From Integration Theory to Soft Power: Engaging Practitioners with Harvard Professor Joseph Nye

By Zoltan Feher

As part of the Engaging Practitioners series, on October 22nd, 2020, the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) hosted Professor Joseph Nye, University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, and former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

His most recent books include The Power to Lead; The Future of PowerPresidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era; and Is the American Century Over?. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Diplomacy. In a recent survey of international relations scholars, he was ranked as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy, and in 2011 Foreign Policy named him one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

CSS Director Monica Toft moderated the discussion and focused both on Professor Nye’s extraordinary academic career and his public service. Professor Nye provided Fletcher students with a powerful advice on academic research: “Follow your curiosity. If you see a puzzle, don’t be stuck in old paradigms, follow a new direction.”

Nye walked the audience through his academic career and research agendas, explaining how he followed his own curiosity and created new directions in International Relations. He first became interested in Africa when studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and had discussions with an African friend. When he returned, he began pursuing his PhD at Harvard and studied with John Kenneth Galbraith and Edward Mason, who had just returned from a World Bank mission to Africa. Under their influence, he became interested in studying East Africa, specifically how whether the Uganda-Tanzania-Kenya common market established by the British would continue after independence. Nye got a grant from the Ford Foundation to spend a year and a half in East Africa to write his thesis and address such questions as to how politics and economics will interact in making this common market work (or not work), and what would come of African leaders’ pledges to escape the traps of colonial boundaries and to follow a larger pan-Africanism. He came to the conclusion that African integration was not entirely possible because of inherited colonial boundaries and the pressures for autarchy. This research served as the basis for his book Pan Africanism and East African Integration (1965).

Nye argued that in pursuing this early research agenda and his later research agendas he “didn’t go through the front door,” instead he followed his curiosity and searched for new directions. From his research on Africa, Nye became interested in integration theory, particularly the work of Ernst Haas developing integration theory for Europe. After looking at the East African common market, Nye looked at the Central American common market and addressed the question of whether regional integration has a future or not. The result of this research led to his book Peace in Parts (1971), in which he thought about world politics done at the regional level.

In 1973, the world was hit by the oil crisis in the Middle East. Hans Morgenthau argued at that time that the volume of the resources transferred from one set of countries to another (in this case, from the rich countries in Europe and North America to the Arab countries in the Middle East) without violence was unprecedented in world history. Thinking about the relationship between military force and such economic cooperation, Robert Keohane and Nye wrote Power and Interdependence (1977). They did not say that realism was beside the point, instead, they argued that analysis should start with security-focused realism, but should not stop there, realism should be supplemented in contexts it can not explain (like in 1973). Nye and Keohane came up with three models: (i) the overall-structural model, which emphasized traditional forms of power, (ii) the issue-structural model, which looked at the distribution of power resources in particular issue areas, and (iii) the model of complex interdependence, where states were supplemented by non-state actors, and their major instruments were not military power and their major objectives included domestic and economic goals besides the traditionally defined national security. Scholars should apply to the context they wish to analyze the model that best approximates the situation at hand. This was a very different way of looking at international politics from the mainstream – Kenneth Waltz wrote his Theory of International Politics a year later, and for him, it was all about bipolarity, military power, etc. Waltz’s new version of realism became known as neorealism, while Keohane and Nye’s theory was named neoliberalism, even though they did not deny the importance of realism. Nye believes that the enduring legacy of Power and Interdependence is due to the fact that he and Keohane approached international politics “through a side door, when everybody else was coming in through the front door,” and this goes all the way back to his research on Africa and integration theory.

Toft asked Nye how he developed his famous concept of soft power. In 1988, Paul Kennedy published his famous book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers argued that the United States was in decline as a great power because of its imperial overstretch, as many great powers declined before it in history. Nye disagreed with the idea that the United States was in decline and in response wrote the book Bound to Lead (1990). In writing this book, Nye was thinking about how we can measure a state’s power. It was clear to him how we should go about measuring military and economic power, but when he was totaling these up, he noticed something was still missing. “The American ability to get others to do with what we want is not just based on military and economic power, but it is also based on the ability to get to want what we want, to attract others to our goals,” he explained. This is the period when Waltz’s neorealism was dominant. If you had a structure of power based on military and economic capabilities, that explained everything, according to neorealists. Nye sensed that something was missing. With that, the concept of soft power was born. This aspect was totally ignored by neorealists at the time, even though classical realists had recognized its significance. Morgenthau and E.H. Carr understood the power of ideas, but with neorealism, most of the subtlety of classical realism had dropped out, so Nye wanted to fill that gap with soft power.

The concept of soft power has become very prominent in academia and policy around the world in the past three decades. Nye’s biggest surprise about the success of soft power was when in 2007 Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needed to invest in soft power. “Wow, when I was sitting at the kitchen table in Lexington, Massachusetts, scribbling out long-hand some ideas” that would later become soft power, “I would have never imagined that those ideas would one day wind up coming out of the mouth of the President of China,” Nye told the participants.

Following the discussion of Nye’s complementary academic and foreign policy experiences, Toft introduced his new book Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (Oxford UP, 2020). Nye discussed his new focus on leadership and personalities in addition to larger concepts and frameworks. He suggested that the United States no longer has the same control of power it used to have. The United States needs to work with allies more effectively. If Trump is re-elected, we will see the decline of American power, the United States will continue to be a major power but not as dominant as previously. Biden is more committed to multilateralism and working with allies. In the second half of the conversation, Nye engaged with questions from Fletcher students, faculty, and alumni.

Leave a Reply