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 U.S. Role in World Affairs

In today's world, what do you think America's role should be?

I think the Americans, as the largest power, have to remain involved without falling into the trap of becoming the world's policemen and becoming over involved. And I think what that means is that there are certain key things that we need to do, because if we don't do them no one else will, and if nobody does them it will be a much more chaotic world. One of them is to maintain the overall balance of power. Nye with
General Shalikashvili and William Perry at NATO headquarters, Brussels That means that American military power remains very important to stability in Europe, in Asia, in an area like the Persian Gulf where we still are dependent on oil supplies. And therefore the primary or first thing that America has to do is make sure that we have a stable balance. That's why we have 100,000 troops in Europe, 100,000 in Asia, about 20,000 in the Gulf, essentially because it is a stabilizing factor and we benefit from that stability.

The second thing we need to do is to help preserve an open international economy so that you have benefits that can flow from international economic transactions. There are lots of problems with this, it creates friction at home, it can create a number of difficulties, but I do believe that in the long run a liberal international economic trading system is better than one which becomes closed and protectionist. That's an important role.

A third thing I think the Americans need to do is act as the organizer of coalitions of the willing, of countries that can deal with serious issues as we did in the Gulf War. I think we need to, in that same context, provide support for international institutions. People complain about UN peacekeeping, but when you do something through the UN it means that 75 percent of the costs are being provided by others. It also means there's a legitimization of what we're doing. So we need to be the "organizer of the posse" or the supporter of the institutions by which countries can pull together to accomplish certain common purposes.

And then finally, Nye climbs aboard a MIG-29 in Hungary I think we need to be the peacemaker and the country that tries to mediate the difficult conflicts, whether it be Northern Ireland or the Middle East or South Asia, because that again is a role that, because of our size and power, we're able to do. So those are the international roles.

I should add to that a fifth point which is that we still need to continue to act as a beacon at home. Our soft power, our appeal to other countries, depends very much on our maintaining an open, vibrant democracy and a successful economy at home. Sometimes people think, "Well, that's domestic policy. It has nothing to do with foreign policy." I would argue that you can't make that distinction, that our ability to run a good society at home is central to our position abroad.

Let's talk a little about the American consensus. If we had a president who had the vision to undertake some of these tasks that you identified, what do you see as the problems of building a consensus?

One of the problems of building a consensus in the period after the Cold War is that there is not as clear and present a danger as we had with the Soviet Union, so each group in the United States will then try to press its favorite agenda or press its particular interest. And it's very difficult in a democracy, as we are, to resist that. The person who is best positioned to do that is the president, who has what Teddy Roosevelt called "the bully pulpit," and he needs to use that position to articulate why there's a larger American interest rather than just the sum of a set of partial interests. So I think the role of the president in trying to reinforce an idea of why we're following certain policies and get that vision across is essential. It's a lot harder in the period when you don't have a single enemy than it was before.

Next page: U.S. Policy in East Asia

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