Newspaper Article - Financial Times

'You Can Coerce by Economic Means'

  • Henry Mance
| Jan. 14, 2024

Harvard professor who coined term 'soft power' says turmoil facing US and college where he works was worse in the 1960s

For several decades, Joseph Nye has been one of the influential thinkers in international relations. He coined the term "soft power" and, with academic Robert Keohane, argued that countries can become so economically interlinked that military force is no longer the most decisive factor between them. 

But in his memoir, A Life in the American Century, Nye interprets the US's current volatility with a simpler idea: politics is cyclical. "People will say to me today, have you ever seen a period as bad as this? I say, yes, the 1960s were worse. We had major assassinations, cities on fire, two failed presidencies [Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon]." 

So too at Harvard, the university at which Nye has spent most of his career and where he mentored the diplomatic elite at the Kennedy School of Government. Its president, Claudine Gay, resigned this month after being criticised for her answers at a congressional hearing on antisemitism and being accused of plagiarism. Bill Ackman, the staunchly pro-Israel hedge fund billionaire, is demanding further changes.

"Compared to the turmoil in Harvard in the 1960s, what we're seeing today is sad but modest," says Nye, surrounded by fishing memorabilia at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts. During protests over Vietnam, a bomb was placed in his centre's building. "My office was ransacked three or four times, with bookshelves pulled down and typewriters thrown through partitions. I remember one time calling the police and saying there's a mob attacking our building. [They said:] 'We know that, but there's nothing we can do about it.'"

Doesn't it worry Nye that there is a novel threat to Harvard — a drive by senior figures in politics and business to undermine elite universities? "When billionaires try to micromanage the university, rather than simply have their names put on buildings, that's a very dangerous path to go down." Banning certain groups is also "dangerous" for free speech. "But I prefer those problems, because I think they're more soluble than when bombs are going off."...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Mance, Henry."Joseph Nye: 'You Can Coerce by Economic Means'." Financial Times, January 14, 2024.

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