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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Tenure at the State Department

Let's talk specifically about your experience in the Carter administration. You were in the State Department. Was your main focus proliferation?

Yes. I was chairman of the National Security Council committee that dealt with nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. So, though I was a State Department official, I had the job of interagency coordination on that issue, which was one of the major initiatives that Jimmy Carter had in the international area. And it was a very exciting time. The Americans were arguing that using plutonium, which is a weapons-usable material, as a fuel for reactors was a bad idea because it was likely to leak out, and that selling the facilities to make plutonium or enriched uranium, which is another bomb-making material, was a very bad idea. So we worked out guidelines for nuclear suppliers to restrict the sales of such things. We tried to stop or slow down exports that were going on at the time, tried to reconstruct or restructure the way people thought about this. But at the beginning that was quite unpopular. Now people are more willing to accept those ideas. In the late seventies, after the oil crisis, there were many people who thought that these nuclear fuels, particularly in breeder reactors using plutonium, were going to save the world. We thought not. I think we turned out to be closer to the mark on it, but it was wildly unpopular in some circles at the time.

Were you in a better position because of your academic training in this area and the networks that you had in the academy with regard to these issues? Or was that not relevant?

There was a study that I participated in on nuclear energy, I think it was called Nuclear Policy Issues and Choices, commissioned by the Ford Foundation, which had a number of people looking at the nuclear issue. And I learned a lot from that, and also many of the people on that study wound up in the government. Harold Brown, who was part of that study, became the Secretary of Defense. Spurgeon Keeney, who was the chairman of it, became the Deputy Director of the Arms Control Agency, and so forth. So those contacts developed, and the theory about what was going on, what needed to go on, in that area which had been developed as part of this commission while I was an academic, were indeed central to what I did when I was in the government.

What were the surprises for you as an academic who had worked in an area suddenly being in a position like this?

Well, you might draw an analogy to reading a movie script and saying, "I know that story." And then when you actually see the film you say, "I didn't know that shot was filmed at twilight," or "I didn't know that this was going to happen so rapidly." So it was the different tempo, the different setting that suddenly occurred. I can remember times when we'd say, "Now, if we do a careful study of this, here's how we should go about it," and the next thing you know the foreign minister of another country has come in and made a statement which throws things totally off the plans that you've made. So this problem of how do you take chaotic reality and try to shape the right questions, even before you get answers, is very different in the government setting than in the academic setting. Because in the academic setting there's a luxury, there's no time limit. You can sort your way through it, figure it out; if you don't have the answer you go back to the library and look up more data and so forth. In government you either solve the problem or get the right answer quickly or it doesn't happen at all. And it's quite a different set of skills. The premium we put on time makes a huge difference.

Does any of your experience as an educator pay off? You are trying to reformulate questions, getting people to think differently. Has working with students prepared you to do it with colleagues in the government?

The ability to persuade other people that you have a picture of the future Nye with Secretary of Defense William Perry on the SECDEF airplane which is plausible and that this is a way in which they can move, is an important source of power. And to the extent to which you can use your academic ideas to shape that picture, it helps. The other thing is that being able to communicate orally makes a difference. There's the incidence of what is called the "elevator briefing." I mean, quite literally: I can remember in Korea having worked out a solution to a problem but then getting in the ground floor elevator with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and having to explain to them this solution before we'd reached the top floor of the building, which was only about seven or eight floors. And if I hadn't been able to say, "Here are the three key points, here are the basic reasons but I'll tell you the rest later," it wouldn't have worked.

Did your theories about complex interdependence and the new tools in this changing environment prove to be applicable? Your insights with regard to negotiations on proliferation?

Yes, in fact one of the things that I found was that making transnational alliances was crucially important. In the proliferation area, I remember in the early part of the Carter administration when Carter announced the policy that we had devised, it was widely attacked by an international conference in Iran. And it looked as though this was all the countries of the world condemning the new American policy. But the people who were meeting at this conference were essentially nuclear engineers and people who had known each other for years, who had worked together and who were teaming up with some American engineers to make it look like it was an international statement. It was actually a statement of the nuclear priesthood and not at all an international statement.

Both times you've gone to government you've won distinguished service awards, but in the proliferation area, can you identify one place where a theory, an idea, you brought mattered in a program that emerged?

I think that the design, but even more the implementation, of Carter's nonproliferation policy rested very heavily on some of the theories that I'd worked out about transnational alliances and also about the role of international institutions -- of how we could use the International Atomic Energy Agency and how we could develop a new study group, which we called the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation, as a way to buy time to get people to rethink how they approach this problem. Also, the establishment of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controlled the exports. Those things, I think, rested very heavily on work that I had done on transnational coalitions and on institutions before going into government.

In your diary, if you kept a diary, was there a moment where something happened where you said, "the theory was wrong!"? How did policy inform your theory and maybe force you to adapt it?

I guess probably the clearest example of that was when I was on the transition group that was working on policies for the incoming administration.

This was for Carter?

Yes. December of 1976, just before the administration took office. I looked at the deal where France had sold a reprocessing plant to Pakistan and Germany had sold one to Brazil. And I said that if we tried to take these on too quickly or too frontally, we would arouse nationalistic reactions and it would be counterproductive. Therefore, we should follow an indirect way of going about it. And that was a great policy paper, theoretically informed by theories of nationalism. And the next thing that happened was the Germans sent a high-level delegation quietly to visit with the Carter people before they'd actually taken office, and that delegation was misinterpreted by the people they called on and the word came out that the Germans were playing hardball, that we would respond in kind, and that we would send Vice President Mondale to Germany to stop this. That response was exactly the opposite of what I'd written in the paper, but it didn't matter. Events overtook the theory very rapidly. Then you have to say, "Okay, given that that's where we are, where do we go from here?" You can't say, "Sorry, my theory says we should do it this way." That's where we are, now what do we do? And government has a lot of that.

There's a continuing debate in political philosophy and political science about the relation of power to truth, even in literature and so on. What is your fix on that? Is there a point at which, if you're in politics, it constrains or limits the truth that you hope is embedded in theory?

Well, there's a problem that when you're in government you often can't speak as frankly about some things publicly as you might want. When I handled press briefings in the Pentagon press room and somebody asked a question that was loaded with dynamite, we were instructed never to lie, but you didn't necessarily have to be like a moth flying into a flame either. I mean, you could sidestep the question or avoid it. In academic life that's not a problem. It's often the things that are hard to answer that are the most interesting, because they make you look at new things. But when you're speaking as a government official, when you can do great damage to a policy or a possible solution to a difficult problem by raising the wrong issue at the wrong time, you then have to speak somewhat indirectly or sidestep things. And that's not always comfortable for an academic. One of the nice things about academic life is that you can deal with these things head on.

For example, when I was dealing with nonproliferation policy in the Carter period, people from less developed countries would often say, "You have nuclear weapons and you're trying to stop us from having nuclear weapons. How can you justify that morally?" Well, I couldn't stand in front of a major meeting on nonproliferation and say, "Gee, good point. Maybe we shouldn't try to stop you having the bomb." But I tucked it away in the back of my mind and said that when I get back to university I'm going to try to think that through and answer that question. And the result of that was that when I went back to Harvard I taught a course on ethics in foreign policy and used that interaction with my students to work out my thinking. Then I wrote a book which was published in the mid-eighties called Nuclear Ethics, in which I dealt with those questions which had been gnawing at me as a government official but which I had neither the time to reflect on them properly nor the position to speak in the open way in which I like to speak about them.

So there was a conversation, really, between the policy world and the theoretical world through your constant redefinition of the problems you want to focus on?

Yes. If you want a dialogue of theory and practice, this has been something that I have been fortunate enough to experience. Before I went into the Carter administration, as I said, I'd been intrigued with this whole question of what was going to happen with nuclear commerce and the spread of nuclear materials. And then I had the opportunity to work on that in a policy position. Then after, coming out of the government, I could think through some of the ethical questions. And similarly, when I went into the Clinton administration, I had been working on the question of the rise of Japan, the role of China, the balance of power in East Asia. I'd written on that. And then I had the opportunity when I was in the Defense Department to take the lead on reaffirming the U.S. - Japan Security Alliance, which was then beginning to atrophy. So I've been fortunate in the sense of being able to use thoughts I developed in academic life, have a chance to apply them in government, and then come back and think of them again with another dimension or another fix on them in academic life.

Next page: Tenure at the Defense Department

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