- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Spotlight with Joseph S. Nye

Summer 2007

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a member of the Belfer Center's Board of Directors, is University Distinguished Service Professor, Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, and Dean Emeritus of the Kennedy School of Government. Nye has served in government as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. His books include Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Understanding International Conflict, and The Power Game: A Washington Novel.

In increasingly prosperous China, political leaders are articulating a clear strategy for increasing the country's leadership in world affairs. "We should never underestimate the importance of building soft power," National People's Congress Deputy Peng Fuchun declared during the annual sessions of China's parliament in March.

European leaders are sounding a similar theme. In a public speech earlier this year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said "The combination of hard and soft power is still the right course for our country, indeed more so than ever."

The notion of "soft power"-coined by the Belfer Center's Joseph S. Nye in 1990 to describe a country's ability to achieve its aims through attraction, rather than force-is reshaping international politics, as leaders around the world act to boost their countries' reputations. The Chinese government, taking Nye's theory to heart, has in recent years increased aid to its neighbors and established "Confucius Institutes" abroad. In Europe, leaders describe the tremendous power that comes with attracting new members to NATO.

The influence of Nye's ideas reach beyond politics: Microsoft's chief software architect even uses "soft power" to describe his role within the company-attracting people to the power of his ideas, rather than managing by force.

In his own work, Nye argues that countries need "smart power," a combination of both "hard power"-military power and economics sticks-and "soft power," to be effective.

"Sometimes people say soft power is too soft to accomplish anything," Nye said. "It's an important part of the arsenal of power. When you ignore it, as we tend to have done, it turns out to be quite costly."

Nye, former dean of the Kennedy School and member of the Belfer Center Board of Directors, spent several years in government, first in the Carter administration setting nonproliferation strategy, and later in the Clinton administration as chairman of the National Intelligence Council and as assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, and joined the Harvard faculty in 1964.

While working in government in the early 1990s, Nye reshaped the U.S. defense strategy in Asia, setting the key framework that still underpins U.S. policy there today. At the time, he said, the foreign policy community viewed the U.S. partnership with Japan as a relic of the Cold War. Nye, instead, made it the cornerstone of security in the region. He also designed a two-pronged approach to deal with a rising China: balancing against any aggressiveness through the U.S.-Japan partnership, and integrating China more closely into the world community.

Nye had planned to stay in government. When former Harvard president Neil Rudenstine first approached him about becoming dean of the Kennedy School, Nye said he was not interested in the job.

But after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Nye's decision changed. He found himself stunned by the public reaction to the attacks.

"It was not just the act itself, which was horrifying-people killed because they work for the American government-but the reaction that government was so evil that it was a proper subject for destruction," Nye said.

By reentering academia, Nye felt he could help change that perception.

As dean, Nye expanded the Kennedy School faculty by 40 percent, boosting the ranks of minorities and women. He also helped found five research centers, including the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and the Center for Public Leadership.

Nye's work has taken him all over the world. On one recent trip, Nye went to Libya to talk to Muammar el-Qaddafi about soft power. Qaddafi, who has expressed interest in opening Libya to the rest of the world, summoned a handful of top Western intellectuals, including Nye, to Tripoli.

When Nye arrived, Qaddafi ushered him into his tent, where he had five of Nye's books laid out on a table. Qaddafi mentioned his interest in direct democracy and finding new ways of governing.

"He said mankind had not solved the problem of power, but he thought direct democracy was the way, and that was the heart of his Green Book (published in 1975 highlighting Qaddafi's political philosophy and views on democracy)," Nye wrote in his notes on the visit. Nye talked about James Madison and U.S. approaches to power.

Later, Nye gave Qaddafi a signed copy of his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, and Qaddafi signed a copy of his Green Book for Nye.

"That was a good thing," Nye notes. "When I arrived late at the airport and the airport officials told me I had failed to have my hotel stamp the visa in my passport, I pulled out my copy of the Green Book and showed them Qaddafi's signature. They inspected it, and then waved me through."

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For Academic Citation: Spotlight with Joseph S. Nye.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Summer 2007).