The American Century: A Conversation With Joseph Nye

Tuesday, February 20, 2024
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University Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus and Former Dean, Harvard Kennedy School; Author, A Life in the American Century; CFR Member


Cofounder and Co-Chairman, The Carlyle Group; Chairman, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Joseph Nye discusses U.S. primacy on the global stage since World War II, crucial challenges the country has faced, the changing nature of American hard and soft power today, and whether China's rise spells American decline.

The Distinguished Voices Series focuses particular attention on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in the history of the country or the world.

RUBENSTEIN: Welcome, everybody. We are here for our Distinguished Voices Series. And as part of that series we have today a very distinguished voice, which is Joe Nye, who served as dean of the Kennedy School, among other things, at Harvard, has had several major positions in the federal government, author of many well-known books, and also is somebody that I’ve gotten to know over the years from things at Harvard and I have a great deal of respect for Joe. And I want to thank Joe for making the time to come here today. And he is the author of a new book, A Life in the American Century, which I read the last couple of days. Highly recommend it. And thank you very much, Joe, for coming here today. 

NYE: Well, thank you, David. And I know you’re a tough interviewer. So I’ve been losing sleep all week. (Laughter.) 

RUBENSTEIN: Very, very, very easy. So what we’re going to do is have about a half-hour conversation here. We have about 400 people on Zoom, members of the Council from all over the country, presumably. And what we’ll do is we’ll talk for half an hour, then we’ll have about a half-hour time for questions from you and from those in the Zoom world. And then we will adjourn, OK? So I don’t need to give your biography, because I’m going to do it through the questions a bit. But first thing I wanted to ask you is this. You know, I read your book and you said in your book that you were once offered the presidency of the Council on Foreign Relations. Have you ever thought how much more successful in life—(laughter)—you could have been, had you taken that job?  

NYE: (Laughs.) Ah, life is full of regrets. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. (Laughter.) So your book is really interesting, in the sense that you’ve had an unusual career in that you’ve been in government, many different positions in government with many different presidents, and you’ve been at Harvard for many, many years, and also the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School. So of all the things that you’ve done—writing books, being in government, being an academic dean, raising money—what do you most—what do you find the most satisfying? What are you most proud of, of what you’ve achieved? 

NYE: Well, it’s interesting. Government and academia are quite different. And it’s sometimes hard to mix the two, in the sense that in academia you’re trying to get something that’s exactly right, and time doesn’t matter. And, as you know, in government if you miss your timing, you’ve missed everything. And the other thing, of course, is that in academia, you shouldn’t—there are academic politics, of course—but you shouldn’t let politics influence the analysis. In government, unless you think about putting together coalitions behind an idea, which means paying attention to power, your idea’s not going anywhere. So I found it—the interplay between these two was quite intriguing, quite interesting. But I found each enriched the other. So it wasn’t—I mean, I equally happy with both, to answer your question. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So for those who may not have read the book or know your background, let’s talk about it for a moment. Who grew up in what city, and what state too? 

NYE: I was from northern New Jersey, a rural area. 

RUBENSTEIN: Northern New Jersey. And was your family an academic-oriented family? 

NYE: No. My father was in Wall Street. And he used to commute over an hour every day so that we could grow up on a farm. But then he insisted we work on the farm. (Laughter.) 

RUBENSTEIN: So I read that, and I couldn’t quite understand. You were milking cows, and all that? 

NYE: Well, yes. And riding horses, and watching pigs be slaughtered, and husking corn. 

RUBENSTEIN: Was that what drove you to the academic life? (Laughter.) You wanted to get out of that, or?  

NYE: No, I still have a vegetable garden. 


NYE: Yeah. And I grew chickens in our backyard. 

RUBENSTEIN: Wow. And you—when you were growing chicken in your backyard in the old days, you had to, I think, your father said, go out and kill the chicken for dinner? 

NYE: That’s right. Yeah, every weekend. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. All right. So you went to a public high school? 

NYE: I went to a public grammar school, then I went to a school called Morristown School, which is now Morristown Beard School, which is a private school. 

RUBENSTEIN: All right. So were you first in your class or something? 

NYE: Yeah. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. (Laughter.) All right. Well, good, OK. I would like to be first in my class. I was never first in my class. So you’re first in your class. So you applied only to two schools—Princeton and Yale. 

NYE: Yeah. Yale was my backup. (Laughter.) 

RUBENSTEIN: Backup? What happened to Harvard? You didn’t—why didn’t you apply to Harvard? 

NYE: Well, it’s interesting. Harvard was far away. My sister, who was married to a teacher at Andover, wanted me to apply to Harvard. And thought, you know, it’s too intellectual. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. All right. So you went to Princeton and you must have done reasonably well. You won a Rhodes Scholarship. So when you entered Princeton, do you know what a Rhodes Scholarship was? 

NYE: Hadn’t a clue. 

RUBENSTEIN: So how did you get one? Your senior year some professor said, why don’t you apply for a Rhodes? And you just— 

NYE: Well, I was planning in my senior year to join the Marine Platoon Leaders Corps. And at that time everybody had to serve in the military. There was a draft. And I thought, well, you know, the Marine Platoon Leaders Corps has an interesting reputation, and that’d be an interesting thing to do. So I was walking in Firestone Library one day and E.D.H. Johnson, who had been a Rhodes, said to me: Nye, what are you doing next year? And I said, I’m going to join the Marine Platoon Leaders Corps, sir. He says nonsense. You got to apply for Rhodes. So I did. 

RUBENSTEIN: Now, nobody ever applied—said to me when I was walking around college, you should apply for a Rhodes. (Laughter.) So you must have done something at Princeton that would distinguish you. Were you captain of the football team? What were you— 

NYE: Alas, in athletics—I was on the fencing team and I played club ice hockey. But I was not a great star athlete. 

RUBENSTEIN: But you must have been pretty good academically then? 

NYE: Well, not too bad. And— 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. All right. So you get this Rhodes Scholarship. There are thirty-two Americans every year pick for Rhodes. You go over on the, was it Queen Elizabeth or Queen Mary? Queen Elizabeth? 

NYE: Yeah, Queen Elizabeth, yeah. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. You go over there. Who was the most famous person in your Rhodes Scholar class? 

NYE: Well, Kris Kristofferson, who— 

RUBENSTEIN: Really? (Laughter.) 

NYE: Who went on to aspired levels I could never aspire to. 

RUBENSTEIN: Was he really a good songwriter and singer when he was over there? 

NYE: No. He actually was something of a party boy, though. 

RUBENSTEIN: Party boy? I can’t believe it. (Laughter.) Did they have illegal drugs in those days? They didn’t have that. 

NYE: No. Alcohol. 

RUBENSTEIN: Alcohol, OK. All right. So you came back. And you—after you got your degree, you went to Harvard to get your Ph.D.? 

NYE: Right. 

RUBENSTEIN: And you thought Harvard was not as cerebral as you had once feared, so you were happy there? 

NYE: I was. I was planning, actually, go into the Foreign Service when I finished Oxford. And I thought, well, if I’m going to do that, maybe I should get a Ph.D., so I have a fallback, or some deeper knowledge of international things. And I had—when I was at Oxford, I met a Ghanaian student. And this was a time when African countries were becoming independent. We used to sit up late at night discussing the future of Africa. What is democracy going to mean in Africa? I thought, I want to go to Africa. So I did. I signed up for a Ph.D. at Harvard, and then I did my field work, my research, in East Africa. 

RUBENSTEIN: All right. So you did that. And you spent about a year or two in Africa?  

NYE: Yeah, a year and a half. 

RUBENSTEIN: All right. You get your Ph.D. Harvard is famous for not hiring its Ph.D.s to teach there. So for those who get to teach there, you must be really good. So Harvard offered you a teaching position for a while, right? 

NYE: They did. I was standing on the lawn of the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala. And I opened a letter. And it said: We’re offering you an instructorship with the magnificent salary of $6,000 a year. So I thought, well, I’ll try it for a while. And the while lasted. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. And at that time were you married yet? 

NYE: Yes. And it’s a good thing, because my wife had worked at the Fogg Art Museum, which helped to support us. 

RUBENSTEIN: So your wife, Molly, and you have been married sixty-three years. 

NYE: Right. 

RUBENSTEIN: That’s pretty impressive. And you have three sons and nine grandchildren. 

NYE: It’s true. 

RUBENSTEIN: And what do your grandchildren call you, Professor Nye, or Dean Nye, or? (Laughter.) 

NYE: (Laughs.) They call me Joe Fish. 


NYE: Because I liked to go fishing all the time. 


NYE: And actually, marrying Molly was actually the best decision I ever made, other than being born. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. And you had no control over the latter, so.  

NYE: The first. (Laughs.) 

RUBENSTEIN: Why is it that so many intellectual people love fishing? Because you just sit there, you wait for a fish to come along, but there’s not much you have to do to think, is there? (Laughter.) 

NYE: That’s one form of fishing. If you’re—if you think of standing the middle of a rushing river in Alaska, worrying about whether the water’s going to come up above your waders, trying to cast your fly across the current so that it floats in a way which is going to fool a fish, and then struggling to get the fish back through that current and up to the shore, it’s a lot more active than just waiting. 

RUBENSTEIN: But, I mean, your brain is this big, and the fish’s brain is this big. (Laughter.) So outsmarting the fish, is it that hard? 

NYE: Well, you’d be surprised how many times they win. (Laughter.) 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. All right. So you’re teaching at Harvard. And all of a sudden, a Democrat is elected president of the United States. You’re a Democrat. And so you get offered a position in the Carter administration. And what did you do in the Carter administration? 

NYE: Well, I was responsible for Carter’s policy on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. So I was in the State Department as deputy undersecretary. But then I had a title as the National Security Council chair of the Committee on Nonproliferation, which gave me a governmentwide hunting license, so to speak. And at that time, the general view was that—this was after the oil shock. And the general view is that we’re going to have to turn to nuclear. We’d need six hundred reactors by 1980; that we’re going to run out of uranium, therefore we had to start using plutonium, which is a weapons-useful fuel. And then the question is, how are we going to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to a vast number of states? And that’s the situation where Carter came in. And my job was trying to organize people have a program that did something about it. 

RUBENSTEIN: So the closest we’ve ever come to a nuclear confrontation with another country is with Cuba and Russia. 

NYE: Right. 

RUBENSTEIN: That was in President Kennedy’s administration. But you and Graham Allison and others, I think, were involved in a study at Harvard where you brought together the participants in that—the people who were actually on the Russian side, the American side—to talk about what they actually were thinking. The conclusion of that was, what? That we came really close to the war or we actually never came close to a nuclear confrontation? 

NYE: No, my conclusion was that we came alarmingly close. Kennedy’s alleged to have said between one and two and one and three. McNamara put the odds of that at level two. And Kennedy also said that after that he thought that there would be twenty-five countries with nuclear weapons by the ’70s. And I think the scare of the Cuban Missile Crisis actually helped. In other words, having got that close to the brink and looked over the brink, I think that helped to launch arms control. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So you left the Carter administration before the end. I stayed to the bitter end. So took me a while to get a job after the bitter end. But you left earlier, and you were able to get rehired at Harvard. 

NYE: I did. Well, actually, I came back at the end of two years, Harvard has a two-year rule, which I actually broke the second time I went into government. But the first time, I came back after two years, and mostly for family reasons. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So you came back. And you’re teaching at the—which department at Harvard? 

NYE: Then, at the Government Department. 

RUBENSTEIN: Government Department. 

NYE: Which is faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So you’re doing that for a while. And you later go into another Democratic administration. The next Democratic president after Carter was President Clinton. And what did you do for President Clinton?  

NYE: Well, I did two things. First, I was the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which prepares intelligence estimates for the president. And then I switched over to the Pentagon and was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. And there, my job was to develop strategies for what should be our defense relations with the whole world, region by region. But the one that I spent most of my time on was Asia.  

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So you became an expert in that area. And you then became—you were a tenured faculty member at that point? 

NYE: Yes. Now, and that’s when, after two years, Harvard said: Time to come back. And I said: No, thanks. I want to continue the initiative I had on repairing relations with Japan. At the end of the Cold War, the general view was that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was a relic of the Cold War. There was a study in Japan that said drop it. There were people in the White House—I’m remember going to meetings in the Situation Room where the only thing they wanted is who could be nastier to Japan. And I was trying to say, wait a minute, if you look ahead there are three great powers in East Asia—U.S., China, and Japan. And it’s better to be part of the two than the one. And therefore, let’s not drop the alliance with Japan. Let’s reinforce it. 

RUBENSTEIN: All right. So how long did you stay in the Clinton administration? 

NYE: Three years. 

RUBENSTEIN: Three years. And then you came back again? 

NYE: Yeah, and then I came back, basically to do the Kennedy School job. To become dean of the Kennedy School. 

RUBENSTEIN: Right. So they said, you will become the dean of the Kennedy School. The Kennedy School was started many, many years ago, I guess, from a gift that came in the 1930s. But it was renamed after President Kennedy. When you came back, you found they had all the money they needed, and everybody was happy with where the school was? 

NYE: Unfortunately, no. The school was in good shape, intellectually, and had a terrific faculty. But the danger for a school like the Kennedy School is that it can rest on its laurels. And the fact that you have the Harvard label and a brilliant faculty makes you think everything’s great. But in fact, it wasn’t. It was something of an old-boys club. It had inadequate number of women, not enough foreign students, and, as you suggested, not enough money. So that gave me an agenda. 

RUBENSTEIN: Now, you’ve written a book—you’ve written—how many books have you now written? 

NYE: Well, this makes twenty. 

RUBENSTEIN: Twenty books. OK. (Laughter.) That’s a lot of books. How long does it take to write an average book?  

NYE: Well, I should tell you that—it varies—but my father always used to say he loved my books. It only took one page before going to bed. (Laughter.) 

RUBENSTEIN: Well, that’s like what Ted Sorensen used to say about Pete Peterson’s books: Once you put them down again, you can pick them up. (Laughter.) OK, so all right. So you—when did you develop this concept of soft power and hard power? And anybody ever come up to you and say they could have invented that as well? I mean it doesn’t seem that complicated to say soft power, hard power. But it revolutionized the way a lot of people think about government. So can you explain where the idea came from? And can you explain how, when you met with a Chinese leader how they were saying they want to have more soft power, they’re using your phrase? And I guess they didn’t pay you any royalty or anything? 

NYE: I wish they—I wish they had. But I was—I was writing a book at the end of the 1980s that was going to take an opposite view for my friend, Paul Kennedy, the great British historian whose book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers was on The New York Times bestseller list. It said, the United States is going the way of Philip II of Spain, or Edwardian England. It’s finished. And I was, like, no, I don’t think so. And so as I totaled up our military power then our economic power, I said but there’s still something missing, which is the ability to get others to do what you want through attraction rather than coercion and payment. 

And as I wrestled with that, I developed the terminology and a framework for calling it soft power. Soft power then simply means getting others to do what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. And I developed it as basically an analytical answer to a problem. And I was, I think, most stunned when Hu Jintao told the Seventeenth Party Congress in China, in 2007, that China had to invest more in its soft power. And this led to, needless to say, a raft of Chinese articles of people who were writing about soft power. And a Chinese foreign minister asked me to have dinner with him, one on one, to talk about how China could increase its soft power. So sitting at the kitchen table, I never imagined that. 

RUBENSTEIN: Well, so did you get a royalty for that phrase or not? 

NYE: I wish I had. I should have put a trademark on it. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So you have worked with a lot of people in government over the years. And you’ve worked for a number of presidents. So you’ve also done things with President Obama and President Biden over the years. So who was smarter, President Clinton, President Carter, President Obama, President Biden? (Laughter.) Who would you say is the smartest of those four people? 

NYE: Well, it’s a tough call because smart can have different dimensions. And one of my colleagues at Harvard talks about emotional intelligence, which may be more important than IQ, as measured in traditional forms. And I think in emotional intelligence, or the combination of the different types of intelligence, I think Obama may have been able to combine them very well. Jimmy Carter, you should answer this one because you worked in it too, I thought was really very smart in the intellectual sense. But he often got mixed up with the—not just the trees instead of the forest, but the leaves instead of the trees. (Laughter.) And I think that was—I think he was so keen on solving the problem as an engineer that he sometimes didn’t have the context right. 

RUBENSTEIN: So in your book, it’s a(n) unusual description of all the things you’ve done in government and in an academic life, in a kind of over a fifty year-plus period. How did you—I can barely remember what I did last week. How do you—how did you have a file of all the things that you’ve—a conference that you spoke at, speeches you gave? I mean, how did you keep all that up together? And how did—how long did it take to write this book with all that material? 

NYE: Well, I think in about 1975 one of my sons, who was a little fellow then, gave me a five-year diary where you can write four lines. So writing four lines before you go to bed isn’t too difficult. And then soon after that, I went into the Carter administration. I said, some of this that I’m seeing is so extraordinary I can’t get into five lines. So I got a diary where I’d fill out a whole page. Once I got in the habit of it, I wound up with fifty years’ worth of diaries. 

RUBENSTEIN: Wow. OK, so each year your son gets you another ten-year, five-year diary? OK. So let me ask you, of all the conferences that you’ve spoken at around the world, in case I want to go to one of these conferences. A lot of famous conferences you’ve talked about—Davis, and the Munich Security Conference. If I could just go to one conference and feel I’m really going to get something out of it, what’s the one conference I should go to? What’s the best one to go to? 

NYE: Well, both Davos and Munich are high value? The trouble is, as you get very large numbers, it either breaks down into circles within circles, which are worth going to but some of the larger parts are not. I think the thing I like best in terms of learning is something that Brent Scowcroft and I co-founded with Bill Perry in 1984, called the Aspen Strategy Group. And it has about sixty members. And very strongly bipartisan. I mean, we try to keep it roughly equal between the parties. And the most important thing of it is people listen to each other. They’re not—they’re not appealing to a broader audience. There’s no Washington soundbite there. And it deals with serious issues where we often deeply disagreed, but people sometimes changed their minds.  

RUBENSTEIN: So every time I go to a conference, I say, why am I going to this conference? Do you ever have that when you’re getting ready to get on a plane, say why am I going there? And when you’ve come back from the conference, you say, what did I really accomplish there? You’ve never had that feeling? 

NYE: My wife had it all the time.  

RUBENSTEIN: OK. (Laughter.) So you’ve met many foreign leaders. Of the foreign leaders you’ve met over the years, who has most impressed you with their intellect or their ability to get something done? People you really admire—foreign leaders you’ve met or worked with? 

NYE: Well, you know, there are a lot of impressive people. But I guess I’d put Angela Merkel up there. You know, she had the capacity to lead Germany in the period after it was you reunited. Kohl gets the credit for that, but Merkel, who was an East German, was able to produce a decade of really stable politics and growth in Germany. And then when they were hit with this migration crisis as sort of the overflow of the Syrian civil war, she handled that in really quite a magnificent way. So I would rank her, being honest— 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. Well, in the period you’ve been covering foreign policy—national security policy, foreign policy, things like that—you’ve been writing about it, speaking about it, and so forth, what would you say is the best—let’s say, since 1950, or so—the best American foreign policy decision? And what was the worst American foreign policy decision? 

NYE: Oh, that’s easy. It runs in the Bush family. (Laughter.) In the sense that George H.W. Bush, managing the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of an empire without a shot—or, almost without a shot being fired, and with Germany reunited inside NATO, that was an extraordinary feat of foreign policy. Unfortunately, genes don’t determine enough, because his son’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 I think was one of the worst. 

RUBENSTEIN: So every day I wake up and I say: What national security, international problem should I worry about? What geopolitical thing is going to be something that’s going to be causing me a problem? So when you wake up every morning, what is the biggest geopolitical problem you’re worried about for the country? Is it something in China, the Middle East, Russia? What’s the biggest geopolitical problem we have facing the country, or that you worry about the most? 

NYE: Well, I think we can manage the China challenge. I’m not one of these people who thinks they’re ten feet tall. As a diplomatic friend of mine put it, we’re about five-foot—China’s about five-foot-ten and we’re about six-feet-two. And I think we can manage that. But the problem that worries me in terms of geopolitics is what we’re doing to ourselves at home. In other words, if you look at what the Congress is doing now, destroying U.S. credibility on aid to Ukraine, this is costing us a lot more than the $60 billion that are involved in the aid package. 

RUBENSTEIN: So your book was written pretty much at the end of the—almost the end of the first quarter-century of this century, the twenty-first century. Suppose somebody was going to write a book at pretty much the end of the first twenty-five years of the next century, would they be able to call it the American century? 

NYE: That’s a great question. And I speculate a little bit about it. Nothing goes on forever. So the presumption ought to be that the answer to the question would be no. On the other hand, Americans have an extraordinary set of resources which are not just our material resources but also our resilience as society and our institutions. So there have been times—in the 1930s, Roosevelt thought democracy was over. The 1960s, we thought it was over again. We recovered from both of those. It’s possible—we’re now in a trough I think, again. And it’s possible that we’ll recover from it. But I—you know, I really don’t know. 

RUBENSTEIN: All right. So, for the average person here watching, they might say, you know, they’re very envious of you. You’ve got three children, nine grandchildren, a sixty-three-year marriage. You’re dean of the Harvard Kennedy School. You’ve served in several governments. People admire you everywhere. Can you tell us something you’ve done wrong or bad? (Laughter.) So that we don’t—we can all feel that we’re not so inadequate. So because everybody’s going to feel inadequate listening to all the things you’ve done and reading about it. So have you ever failed at something, that you didn’t work out? 

NYE: How much time do we have? (Laughter.) 


NYE: Yeah, I mean, obviously there are all sorts of failures. But I feel that the things that mattered most to me actually were my relationship with my wife, and beyond that my relationship with nature. And beyond that, my relationship with my friends, or a set of friends. And then the outer layers of this onion are things like—that we’ve been talking about—writing books. And creativity is important. Having affected two major government policies—proliferation and Asia strategy—that’s important. But if you had to peel away the parts of the onion, it’s those core parts that I would protect. So in that sense, if you said had I been more ambitious and spent less time on family, I might have risen to a higher level in the government. But I don’t think I would have been as happy as I’ve been. 

RUBENSTEIN: So, speaking of family, you have three children. Did any of them say, my father was a great academic; I want to be a great academic? 

NYE: No. They were—they had much too much sense to do that. 

RUBENSTEIN: So they went into something important, like private equity, or things like that? (Laughter.) 

NYE: Indeed, they have. (Laughs.) 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So you put out your book a really tragic—potentially tragic thing. Fortunately, it didn’t turn out to be tragic. You were driving your wife in a car and all of a sudden you black out. And so the car is going off the highway. Your wife is saying, Joe, you’re not paying attention to the road. And then the car tumbles over three times. How did you both survive that? 

NYE: That’s a good question. If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t be having this—(laughs)— 

RUBENSTEIN: Well, probably not, but— 

NYE: But I think—you know, seatbelts and the Subaru engineering which has a compressible front, so that it absorbs learning some of the energy, get part of the credit. But sheer luck is—(laughs)— 

RUBENSTEIN: Right? So you are going to outlive me, I’ve no doubt. But let’s suppose you’re like Thomas Jefferson. You say, I’m going to put the three things on my epitaph or my tombstone that I want to be most remembered for. Thomas Jefferson didn’t even put on the fact that he was president of the United States. He put on the Declaration of Independence, and so forth. So if you were to say three things that somebody should put on your tombstone twenty-five years from now, what would you say? Other than this interview. 

NYE: Family man—(laughs)—family man, institutional builder, and creative— 

RUBENSTEIN: You wouldn’t say smart power, or something like that? Soft power? 

NYE: No, I don’t think so. I mean, you’d have to get into further down the list. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. OK. Well, it’s an extraordinary career. And thank you for what you’ve done for the country and the government. And thank you for what you’ve done for Harvard and the Kennedy School. And you’ve taught a lot of students. Who was the smartest student you ever had? (Laughter.) 

NYE: Well, I would just alienate the others. 


NYE: Probably have had ten thousand students over the years. And why make 9,999 enemies? 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. Who’s the smartest professor you ever met at Harvard? 

NYE: Thomas Schelling. 

RUBENSTEIN: Tom Shelling? He won the Nobel Prize. 

NYE: Yeah. 

RUBENSTEIN: Very smart person. OK. We have time for questions. Here’s the rules: First of all, I should have said at the beginning this is not Chatham House rules. You’ve often heard Chatham House rules? I don’t like Chatham House rules because this is the Council on Foreign Relations. (Laughter.) Our rules are, on the record. So this is on the record. So what I’d like you to do is, those people who have questions, stand up, just give your name and your identification, what organization you might be affiliated with, and try to ask a question rather than a statement or something like that. But questions would be preferred over statements. But, you know, we’ll just start from there. And then we have—we’ll go here first, then we have the four hundred people that are in Zoom-world. They will be calling in somehow. And you will identify them. OK. Who has—all right, right here. Right here. First here. Stand up, identify yourself, your name your organization. 

Q: Thank you very much, Professor Nye. 

I attended your— 

RUBENSTEIN: Your name is? 

Q: Mahesh Kotecha, Structured Credit International. I run a small advisory firm.  

I’m from Uganda. And thank you for having worked in Uganda. When I was at MIT Sloan School, you hosted at Harvard a luncheon for African students. I was a member of that group. And I remember that very fondly. My question to you is, looking back at your experience in East Africa, which was very formative in your career, how would you view what’s going on in Africa today, in East Africa, where you have a Ugandan president who is thirty-seven years in power? And what you see for African future in political terms? Many elections are coming, nine coup d’etats in the last three years. 

NYE: Well, I think it’s objectively fair to say that the aspirations that we had for Africa that I shared with my friend Kwamenet (ph) when I was at Oxford, have been disappointed. On the other hand, as you know, there’s a mix. Some African countries are doing better than others. Within East Africa—Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania—I think Kenya is doing a bit better. It’s true that Uganda has the problems you’ve described. If you look across the Sahel, you have a whole series of coups. But there are other countries, like Botswana, or Ghana, or Cote d’Ivoire, which are doing better. So I would say it’s a mixed bag. But averaging it all out, it hasn’t been up to the aspirations we had in 1960. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. Right here. Another question here. Right here. Right there. Yes. The mic is coming down. Your name, organization, and your question. 

Q: My name is Stephen Blank. I served as a section leader under you in October or fall of 1963. 

So have to ask the question about your view of what’s going on in Harvard at the moment, the crisis—the whole range of things. A couple of comments? 

NYE: Well, it’s interesting, because you and I both lived through the ’60s, when Harvard was torn apart by the Vietnam War and the outside influences that buffeted us were radicals who wanted to tear everything down to destroy American imperialism. Now, the outside influences that are buffeting us are billionaires who want more than their name on buildings, but want to micromanage the university. The danger I see is that we lose what were—the characteristic which is most important, which is freedom of speech and independent analysis. And the fact that Gaza war has been imported into American politics, into American universities, so that you have groups that are Palestinian groups, for example, there doing a protest, and then a pro-Israel group doing a protest. And then people say, this is antisemitic, or it’s Islamophobic. This is very bad for the university.  

I had felt that Claudine Gay and her other two presidents, when they testified before Congress, were actually technically legally correct when they said that what constitutes bullying or inappropriate behavior depends on context. But they’d been briefed by lawyers, and the people who were interrogating them were interested in political theory not law. So I think that there are—we’re still—it’s going to take a while to dig out of this. But I’m struck in talking to other faculty and students—I have a granddaughter who’s in the college now—that this idea that we have rampant antisemitism or we’re unable to talk to each other, is—I don’t see it. I mean in they, I don’t know, fifty years or so that I was involved in various decisions at Harvard, I never encountered once the question of whether somebody was Jewish or not. That’s not rampant antisemitism. 

The fact that Palestinian groups are shouting stupid slogans is not necessarily antisemitism. But as we get this thing politicized so that the terminology becomes weapons, that’ll make it harder for us to preserve independent analysis and free speech. Just one final point. We have a Egyptian-origin, and Egyptian American professor at the Kennedy School, Tarek Masoud, who has organized a series of speakers, Palestinian and Israeli. And he’s been widely criticized for having some Palestinians who are radical. But I attended a meeting two weeks ago that he had, which had Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis in the same room. And while they didn’t agree with each other, they had what you could call a reasonable discourse. That’s what a university should be about. 

RUBENSTEIN: So in your fifty years associated with Harvard, who was the best president of Harvard? (Laughter.) 

NYE: I think it’s probably Derek Bok. For one thing, he’s probably the longest. (Laughs.) 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. All right. Have any women? Right back here, woman back here. Can you—hi. Right there. 

Q: Thank you so much. And, Professor, it was a pleasure to be within the university during your time there. Lesley Rosenthal with The Juilliard School. 

And I wanted to talk to you about the cultural aspect of soft power. There are elements that we, as a nation have squandered. The political values, the foreign policy, as you mentioned. I feel like we still have opportunity to not squander our cultural influence as a soft power. I would like to ask you for some ideas or advice about how the cultural sector might be of assistance in that regard? 

NYE: Well, I think—I think the premise of your question is correct. A lot of people are attracted to the United States not because of what the government does or says, but because of what we produce in our culture, in our civil society. And the fact that we have such a vibrant civil society with such strong cultural attractors is an important part of American soft power. I often use the example that in the 1960s you had people marching in the streets throughout the world against American government policies in Vietnam. But they weren’t singing the Communist Internationale. They were singing Martin Luther King’s We Shall Overcome. So an anthem that grew out of our civic culture essentially became part of our saving grace. 

RUBENSTEIN: So, by the way, which bureaucracy is harder to deal with? The State Department bureaucracy, Defense Department bureaucracy, or the Harvard bureaucracy? (Laughter.) Which is the hardest? 

NYE: Well, I used to be part of the Harvard bureaucracy. So I have—so we’ll just restrict it to the first two. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK, of the State Department and the Pentagon, which is harder to deal with? 

NYE: Well, it’s a tight contest. (Laughter.) But the—but the Pentagon is bigger. 

RUBENSTEIN: Bigger? OK. All right. Right here is a question. Right here. Do you have a mic? Give me your name and your identification, please. 

Q: Thank you very much. Joe Gasparro, Royal Bank of Canada. 

Over the past decade and a half, social media has come to more and more prominence. I’d love to get your sentiment on its impact on both soft power but also just broader geopolitics, international relations. Thank you. 

NYE: Well, the whole question of what social media is doing to the nature of our democracy at home, as well as how we present ourselves overseas, is absolutely fascinating. The last ten years or so I’ve tried to think about cybersecurity and dimensions of cyber, which of course includes social media. And I think it’s—if I were a younger scholar starting out today, I would urge paying attention to that because there’s a lot that’s going on. You can see the international aspects of it, with Russian or Chinese meddling in our election. You can also see it in terms of the fact that if you’re in India or many countries overseas, you’re using Twitter, now X, or Facebook.  

And so how this is going to add up is—in terms of international power—is very difficult to predict. But if we let it erode our democracy at home, then we will really be eroding our soft power because a lot of people are attracted to us, as I suggested with that Vietnam example, not by what the government does but by how we comport ourselves as a democracy and a civil society that supports democracy. If that erodes under the influence of, let’s say, generative artificial intelligence, and, you know, the fact that you’re not going to be able to tell whether the picture you saw of Joe Biden or Donald Trump on the eve of an election doing something extraordinarily awful was true or not true, that’s a danger that we face. So I don’t know the answers. I’ve been trying to think about it. But I hope that people are taking it seriously. 

RUBENSTEIN: So, Joe, when you were young faculty member at Harvard, there was another faculty member there named Henry Kissinger. (Laughter.) Was he thought by you or the others then that this man is going to be secretary of state, the most powerful secretary of state in a long time, and is going to rewrite much of foreign policy? Or did you say, he’s another smart Harvard professor? 

NYE: Henry was always politically ambitious. And he sat on my general exams. And then, when he was consulting for Nelson Rockefeller, he asked me to come down to New York and consult with him with Rockefeller. When he switched to Nixon and I didn’t, he dropped me for, basically, I guess, eight years. But then when I was on the transition team for the Carter administration, which is squirreled away in the basement of the State Department, we got a message saying the secretary wants to see you. And Kissinger was still the lame duck secretary. So I go up to these magnificent offices on the seventh floor. There’s Henry behind his desk. He says, Joe, you’re the one Harvard professor I wanted to have here. I thought, Henry, you haven’t changed a bit. (Laughter.) 

RUBENSTEIN: OK, here. Right here. Just give your name, identification, please. 

Q: My name is Peter Goldmark. I’ve had a very wonderful, lucky career. I’ve run foundations, newspapers, and government agencies. I’ve taught at the Kennedy School and about six of those other schools. I never had to make Oldsmobiles, ladies’ girdles, or chewing gum. (Laughter.) 

I have a question that is on the mind of every person in this room, and on all of those who are attending by Zoom. We are going through a difficult moment as a country. For me, it is a moment of weakness and uncertainty. When asked to come up with a single adjective for it, I usually choose the word “wobbly.” Because it’s a question on all our minds, I want to invite you also, David, to comment on it, if you feel you would like to. How do you talk to us about what is going on in our own country at this moment? And how would you like to help us think about how to react to it, and what we can do to come out of it with strength and dignity? Thank you. 

NYE: You want to go first? 

RUBENSTEIN: I don’t have a good answer for that. But why don’t you go first? Because you may have a better answer. 

NYE: Well, I’m not sure I have a silver bullet. But what I think I’ve tried to do with this memoir is get people as they’re thinking of what to do and how to respond, to realize that while we’re in a trough, a slough of despair right now, that we’ve been there before. And then to ask, how did we get out before? And what are the things about our culture and our institutions which tend to provide resilience? And so in that sense, my hope is that in a book like this, by—there’s a whole chapter on the 1960s. By showing you how really bad that was, but also how we recovered under Carter, Reagan, and after, I think, that may help people to get some perspective on answers to your question, Peter. 

I think the—you know, basically, knowing the nature of the problem, and that this problem is not totally new, will help people think about answers rather than thinking that it’s totally de novo. So I don’t have the answer, but I think I have an approach. 

RUBENSTEIN: If I had the answer, I would have been in Iowa, New Hampshire by now telling everybody the answer. (Laughter.) I just don’t know. I would say, if I could do one thing to change the government today that we have it would be probably to eliminate money in politics. As you probably know, most members of Congress have to spend enormous amounts of time raising money because whoever has the most money usually wins, whoever has the most money scares people. And you can keep the money after you leave government, more or less. And so people are raising money all the time. You raise it from the far left and the far right. You don’t raise money from somebody who says, I want you to be right down the middle. I want a centrist position. You rarely raise money that way. There’s some people that will give you money for that. So I wish we could get money out of politics. I think it’s been very destructive. 

But on the good news side, this is not as bad as the civil war. The Civil War, we lost 3 percent of our population in a military confrontation. Three percent of our population today would be, you know, ten million people or more. So it’s not as bad as that. And you had sixty members of Congress in the Civil War era fight and physically hit other members of Congress on the floor of the Congress. We haven’t had that yet. Maybe that would be a plus, but I don’t think so. (Laughter.) So I think it’s—any generation always thinks this is the worst. And that the younger people are not going to want to get to do things as good as what we have now. But I think it’s bad now. The vision of the country is really bad.  

And I’ll just give you one statistic to finish this point. When Richard Nixon ran for President in 1960, he campaigned in fifty states because he didn’t know where all states would go. John Kennedy campaigned in more than forty states, because we didn’t know how each state was going to go. Now the country is really divided. We know how every state’s going to go. If any of you are the Democratic nominee for president, you’re going to win New York. Doesn’t make a difference if you’re qualified or not, you’re going to win New York. If any of you are the Republican nominee for president, you’re going to win Texas. Doesn’t make a difference if you’re qualified or not. Because the country is really divided and are now only about five states that really are up for grabs in a presidential election. So the country really is divided down the middle in a way that I haven’t seen since the Civil War. I wish we could fix that somehow. But I don’t think we have enough time to do that tonight.  

So we have questions from the people in the Zoom-world, right. 

NYE: Can I just add one addition to what you said, David, that I agree with? There are some specific things you can do. I tried to give a broad historical analogy, but if you—if you have things that bring people towards the middle, such as single-member constituencies or districts so the primaries are not just attracting the extremes from both ends. California has this. You have ranked choice voting, which is how we got moderate Republican and Democrat in Alaska. If you have redistricting so that the districts are not as gerrymandered as they are now, these are things which will try to pull things back towards the middle. So there are a number of reforms, but I was trying to take a longer-term view of how do we respond to a sense of a slough of despondence. 

RUBENSTEIN: Peter, if we could get more people like you to go into government, we’d be better off, right? I think you were a great public servant. So I wish we could get more people like you to serve. Now many of the best people go into other things. They don’t want to go into government service because the pay is so low. We haven’t raised the pay for members of Congress in twenty years. As a result, people below them can’t get paid very much. And the result is you get very, very few people who are willing to give up the financial sacrifice to go into government because to serve your country now is a great financial sacrifice, honestly. 

OK, Zoom-land has some questions, right? OK. Can you read them? 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jane Harman. 

Q: Hi, everybody. Can you hear me, I hope?  

RUBENSTEIN: Yes, we can. 

Q: Joe, one of the things that on your list of accomplishments in the future should be mentor to thousands of people, surely including me. Your book is wonderful. I commend it to everybody. 

My question is this: As you described the presidents in the last half of the American century, all of them, I think, were internationalists. Now we’re at a point where there is a huge rise in isolationism, not just in our country but populism in other countries as well. How do you explain this? And how pernicious do you think it is? 

NYE: I think it’s quite pernicious. And the current issue of the Economist as a cover and an article right at the beginning to talk about the rise of what they call NatCons. NatCons are nationalist conservatives, rather than traditional conservatives. I have used a term of isolationist populism. And I think that what we see is that the isolationist populism has basically infected particularly the right wing of the Republican Party. And that’s why we have a situation such as we have in the House today, which you know better than I, where a majority of the members would pass the aid for Ukraine but a small group of ultra-conservatives, or sometimes called MAGA Republicans, are preventing the House from operating.  

In some ways, this isn’t totally new. When you look at the Chicago Council polls on attitudes of Americans, do you want an inward-looking or an outward-looking foreign policy, there’s been a consistent number around 30 percent, plus or minus a few, saying that they want an inward-looking foreign policy. What’s different now is these people have been mobilized in a way which has made them able to affect policy. I think this is a real problem and very dangerous for the credibility of American foreign policy. 

RUBENSTEIN: I think we—OK, more questions from Zoom-world? 

Q: We’ll take our next question from David Merkel. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK, David Merkel. 

Q: Thank you. David Merkel with the College of Charleston. 

My question is about deterrence. You talked about China not being ten feet tall, us being six-foot-two. But we also talked about the dysfunction with regard to the bill for Ukraine and the Congress. So I’d love to hear a few thoughts on how we regain some deterrence on Russia, on China, on Iran. Thank you. 

NYE: Well, remember, deterrence isn’t gone. I mean, Putin has rattled his nuclear saber in Ukraine, but he has not attacked supply routes across Poland. So there is still a deterrent effect. It works both ways. We have been deterred about the more advanced systems that we might otherwise provide. And he’s been deterred about interfering with supplies. And I think deterrence also works in East Asia. But I think the most important way for us to strengthen deterrence is to maintain our alliances. If you compare the United States and China, China has about two allies—Russia and North Korea. The U.S. has allies in Europe, in Australia, in Japan, and South Korea.  

If you add up the economies of the allies that we have and add up the economies of the allies that China has, ours is about two and a half times stronger. And in that sense, if we can hold these alliances together, I think we’re going to prevail in the long run. The question about holding the alliances together, though, goes to this question of credibility. And keeping our credibility means avoiding the kinds of comments that we’ve heard in American politics over the last couple of weeks, saying that, you know, let Putin do what he wants. I mean, that doesn’t just hurt our credibility in Europe, it hurts our credibility in Asia. 

RUBENSTEIN: Joe, of all the organizations you’ve been associated with, would you have any doubt that the most important one was the Council on Foreign Relations? (Laughter.) You served as our board member for a number of years. And in hindsight, was that the best time of your life, serving on the board? (Laughter.) 

NYE: No. But I will say that I first started coming to Council meetings in the 1970s, when many of the people in the room weren’t born. And I have found the Council enormously valuable over the years. I mean, it is a place where you can have serious discussion of crucial issues. And so the Council, like everything, has had its ups and downs over the years. But I think it’s still a great institution. 

RUBENSTEIN: While speaking of this great institution, we have the president here, Mike Froman. Would you like to say something to the people who are listening in Zoom-world, who may not actually see you here? But, Mike, why don’t you say something about the Council, or anything you want? 

FROMAN: Well, thank you, David. All I would say is I had the pleasure of sitting in on some of Joe Nye’s seminars up at Harvard when I was at the Center for International Affairs and being a member of the Aspen Strategy Group. And I think Joe is what the Japanese would call a national treasure. And he—the 10,000 students he’s had, so many of them feel so much affection and gratitude for all that he’s done for them and for this field. And, of course, we’re grateful here at the Council for all that you’ve contributed over the years. So thank you. And thank you for spending your time with us. 

RUBENSTEIN: And you agree that you wouldn’t be here in the president’s position if you hadn’t had those seminars? 

FROMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. (Laughter.) 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. All right. So I think we’ve had a full discussion. I want to thank Joe. And I want to recommend his book, in case anybody hasn’t bought it yet, A Life in the American Century, Joe Nye, Jr. Do you actually use junior very much, or not? 

NYE: Well, my father’s dead, so I use it off and on. 

RUBENSTEIN: OK. So, thank you, Joe, for everything you’ve done for our country and for the Council over many years. (Applause.) 


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