Joseph Nye needs no introduction within the world of international relations.
The Harvard professor is one of the most influential academic and US foreign policy voices. Formerly an official in the governments of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and a US State Department and Pentagon advisor during the Barack Obama administration, Nye has written 18 books and over 200 articles in which he has studied and defined power like nobody.
In 2008 he was picked by over 2,700 international scholars as the academic with the most impact on United States foreign policy in the last 20 years, while Foreign Policy catalogued him in 2011 as one of the 100 most important global thinkers, having created key concepts like soft power (the capacity a country has to influence the preferences of others via its culture and values), smart power, the ability to combine military and economic power with soft power and complex interdependence (here Robert Keohane features as a co-author).
Unlike those who believe that the United States and China will disconnect their economies and go to war, Nye maintains that there can be conflict and cooperation at the same time.
In his latest book Do morals matter? Presidents and foreign policy from FDR to Trump, he analyses the motives, means and ends of US foreign policy from the creation of the liberal international order. There he defines himself as a liberal realist in a bid to explain part of reality and also close the theoretical rift of international relations.
“Prudence is in many senses a moral value in the international arena. In medicine there is a Hippocratic Oath which places not doing harm first. I think there should be a Hippocratic Oath in foreign policy: ‘Firstly, you do no harm’ but when you achieve that, you should seek other values as well,” he affirms in an exclusive interview with Perfil, in which he explains how the pandemic affects the distribution of power, why it is important to win the vaccine race, the future rivalry between China and the US and what shape, in his opinion, should the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB or BID) election take.
Who won out and who gained more power with the pandemic: the US or China?
They both handled it pretty badly and have lost a lot of power. The initial reaction of Xi Jinping was surprisingly similar to Donald Trump’s. They began with denialism, trying to cover it up and blame others. That hurt the reputation of both countries.
World powers have launched the race for the vaccine. Only Xi Jinping and Emmanuel Macron have affirmed that it would be a global public asset. Why is it so important to win that race?
The countries want to win the race for the vaccine for two reasons. The first is given in terms of their capacity to protect their citizens. But the other is reputational. The country which develops the best vaccine will gain a reputation for competence and that will increase its soft power. I’d add a third point: the country which furthermore promises to share the vaccine with others, in particular with poor countries, will also improve its soft power enormously.
In a recent interview, John Mearsheimer told me: “A war with China in 2021 is possible.” Do you think there’ll be a war between Washington and Beijing?
Personally I would not classify that as a high probability. I think both the US and China would be too sure of how much both would stand to lose to care about who wins. I think there is a high degree of prudence. But on the other hand, human beings always make mistakes and you cannot rule out errors of judgement at some point. I wouldn’t consider it as something highly probable but I wouldn’t exclude it as a possibility either.
What changes would need to happen for the US and China to cooperate on the issues you highlight in your book: climate change, pandemics and other transnational threats?
The United States has to realise that the relationship with China is not a Cold War but what I would call a cooperative rivalry. There are some areas where there will be intense competition – for example, the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea where the US Navy patrols and prevents China from being able to create an artificial island in the sea. That will be tense. On the other hand, there are issues like climate change or pandemics which no country can resolve by itself. China is the second-biggest economy in the world and the US will have to work with her in those areas at the same time that it competes in other questions like the South China Sea.
Do you think China will overtake the US as the global superpower?
That depends on what period of time we are talking about. In the next two decades I don’t think that will happen. The USA has certain assets which are not going to deteriorate so rapidly. If you ask me what will happen at the end of the century, I have no idea. We won’t be here to see it and I don’t think that anybody can make long-term predictions of that type. But in the short term, I’m referring to a couple of decades, China has various problems – demography, energy and those related to the nature of its economic model, which is highly dominated by state enterprises. On the other hand, the US has advantages like its geography, a strong situation in both demography and energy and 15 of the 20 best universities in the world as measured by the Chinese themselves. I don’t see China as about to overtake the US in the next two decades but for the end of the century, I don’t know.
How important is it to be at the vanguard of the latest technologies, for example, Artificial Intelligence and 5G, in order to be a global superpower?
Technological leadership is a very important source of power. It affects not only your economy but also your military power. And it also affects your reputation in terms of soft power and your ability to attract others.
The importance of technological leadership is one of the reasons why I think it would be an error for the US to allow China’s Huawei to build the 5G telecommunications network, which will be the base for Internet. There are many areas where trading and working with China is good but allowing them to determine the standards, and also to switch off certain things in times of conflict, would be a great menace to our security. You have to keep an eye on those technologies. What worries me is that at times it is said that if we disconnect in some areas, like 5G or telecommunications, we should disconnect globally. That’s a fallacy.
Academic realists maintain that the liberal international order is in crisis. In your book, you point out that we are in the presence of a horizontal change of power, between states, and also a vertical change of power, from states to non-state players. Are we on the road to a bipolar order with entropy, i.e. power disseminated in various hands?
I think that the problem with the traditional concepts like bipolar, multipolar, etc. is they refer to a simplified world. For example, I would say that in terms of military power the world is unipolar but in economic terms multipolar with the USA, China and Europe. If you look at transnational relations crossing frontiers beyond the control of states, the world is entropic, as you say, chaotic without any polarity in climate change, pandemics, that kind of thing. The old concepts have a limited use. It makes sense to call the political world multicentric but the old idea of it as bipolar, multipolar or unipolar does not capture the nature of the world we live in today.
What threatens US power more, the rise of China or the re-election of Donald Trump?
Trump is the biggest problem for the United States. He has basically weakened the system of US alliances and undermined the system of multilateral institutions constructed over the last 75 years. In my book, I analyse the 14 presidents since 1945. Every one prior to Trump placed great emphasis on creating alliances and multilateral institutions. Trump is the first to essentially retire from that multilateralism. That’s a major menace. I think that we can handle the rise of China but we cannot manage the self-destruction which Trump is creating.
Beyond those criticisms, what did Trump do well in foreign policy?
I think he will be seen by historians for decades as somebody who had two positive aspects in his foreign policy. One is that he was relatively cautious with the use of force, not involving himself in wars like Vietnam or Iraq. And the other thing is that, although he did so clumsily, he told China that its exploitation of the World Trade Organisation and international treaties was unacceptable and that they would have to behave. Those two things would be on the positive side of his foreign policy ledger.
What challenges would the next US president face?
Assuming that the president does change and that it’s [Democratic presidential candidate] Joe Biden, the first thing he’d have to do is to repair the damage Trump has inflicted.
One of the things which he could do immediately is to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, detain the exit from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and assure the continuity of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with Russia. If Trump is re-elected and does not do these things, it will be very damaging for the USA and the rest of the world.
But after those immediate questions I mentioned, Biden will have to restore faith in US guarantees and alliances. Trump has deeply undermined confidence in the United States and confidence is recovered not only with words but also with deeds. Biden will have to work hard to reconstruct those alliances and multilateral institutions.
At the end of your book, you warn about the danger of isolationism being installed in US public opinion. If Trump loses, will that threat continue?
Around 30-40 percent of US public opinion has a very narrow and isolationist outlook. On the other hand, if you look at the recent surveys of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asking people what they want, a limited foreign policy or a broad commitment to the world, 70 percent want the broad commitment. There’s 30 percent out there and there always has been. Trump was capable of mobilising it and was elected when he raised it to 46 percent of the vote in 2016. I think that in future Biden will have to be aware that this opinion is out there but there’s still an ample majority for the types of changes I mentioned.
If Biden wins, will the relationship with Latin America improve?
Yes, I think so. Trump has a very narrow-minded take on US interests. Biden will have a broader outlook. Trump always says ‘America First’ and, as I say in my book, it’s not that a political leader shouldn’t defend the national interests of his country first and foremost but what makes a moral difference is how they are defined. Trump does so in a very limited, short-sighted and transactional way. Biden would have a broader approach, which would be good for the USA and other countries at the same time.
There’s a big controversy over the election of the BID president. Trump is pushing the candidacy of Mauricio Claver-Carone while some countries, among them Argentina, propose postponing the election until next year. What is Trump’s objective in walking off with the BID presidency? And what should the other American nations do?
Trump never trusted any multilateral institution. He’s a very short-sighted transactionalist. He wants the control of any institution of which he forms part. I think BID should be directed by a Latin American. The idea of trying to delay or postpone the election probably makes sense.
How would you advise Argentine politicians to cope with the rivalry between the US and China?
Argentina, like any other country, should seek its own interests and decide which of the policies pushed by the US and China is in line with its long-term interests. That means being ready to renounce short-term discounts in technology sales or making sure that certain loans do not come accompanied by unwanted conditions. But in the long term they should ask what are Argentina’s interests.
In some cases it will suit them to work with China, in others with the US. But, quite definitely, when it’s a question of values, I think that Argentina will discover that it shares far more with the USA and Europe than with China, which is a very authoritarian country.
Why Nye defines himself as a liberal realist
Joseph Nye is one of the sharpest liberal minds in International Relations. But he prefers not to pigeonhole himself with any one theory in particular when trying to explain the world. That’s why he defines himself as a liberal realist.
“The discussion whether one is a realist or a liberal oversimplifies the situation. When it’s a question of survival, you have to be realistic, a leader must protect the survival of his people,” he affirms to Perfil.
“But that’s not the only question. There’s a whole bunch of other values, like prosperity and human rights, which are important. We should always begin foreign policies asking ourselves questions about realism. My problem with the so-called realists is that they often stop there right where they started and never progress to other values which are important for human beings and countries. What I say is let’s start with realism but not stop there. That’s why I call myself a liberal realist.”