Joseph Nye Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Theory and Practice in International Relations: Conversation with Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Dean, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; 4/8/98, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Theory and Practice

Is there a dichotomy between your theoretical work and your policy work? What I have in mind here is in Power and Interdependence. This was a real effort to see how the "realist" model of international relations helped us to understand and explain what was actually happening as we got increasing interdependence. Is the modality in this theoretical work different than that in the body of policy work which you've done?

It's interesting. When I first went into government in the seventies, it was a little like being thrown into a swimming pool and told to swim. It's a totally different world, government, from academics. In academic life, there's no premium on time, the premium is on getting it just right. In government, if you haven't got the right answer by four o'clock this afternoon when the president meets with the prime minister, that perfect paper you get in a little bit late is an "F." And similarly, academic colleagues would send me papers they'd written saying, "Here's the answer to the proliferation problem." And they'd be thirty to forty pages with footnotes. They didn't realize that I was getting to the office at 7:00 a.m., having to read the overnight intelligence; briefing of the daily press; a couple of memos for testimony on the Hill later in the day; and meet with the Secretary of State at 7:30. The idea that I would have time to read a thirty page paper -- ! I used to write them, and I found that I couldn't read them. So there's a totally different world between high-level policy positions and academic thinking. And my problem is that I like both. I like action but I also like the chance to be reflective. And so I've sort of been torn back and forth between the two. But certainly what is true is that when you're in a policy position you wind up using up the intellectual capital that you've accumulated when you were outside. And it's outside that you are able to rebuild or build up your intellectual capital.

How has theory informed your policy work?

Well, in the book Power and Interdependence that Bob Keohane and I wrote just before I first went into government, we had talked about the areas where realism, Nye with members of the Turkish General Staff in Ankara based on threats of force and security, was dominant or was the most useful theory. In other areas where international relations were becoming more complex, where there are more transnational actors, we called it "complex interdependence." And it was intriguing, when I was in the State Department, to find examples of each. Dealing with the nuclear issues, I found that sometimes when we were trying to persuade France not to sell a reprocessing plant to Pakistan or, in terms of the relationship between Pakistan and the India, to damp down any potential nuclear arms race between them, the realist theories were extremely helpful. But there are other instances, for example, when we were trying to change the policy in the Carter administration on the use of plutonium reprocessing, there were suddenly transnational aspects which were very powerful. The so-called nuclear priesthood or nuclear mafia, the group of people who deeply believed that the reprocessing and the use of plutonium is the future of the world, had more in common with each other than they did with their fellow co-nationals. So there were transnational alliances made between, say, departments of energy and science and technology against state departments and defense departments. So there were odd coalitions that were formed that weren't caught by the simple realist model.

We should explain to the audience that in complex interdependency, the emphasis is on different kinds of actors and not just states; priority among issues varies; and the use of force may not happen.

Right. Basically, the realist assumption is that security is the dominant concern, force is the major instrument, and governments more or less maintain their coherence as they interact with each other. In complex interdependence, security is less dominant as a concern, force is less useful as an instrument, you have many transnational actors that are going to and fro across borders, making coalitions that are not always well described by national labels. And so when I went into government I was quite fascinated to find evidence that these things that I'd written about actually existed and were influencing the policies that I was trying to deal with.

So in terms of the theoretical debate in international relations, which is your field, when you went out Informal NATO defense ministerial, October 1995 into the real world you found it useful to have a foot in each pond, so to speak.

That's right. I think one cannot understand the world or deal with the world if one has simply a realist or a liberal view. The world is a mixture of both. When I was later in the Clinton administration in the Defense Department dealing with policy in East Asia, I found realist theory very useful. You're looking ahead toward the balance of power in East Asia as you see the rise of Chinese power, and you could argue that there would be three major powers in the region: U.S., China, and Japan. And that when you have a three-part balance of power, it's better to be part of the two than the one, and therefore reaffirming the U.S. - Japan relationship so that China couldn't play off the U.S. against Japan. Then from that position of strength, to jointly engage China and offer them a position as a responsible actor -- that was pretty much based on realist theory.

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