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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U.S. Policy in East Asia

Let's talk a little now about East Asia, which you focused on, and a policy that seeks to shape the emergence of China. Can it learn lessons from the strategy we adopted for the Soviet Union during the Cold War?

Well, there are a number of people who think that we should follow a policy of containment toward China similar to the policy of containment we followed toward the Soviet Union. I think that's a mistaken approach for several reasons. One is that the Soviet Union in the 1940s and China today are very different. The Soviet Union then was a communist country believing in expansionism under communist ideology. In China today, the ideology is a facade. The thing that really holds the Chinese together is nationalism, not ideology.

The other thing is that, unlike the Soviet Union in the 1940s, China's neighbors today don't see it as a clear and present danger. We couldn't organize such a coalition for containment if we tried. The only country that could contain China is a China that becomes a bully. And that might be a policy to follow sometime in the future if China does behave that way, but it would be a great mistake now. The reason -- and this is the third reason why that policy would be mistaken and why we resisted it -- is that we don't know what the future with China will be. If we predict failure, if we predict conflict, if we treat China as an enemy now, we're guaranteed an enemy. But in fact there's at least an equal chance or more that we can reach an arrangement with China where China will be a responsible power. If that's true, we'll be better off, China will be better off, and so will the other countries in East Asia.

So what we tried to do in designing our policy was to say, "Let's make sure that we have a position of strength by re-cementing the U.S. - Japan security relationship, and let's offer China a place at the table, a chance to be a responsible power in the region." So the first thing we did, essentially, was to reaffirm the U.S. - Japan security relationship to make sure China couldn't play off Japan against the U.S. But the second thing we did was then to tell China that we were willing to work with them on friendly terms if they acted as a responsible power. And President Clinton said to President Jiang Zemin, "We're not afraid of China as a strong power if China is a responsible power, and we will work with you on that."

What effects on policy do issues like human rights have? It's as if you're looking at a realist focus on these issues but, lo and behold, complex interdependency comes back to affect what you do. Comment on that.

Human rights are always going to be an important part of American foreign policy. For one reason, the American people want a moralistic portion of their foreign policy. And for another, standing for human rights is part of that American beacon that I referred to earlier. But it's also true that if you have a human rights policy only, then you don't have a foreign policy. Foreign policy is trading off a series of objectives that the American people have: strategic, economic, social, moral. And if you just have one, then you don't have a foreign policy, you have a human rights policy. It's also not clear, for example, if you follow the China case again, that just sanctioning China, cutting off trade and so forth, would really advance human rights. The interesting thing is that human rights probably flourish more when you have rapid economic development than when you have continuing poverty.

It's interesting to look at the case of Taiwan and South Korea, Fall, 1995, trip to Asia with Secretary Perry where repressive regimes could not sustain the same type of repression after per capita incomes passed about $5,000 and a serious middle class began to develop. So the last thing we want to do in pursuit of human rights, if we care about the rights of Chinese, is to stop their economic growth. We want to increase their economic growth. We want to supplement it with the development of institutions, social institutions which work transnationally, for example, the way the Ford Foundation works in China. We also want to have the development of the rule of law, finding ways in which to encourage them to develop legal structures that protect rights. These are the ways in which you really would have a serious strategy to advance human rights, and I think that's got to be a serious part of American foreign policy. That's quite different from the instant protest or the threat to cut off trade unless this or that person is released immediately, which actually sometimes is a useful device but sometimes can be counter-productive.

The other opponents of the policy you were describing are those who focus on the economic threat from East Asia and the threat posed by Japan -- "why can't they pay for their own security?" and so on. What are you comments on dealing with that part of the debate as you were making policy?

Well, there was a fear in the early nineties that Japan was overtaking us economically, that Japanese were eating our lunch, they were going to destroy us economically. I must say that looks a little bit feeble today when one looks at the condition of the Japanese economy compared to the American economy. When I wrote Bound to Lead in 1989, one of the things I pointed out was that the Americans actually had transformed much of our economy in the 1980s, that manufacturing productivity was rising in impressive ways, that there were areas like software and information technology in which we, in fact, were ahead of the Japanese. So I was less taken by the threat of the rising power of Japan surpassing us in the economic area than some others were. Japan will be, I believe, successful in many economic areas. And there are some economic frictions with Japan because of the way they run their economy, where we properly should remonstrate with them. But that's different from ignoring the total context of all the issues in U.S. - Japan relations and how they fit together in the long-term picture for East Asia in a strategic sense.

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