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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The Debate about the Decline of American Power

I notice in looking at your books and articles, edited volumes, that you've often been a key figure in mobilizing discussion on a topical issue. For example, you've edited volumes on Japan, on the aftermath of the Gulf War, and so on. Do those academic efforts feed back, do you think, in the policy process?

I think so. A couple of the books, such as the ones you've mentioned, were undertaken when I was directing a group we called the Aspen Strategy Group, which had about thirty members who included academics and former government officials, plus some people from the Congress. The Aspen Strategy Group included Bent Scowcroft, Les Aspin, Bill Perry, Jim Woolsey, John Deutch -- these were people who wound up in government positions but who spent the time before that talking to each other, thinking through some of these problems. So the ideas that were in the books were also put directly into the minds of people who then wound up in policy positions. So you can think of academic ideas affecting government policies by what you might call a trickle-down effect. In other words, you write something, maybe somebody reads it who then distills it for a student who then becomes powerful. Or even think of the more direct effect: you could write an op-ed piece in The New York Times and maybe you get summarized for the Secretary of State or something. But the most powerful way is when you develop ideas with people who actually then go in and have their hands on the lever, or you get your own hands on the lever. And then the ideas are directly related to power.

Let's look at one debate, and that was the discussion in the United States, very intense in the early 1980s, about the decline of American power, which led you to write Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. That was quite an intense debate and today it seems "gone with the wind" so to speak.

It's fascinating how much Americans can switch in their concerns and attitudes. But in the late 1980s, a majority of Americans believed that the United States was a declining power and that we were going to be overtaken first by Russia and then by Japan and Germany. There was a book that was written by the very good Yale historian, Paul Kennedy, called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which was published in 1987 I think, and which would have been a fine history (is a fine history book); but he was persuaded to write a chapter or two at the end showing that the Americans were in decline just like every other great empire, like the British. That actually got him great sales.

A best-seller.

It made a best-seller out of it, but I also think that it made a poor argument. I found this unconvincing in that I thought the analogy between Britain and America was incorrect, that the Americans weren't going to go through the same thing the British did. And so I wrote this book, Bound to Lead, in 1989, giving detailed reasons why the analogy to Britain was mistaken and why American power was different, and why it was likely to continue, both in the hard power (military and economic strength), but also in soft power (the cultural, ideological appeal of a country). And, in the decade that's past, I think the argument has held up pretty well, though I would admit that Paul got more of the royalties than I did.

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