he sought, but not always of the means that he used. Or Woodrow Wilson, who also had a noble vision, but who wasn't able to implement it and thereby had consequences that were unintended but quite negative. Bush 41 was modest in the goals he set, cautious in the means that he used, and basically had good consequences.

DEVIN STEWART: How about the worst?

JOSEPH NYE: Oh, there are lots of candidates. But, I suppose, if you look back on Harding and Coolidge and Hoover, that was a pretty low period.

I think you could also ask questions about Nixon, though on foreign policy Nixon had a mixed record. His opening to China was a very good transformational action, but his destruction of the Bretton Woods international monetary system was a negative.

It's rare to find somebody who is perfect on all scores.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, Andrew Carnegie, who is looming above us here, wanted world peace. Do you think world peace is possible?

JOSEPH NYE: Well, much depends on what one means by world peace. If we think back to Carnegie and his concerns before World War I, he was mostly thinking about great-power war, the kind of disaster that occurred in 1914 with World War I. I think that type of war is less likely, but it's not impossible. Thinking of world peace as a major conflagration among great powers with extraordinary widespread destruction, I think we can avoid that. I think, for example, the United States and China can avoid that kind of war.

If, on the other hand, one asks, "Can you avoid all wars?" if that's what world peace means, then I'm less confident. I think there is still a danger that violence will be used. Though I am impressed by the writings of my Harvard colleague, Steven Pinker, who argues that even at the level of individual and group violence there has been a trend away from violence. [Editor's note: Check out Steven Pinker's September 2012 Carnegie Council debate with Robert Kaplan: Is the World Becoming More Peaceful?] So I would not expect world peace in that second sense, but I would expect improvements if Pinker is correct.

DEVIN STEWART: The final question, Professor Nye: Who is accountable for the things that we have talked about today?

JOSEPH NYE: Who is accountable? I think we all are accountable. Obviously, some of us have more impact than others. An American president has more influence than you or I do. But I think when it comes to how we treat others, how we treat the planet, how we educate our children, how we explain these concerns to our fellow citizens and others, that there is a bit of accountability for all of us.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Professor Nye.

JOSEPH NYE: It's a pleasure.