The Future of Power with Joseph Nye

May 22, 2012
By Mari Megias, Alumni Relations and Resource Development

During the recent Harvard Kennedy School 75th Anniversary Dean’s Conference, Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former dean of HKS, offered a look at the future of power. This is the title, not coincidentally, of his most recent book, which he discussed during the keynote address at the conference, held in May at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge to honor the School’s founding in 1936.

Nye set out to dispel misperceptions about the so-called decline of America’s global influence, particularly vis-à-vis the rise of Asia. He offered an historical perspective, using economic activity as a barometer. “Imagine if someone asked you where the most activity in the world economy was in 1800,” he challenged the audience of some 350 alumni and friends. “You’d say it was Asia, with more than half the world’s people and half of what the world produces. But imagine the year 1900—Asia still has more than half the world’s people but only 20 percent of the world’s production.” The reason? The Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. As Nye explained, “What we’re seeing in this century—and it’s accelerating—is the return of Asia to normal proportions, where Asia will, probably by the middle of this century, have half the world’s population and half the world’s product.”

While describing America as being “in decline” may be in vogue, such opinions aren’t new, he emphasized. “Think about Sputnik in the 1950s and Japan in the 1980s,” he said. “Today, it’s the Chinese who are 10-feet tall. This is more a cyclical function of our psychology.” He noted the important distinction between absolute decline and relative decline. “Rome experienced an absolute decline. It had no productivity and succumbed to internecine warfare. Another government didn’t take over Rome, it just disintegrated.” “Relative decline” refers to, as Nye put it, “the rise of the rest.” He said, “As China, India, Brazil, and others experience a rise in per capita income, they’re getting closer to the US. You can either say that’s the rise of the rest or the relative decline of the US. It doesn’t show that they will pass the US.”
Nye also described the power of diffusion, which denotes a shift in power from the government to nonstate actors. “This is often the product of new technologies and ways of communicating,” said Nye. “Today, barriers to entry have gone down. In 1975, for example, you could have communicated all over the world simultaneously; the technology was there. But it was very, very expensive, and you needed to have a big budget, which also went along with big bureaucracy. Now? Anyone can do this using Skype.” This means, he said, that governments have to share the stage with many others. “Some of these actors are good—e.g., Oxfam. Some are bad, such as Al Qaeda. In September 2001, Al Qaeda killed more Americans than the government of Japan did in 1941 (at Pearl Harbor). You might call this the privatization of war.”

Nye mentioned his seminal theory on soft power, saying, “It’s not only whose army wins, but whose story wins. It is important to construct a narrative that creates soft power.” He noted that China is making huge efforts to increase its soft power. “China’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t understand that soft power comes from its civil society, not its government. We are in an information age where we’re suspicious of propaganda. China is trying to develop its soft power, but it undercuts itself by, for example, preventing Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo from attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Many issues grow out of the diffusion of power, said Nye, offering climate change and international financial stability as problems that transcend the power of any single actor (state or nonstate) to solve. “These issues are going to require cooperation and investments in networks that rest on soft power.”

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Joseph Nye speaking

Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former dean of HKS

“It’s not only whose army wins, but whose story wins. It is important to construct a narrative that creates soft power," said Nye.