Inside Story

The father of “soft power”

An eighty-year retrospective from the American academic who changed the way nations attract and argue

Graeme Dobell Books 28 March 2024 2196 words

“Any time I am tempted by hubris” says Joseph Nye, “I remember that much of where the roulette ball lands in the wheel of life is outside our hands.” Rèmy Steinegger/World Economic Forum

The politicians and soldiers do the work but the thinkers give the world the language and concepts to understand power: Machiavelli wrestles Marx while Clausewitz argues theory with Sun Tzu and Thucydides. In this small group, Jesus matters but so does Caesar.

A modern addition to the pantheon is a university professor and writer who also worked in America’s National Intelligence Council, State Department and Defense Department.

Step forward Joseph Nye, the man who invented the concepts of “soft power” and “smart power” and set them beside “hard power.” Described by one of his Washington contemporaries as “the Grandmaster of the study of power,” Nye coined soft power to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce. The United States could use culture and communications to influence the decisions and behaviour of others in ways that military force could not reach. Nye stands with Talleyrand, who advised Napoleon: “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them.”

Military power can bully, economic power can buy, but soft power is blarney magic.

Ideas set international standards in the same way that American software set the standards for the world’s computers. Thus, the lifestyle promoted by American media and the promise of plenty of American supermarkets helped undermine the Soviet Union, backed by the hard power of military forces and nuclear weapons. Mickey Mouse stood with the Marines.

Hard power rests on command, coercion or cash — “the ability to change what others do.” Soft co-optive power, Nye wrote in his 1990 book on the changing nature of American power, is “the ability to shape what others want” through attraction.

Millions of Google citations show the reach of soft power, Nye writes, but “the most surprising was in 2007 when the president of China declared soft power to be their national objective.” For Nye, the result was “countless requests for interviews, including a private dinner in Beijing when the foreign minister asked me how China could increase its soft power. A concept I outlined while working at my kitchen table in 1989 was now a significant part of the great power competition and discourse.”

Nye has seen his idea become an instrument with practical effects: soft power shifts the way leaders talk and generals act. Attending a state dinner at the White House in 2015 (“the hall was filled with cherry blossom and a Marine band in scarlet jackets was playing”), Nye shakes hands with president Barack Obama to be told “everybody knows about Nye’s soft power.”

Nye’s recently published memoir muses about his “life in the American century,” the title taken from a famous 1941 editorial by Henry Luce, creator of Time and Life magazines. Nye, born in 1937, dates the American century from the moment the United States entered the second world war: “Some have referred to an American empire, but our power always had limits. It is more accurate to think of the American century as the period since World War II during which time, for better or worse, America has been the pre-eminent power in global affairs.”

The United States could still be the strongest power in 2045, he thinks; in which case the American century would, indeed, mark a hundred years. The caveats on that prediction are that “we should not expect the future to resemble the past, and my optimism has been tempered by the recent polarisation of our society and politics.”

This leading member of the American foreign policy establishment offers his biography as illumination for fellow foreign policy wonks and tragics. Most memoirs look inward; the chapter headings of Nye’s book are organised around the administrations of US presidents and America’s international role.

Nye and his friend Robert Keohane are identified as cofounders of the school of analysis of international affairs known as “neoliberalism.” While not disavowing that role, Nye writes that he and Keohane regard neoliberalism as an “over-simplified label.”

Whether in government or university, Nye’s life is one of constant travel, constant conferences and constant writing. In the Defense Department in 1995, “alliance maintenance” sent him to fifty-three countries. The military parades became a blur but the banquets were the real ordeal: sent abroad to eat for his country, Nye jested he would go out “in a blaze of calories.”

Emerging from an “unofficial meeting” with Taiwan’s defence minister, Nye is told that his father has died: “On Friday, November 4, 1994, I had the odd experience of picking up the New York Times and finding myself quoted in a front-page story on Saudi Arabia, while my father’s obituary appeared on page thirty-three. I wept.”

The motto of the public intellectual is “I think, ergo I write” (my words, not his). Nye exemplifies the dictum. He is the author of thirty books and contributor to or editor of another forty-five; his textbook ran to ten editions and sold 100,000 copes. (Here’s the Inside Story review of his book on the foreign policy morality of US presidents from FDR to Trump.) He writes a column for Project Syndicate; topics so far this year: “Is Nuclear Proliferation Back?,” “American Greatness and Decline” and “What Killed US-China Engagement?

Graduating from Princeton at the end of the Eisenhower years, Nye planned to become a Marine officer. (“All able-bodied young men faced the draft in those days, and I was a healthy specimen and looking forward to the challenge.”) Instead, one of his professors pushed him to apply for a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and he won:

One result was that, instead of joining the Marines after graduation and winding up as an officer in Vietnam, it took me thirty-five years before I saw service in the Department of Defense, and when I first went to Vietnam it was as dean of the Kennedy School to visit an educational program we had there. Any time I am tempted by hubris, I remember that much of where the roulette ball lands in the wheel of life is outside our hands.

Nye worked for two Democrat presidents. For Jimmy Carter, he was in charge of policy designed to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Under Bill Clinton, he chaired the National Intelligence Council and then went to Defense to run the “Pentagon’s little State Department” as assistant secretary for international security affairs.

Professors who go to work in Washington can offer an anthropologist’s view of the tribes that serve the president and congress. Kissinger is good on this, but the best rules for working the swamp were penned by John Kenneth Galbraith: have the president behind you (or give that impression); adopt a modest aspect of menace — arrogance backed by substance can work; never threaten to resign because that tells your allies you might leave; but be ready to lose and leave town. Nye gets much outsider understanding into a paragraph:

In Washington, there was no shortage of bureaucrats and rival political appointees eager to take my job — or leave me with the title but empty it of substance. I had been issued a hunting licence, but there was no guarantee I would bag my game. My first instinct as an academic was to try to do things myself, but that was impossible… I realised I was drowning. I discovered that unlike academia, politics and bureaucracy comprise a team sport. The secret to success was to attract others to want to do the work for me. In that sense, I learned soft power the hard way.

Nye records two of the “major regrets” Bill Clinton offered about his presidency: “having an inexperienced White House staff and underestimating the bitterness of Washington politics.”

Because of his diaries, Nye’s memoir offers tone and temperature on how different the world felt as the cold war ended. Washington was optimistic about Russia and fearful of Japan: “economic friction was high, and many in both Tokyo and Washington regarded the military alliance as a historical relic now that the cold war was over.”

Japan debated the idea of relying on the United Nations rather than the United States for security. Nye argued against both the economic hawks in Washington and the security doves in Tokyo, pointing to the rise of China and problem of North Korea. “The logic was simple,” he writes. “In a three-country balance of power, it is better to be part of the two than the isolated one.”

During defence negotiations in Tokyo, Japanese officials took him out for evening drinks and cut to the fundamentals: “How much could they trust us? As the Chinese market grew larger, wouldn’t we abandon Japan for China? I answered no, because Japan was a democracy and was not a threat. It seemed to work.”

In 1995, with “moderates still in control in Moscow, there was a sense of optimism about the future of US–Russia relations.” That mood helped drive the expansion of NATO. At talks in Geneva, Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev discussed the idea of a “new NATO” with a “collective security pact” and “partial membership in NATO” for Russia. Nye wrote in his diary that Russia would accept a bigger NATO “if it is done right — and if Russia doesn’t change.”

By 1999, the optimism was gone. The US now believed that “Russia would not collapse but would develop a form of corrupt state capitalism.” Talking to former colleagues in Washington, Nye is “struck that nobody seemed to know much about Putin or to have realised how important he would become.”

As the US century enters this century, China takes centre stage as the peer competitor. Asked by Xinhua News Agency whether he’s a China hawk or dove, Nye replies that he is an owl. At a dinner in Beijing in 2012 a member of the Communist Party central committee tells Nye: “We are Confucians in Marxist clothing.”

The following year, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi invites Nye to a private meal “to quiz me about how China could increase its soft power.” Nye replies that raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and celebrating a gorgeous traditional culture are “important sources of attraction for China. At the same time, as long as it had territorial disputes with its neighbours, and as long as its insistence on tight party control over civil society and human rights continued, China would face serious limits on its soft power in Asia and in the West.”

The US power equation has shifted significantly in two decades. In the early years of this century, as the United States invaded Iraq, Nye’s concern was about “unipolar hubris.” Today, he frets about a polarized America turning inward. He thinks the greatest danger the United States faces “is not that China will surpass us, but that the diffusion of power will produce entropy, or the inability to get anything done.”

In the final pages of his memoir, Nye assesses the balance of power between China and the US, and says America has five long-term advantages:

• Geography: the United States is surrounded by two oceans and two friendly neighbours, while China “shares a border with fourteen other countries and is engaged in territorial disputes with several.”

• Energy: China depends on energy imports far more than the United States.

• Finance: the United States gets power from the international role of the dollar and its large financial institutions. “A credible reserve currency depends on it being freely convertible, as well as on deep capital markets and the rule of law, which China lacks.”

• Demography: the United States is the only major developed country projected to hold its place (third) in the global population ranking. “The US workforce is expected to increase, while China’s peaked in 2014.”

• Technology: America is “at the forefront in key technologies (bio, nano, and information). China, of course, is investing heavily in research and development and scores well in the number of patents, but by its own measures its research universities still rank behind American ones.”

Nye’s fear is that domestic change within the United States could endanger the American century. Even if its external power remains dominant, he writes, a country can lose its internal virtue:

All told, the US holds a strong hand in the great power competition, but if we succumb to hysteria about China’s rise or complacency about its “peak,” we could play our cards poorly. Discarding high-value cards — including strong alliances and influence in international institutions — would be a serious mistake. China is not an existential threat to the US unless we make it one by blundering into a major war. The historical analogy that worries me is 1914, not 1941.

Nye ends his memoir with the humility that befits an old man: “I cannot be fully sure how much of my optimism rests on my analysis or my genes.” In his final paragraph, he ruefully notes that “the more I learn, the less I know… Though I have spent a lifetime following my curiosity and trying to understand us, I do not leave many answers for my grandchildren. The best I can do is leave them my love and a faint ray of guarded optimism.” •

A Life in the American Century
By Joseph S. Nye | Polity Press | 254 pages | $51.95