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

Page 9 of 9

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What impelled you to leave government service and go back to Harvard?

I surprised myself on this because in January 1995 I had run out of my two-year leave from Harvard and I had to either resign my tenure and stay in government or go back, and I resigned my tenure. Then, after April, 1995 there was the Oklahoma City bombing and it was right in the aftermath of that that I was offered the deanship of the Kennedy School. And I thought hard about it for about a month and I said, "If I can have another six months in government to finish up this initiative which I'm working on, then maybe if I go back to the Kennedy School I could use that as a platform to organize the multidisciplinary faculty to think about this larger question of what's happening in government and governance in the information age. Why is it that there is such a loss of confidence in government? Why is it that in the aftermath of Oklahoma there's such a confused debate?" And one thing you can't do in government is reflect on anything. You use intellectual capital you've already built. So I was torn about this because I enjoyed my stay in government, but I feel in some way that the larger issues of what was happening to government were issues that I was very deeply concerned about but had no time to think about when I was in government. That's why I went back.

And the first efforts, with regard to focusing on this problem, have emerged and that's your new book, which you co-edited, called, Why People Don't Trust Government, the first of a series. In brief, why don't people trust government?

Well we had a faculty study group that spent a year and a half wrestling with that, and the causes are several and they're quite complex. But the most interesting thing is to notice it's not just government. There's been a decline in confidence in institutions generally. And to some extent it reflects a demystification of authority or it reflects a change in the balance between what you might call the libertarian versus the communitarian dimensions of our existence. Over long periods there has been a greater focus on the individual and individual rights and liberty, and less focus on institutions and community. To give you an example: divorce. One side of divorce is that it increases liberty for the individual; people aren't trapped in unhappy marriages, particularly women. That's good. The other side is that it destroys an institution which is vital to a community, which is the family. Two sides of the same coin. Whatever one thinks of it, over time there has been a decline in respect for authority and trust in institutions, and government has been one of the parts that has suffered from this. But another cause is the change in the media in the political process, which has become much more critical and negative and cynical, not only toward government but toward other institutions. So sometimes people say that government isn't trusted because government has done such a bad job. But if you say, "Well, what about the practice of medicine or what about universities? Are they also not trusted because they've done such a bad job?" I think there's a broader cause than just government performance that's at stake here.

And what is the relevance of the decline in productivity, the failure to continue the increase as it had in earlier periods, say in the sixties, and the failure of wages to grow?

Well, we expected that economics would be one of the stronger causes. We looked at about seventeen hypotheses in the book, and there is a dramatic drop in the rate of growth of productivity, of economic growth generally in the early 1970s in all major countries. And we expected that that would be a cause of the decline in trust of the government. The thing that was quite interesting when we looked at the data and particular details was that if you'd done well in the economy and if you'd done poorly in the economy you still had the same mistrust of government. You would think that if the economic hypothesis was the strong one; those who had done badly should be more mistrustful, those who had done well, less mistrustful. But there's actually very little demographic distinction in the data.

Do you think that governments will have to change in light of the way the information revolution is affecting us all?

Yes. The next phase of our project is looking ahead on how government is going to need to change in an information age. Going back to Schumpeter, there is an argument that can be made that the technologies related to the first industrial revolution, steam applied to transportation and production, led to major changes in the economy and society and eventually to government. You had urbanization, which led to police forces, Robert Peel's bobbies. You had the rise of public education, the need to produce clerks for the new factories and mills. And the same thing happened in an analogous form at the end of the 19th, early 20th centuries with the rise of electricity and synthetics and the internal combustion engine. And I think the computer and communications revolution Nye and his wife, Molly Harding Nye, greet President Clinton at the Tony Blair State Dinner, Feburary 1998 of our time is having an effect analogous to those other industrial revolutions. But we're just beginning to understand or think though some of the effects it will have on government. Quite clearly government in the 20th century has been centralized and bureaucratic. And I think the prospects that government will have to become less centralized, less bureaucratic, there'll be more complex relationships between governments and the private and the nonprofit sectors; this change is more likely in an information age. But I think we're only in the early stages of trying to understand this.

What is the Kennedy School doing to prepare students for this uncertain future?

Well, we try to make sure that each of our graduates knows something about analytic methods, microeconomics and empirical methods. Something about public management: how do you manage complex organizations when there's no clear bottom line? And something about what we call politics advocacy and leadership, the ability to move your agenda forward. And we think that our graduates, if they have this set of skills, will be better equipped as they move across different sectors but with a continuing concern with public issues. And if we can put that in the larger context of a school where you have faculty from a dozen different disciplines taking the lead and thinking about how governance of democracies needs to adapt and change, we hope that we'll be able to prepare a set of leaders for the 21st century.

One final question. For students who are watching or reading this interview, asking themselves what lessons are to be learned from your life's work and this movement between the world of ideas and the world of policy and back again, what lessons would you suggest that they draw?

Well, perhaps most important is how poorly I would have predicted what I wound up doing and the importance of following your intellectual curiosity and also of moving back and forth between thought and action and letting each fertilize the other.

Professor Nye, thank you very much for sharing this hour with us and talking about your life and work. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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