Joseph Nye

“China-Russia axis hard to shake. The EU should not give up on Moscow.” Soft power according to Joseph Nye

Today if we talk about soft and hard power, it’s because Professor Joseph Nye theorized them in the late 1980s.

Nye is a Political Science researcher at Harvard University and throughout his long and prestigious career he has been a fundamental point of reference in US politics, which he helped to shape through his original studies. From 1977 to 1979, Professor Nye was Deputy to the Undersecretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology and chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In 1993 and 1994, he served as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates intelligence reporting for the President. During the Clinton administration from 1994 to 1995, Nye served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, while in October 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry appointed him to the Foreign Affairs Policy Board, a body that discusses strategic issues and provides the Secretary and other senior Department officials with insights and ideas that can translate into courses of action.

Thanks to his ten-year experience in international politics and his revolutionary ideas, Professor Nye is certainly the most suitable person to provide a different perspective, compared to the realist one, of the current global situation.

We’ve recently managed to have a brief interview with the professor, who explained to us some key concepts of soft and hard power and how the major global powers are interacting today, with a small look at the future and the European situation.

Given that, especially in Italy, the public has difficulty understanding what soft power and hard power are, could you give us a brief definition?

Power is the ability to affect others to get what you want and it can be done in three ways: coercion, payment, attraction. Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment.

What are the substantial differences between US, Chinese and Russian soft power?

Russia attracts primarily in parts of its cultural area in its former empire. China has wider aspirations and attracts by culture, it economic performance, and its economic assistance. The US attraction through its culture and civil society, primarily where liberal values are involved .No country has universal attraction to all audiences, but polls show that the US has more soft power than China or Russia at this stage in history.

The war in Ukraine has revolutionized the global order: Russia has further tied itself to China, and is now to all intents and purposes the junior partner in this bilateral relationship. When the war ends how can Russia be reintegrated into the international system? Will it be possible to untie it from China?

The Russia/China alignment will not be easily undone, but there are some tensions between them. It will be important to reintegrate a post Putin Russia into Europe to the extent that is possible.

Joseph Nye during his tenure as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

In 2018, you wrote that the real danger is that China proves to be too weak rather than too strong, and thus fail to contribute to the multilateral order it did not help to create. Do you still believe so? Why?

No. Though I think China faces serious demographic and productivity problems, it is strong enough to seek to reshape rather than to contribute to the liberal international order.

For years, US security policy has identified China as the “pacing challenge” as it has been demonstrated (and demonstrable) that Beijing is working to try to counter US global economic/military power. In the light of the speed of Chinese rearmament, do you think that the “Thucydides trap”, which you believe is unlikely but still possible, is closer?

I still do not think that the analogy with Thucydides’s Greece fits well. I prefer Kevin Rudd’s metaphor of a “managed competition” between two strategic rivals who are not an existential threat to each other and who can gain from areas of cooperation such as climate change.

Around mid-2022, you believed that we were not in a “new Cold War”. However, the United States is trying to free itself from some ties with China (I am thinking, for example, of the microchip supply chain and therefore that of the Rare Earth Elements). So, I ask you: is decoupling actually possible? Given this attempt to cut these ties, is it still not entirely correct to speak of a “new Cold War”?

A full scale decoupling of the US (and Western) economies with China would be enormously costly to both sides. It is unlikely that will happen unless we blunder into a war. But selective decoupling of supply chains with military and strategic significance is likely. Nonetheless this is not like the Cold War where there was almost no economc, social or ecological interdependence with the Soviet Union.

In your opinion, how could the West reinvigorate soft power with non-aligned countries (especially African and Latin American ones)?

We should take their agenda seriously, particularly on development

In a recent interview with a South African international relations researcher, it emerged that non-aligned countries do not want to be the stage of confrontation between global powers. So, partnership proposals must have the sole purpose of mutual benefit, and not oppose the presence of rival powers. Do you think the United States and European countries are still capable of it?

Yes, there are joint gains to be made in development and climate.

Speaking of Europe, do you think that the European Union is a limit or a multiplier of the soft power capabilities of the individual member countries?

Definitely a multiplier!

Featured image from Chatham House