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Joseph Nye: The real problem for US is not that it will be overtaken by China

By Jiang Hong | 2015-10-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Joseph Nye

Joseph Nye is a famous American political scientist who pioneered the theory of soft power. He is the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where he currently holds the position of University Distinguished Service Professor. Nye is ranked as one of the most influential thinkers in American foreign policy. In 2011, the  Foreign Policy magazine named him on its list of top 100 global thinkers. His works include Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, The Future of Power, and Is the American Century Over?


On June 3, American political scientist Joseph Nye delivered a speech titled “Will China pass the US by 2030?” at Oxford Martin School. After the speech, CSST had an in-depth interview with Nye on soft power, smart power and China-US relations, among others.

CSST: You developed the concept of soft power and wrote in your book The Future of Power that if we had to choose between hard power and soft power, we would opt for hard power. But you personally seem to prefer soft power. Is that true?


Nye: If you can accomplish what you want through soft power, I think it is better than hard power, because it leaves more choices. It allows the other side to have more choices as well your own choices. Most situations in human life require a mix of hard and soft power, but the more we can solve things by soft power, the better. 

CSST: You mentioned on many occasions that the greatest source for China’s soft power is its traditional culture. Can you give some examples?


Nye: I find traditional Chinese culture very attractive, and I think many people around the world do. Chinese philosophy, particularly the writings of Confucius and Laozi, are attractive to many people.  So are the glories of Chinese painting, sculpture and ceramics—to name a few. I think one of the benefits of the Confucius Institute is for people to learn and understand Chinese culture.

CSST: You defined smart power as “the ability to combine hard and soft power resources into effective strategies,” so how can smart power be better utilized, especially to China?


Nye: If you combine soft power with China’s hard power in the sense of economic and military growth, then it is smart power. If you just have the growth of hard power alone, it may frighten your neighbors. But the extent to which you are able to attract your neighbors at the same time means that they are less likely to form a coalition against you.

Enhancing smart power will require you to figure out how to deal with these different territorial disputes with neighbors. China is so large and important that it is bound to be a dominant power in the region. That means you can afford to agree to a multilateral code of conduct and you can afford to mediate many of these conflicts. I think a broad multilateral approach is the best for China.

CSST: Some experts are optimistic about China’s future, while some may think otherwise. You seem to be quite assured that China will rise peacefully and its economy will not collapse. Could you please elaborate on that?


Nye: China has a number of problems to solve, such as changing its economic model as growth slows. That leads some experts to pessimistic conclusions, but I think China can cope with these problems. China knows it has to change its growth model with the demographic transition and change of labor forces. I think there is an exaggeration of Chinese power, but that does not mean I think China is about to fail.

CSST: You said that China’s principle of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs is nice, but we should avoid the non-interventionism maintained by the US in the 1930s. How should the two approaches be balanced?


Nye: It is a hard problem. The issue has to be dealt with case by case. China is the largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping forces among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and I would regard setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a good thing. I think China will probably not be as bad as the US was in the 1930s in terms of free riding.

If China is able to help other countries, for example, with developing their infrastructure through something like the AIIB, that can affect internal economic changes in the other countries but in a way that is beneficial to them as well as to China. I think the US should support the AIIB.

CSST: How do you view China’s role in today’s world order? While China has been trying to be a responsible great power, some see China as a threat to the international system. Do you agree?


Nye: The Chinese benefit from being a member of the UN Security Council and the WTO. China’s incentive is to have a larger share in the international system, and that makes sense. And it makes sense to have some institutions based in Beijing. I do not see the Chinese trying to destroy the IMF, WTO, UN or others. I believe China is not trying to overthrow the system.

CSST: You mentioned in your speech that Americans were very worried that the US might decline. How should this problem be seen?


Nye: Americans have always had anxieties about decline, but it has always been exaggerated. When people talk about American hegemony, I think there has been exaggeration, too. I pointed out in my book Is the American Century Over? that in periods when people say America has hegemony, in fact, the Americans were not able to control everything. So I think there has been exaggeration of what hegemony means.

CSST: So when you wrote that the US has to make wise choices if it is to preserve its position in the world, you did not mean preserving hegemony?


Nye: I think the Americans will have to learn to work with other countries. I think the Americans still have the position of the largest country, but they are not able to solve all problems working alone. For example—climate change, pandemics, terrorism and so forth—you cannot do this alone. You have to do it with other countries, including China. This is why, in my talk and in the book, I emphasize the importance of focusing on the fact that we have cooperative ventures with China as well as concrete interests.

CSST: You suggested in your book that we should abandon the conventional dichotomy of “unipolarity” and “multipolarity,” so what should we focus on instead?


Nye: These ideas confuse us. The world is unipolar in the military sense and multipolar in the economic dimension at the same time. Moreover, it makes no sense to use such terms to describe transnational issues, like climate change, pandemics or cyber-terrorism.  We should focus on the problems of cooperation in ensuring public goods and avoiding entropy. 

CSST: Competition and cooperation co-exist in China-US relations. Some still view this as a zero-sum game. Given this entrenched perspective, how can a mutually beneficial situation be brought about, as you have proposed?


Nye: I think that there are always some people on both sides that have mistrust of the other side and who see a zero-sum situation. There are some aspects in the relationship between China and the United States where there is conflict that can be zero sum, but there are other aspects that are positive sum. I think it is very important that we not lose sight of that. Both countries will need to adapt to the fact that there are many issues that cannot be managed unless they cooperate. 

CSST: It is suggested by some that conflict between the US and China is inevitable as China rises. How do you see this?


Nye: In the 1990s, I wrote that the rapid rise of China might cause the type of conflict predicted by Thucydides when he attributed the disastrous Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece to the rise in the power of Athens and the fear it created in Sparta. Today, I think that is unlikely, though some analysts flatly assert that China cannot rise peacefully. Many draw analogies to World War I, when Germany had surpassed Britain in industrial power. But we should also recall Thucydides’ other warning that belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes. Each side, believing it will end up at war with the other, makes reasonable military preparations that then are read by the other side as confirmation of its worst fears.

The US has more time to manage its relations with a rising power than Britain did a century ago. Whether the US and China will manage their relationship well is another question. Human error and miscalculation are always possible. But with the right choices, war is not inevitable.

CSST: You wrote “the real problem for the US is not that it will be overtaken by China or another contender.”  You argued that entropy will be a greater problem. Can you elaborate on this?


Nye: Entropy is the diffusion of energy that makes it difficult to get work done. It means that we are unable to cooperate with others. As other countries, including China, rise, they will need to cooperate to get work done. This is what Robert Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank, meant when he spoke about the importance of accepting the rise of China as a responsible stakeholder rather than a free rider. 

Things like climate change, monetary instability and pandemics are truly areas where we have positive-sum interest. We are seeing some efforts in this, for example, when President Obama and President Xi met last fall, they began the process of cooperating on climate change. So I think we are making some progress, but we have to make it faster.



Jiang Hong is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.