Skip to main content

The Citizen

Professor Nye, Professor Allison on Major Global Events in the Past Year

By Ran Wei

As this academic year is coming to an end, the Citizen invites Professor Joseph Nye and Professor Graham Allison, both former deans of HKS, to offer their thoughts on global affairs.

Wei Ran and Prof. NyeJoseph S. Nye Jr. is Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Kennedy School. In 2004, he published Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. His latest book published in 2011 is The Future of Power.

The Citizen: We all know that you wrote the very influential book of Soft Power. What is your assessment on the trajectory of both the soft power and hard power of the U.S.?

Nye: I think there has been a degree of pessimism about the American power, both hard and soft, following the 2008 financial crisis. But I think that in fact that pessimism is exaggerated. If you look back to the 1960s, there was pessimism about, well I guess it was the late 1950s, the U.S. power. People thought the Russians, or the Soviets, were ten feet tall. By the 1980s, they thought the Japanese were ten feet tall. And now many people think that Chinese are ten feet tall. If you look at the history about the polls about American power, you will find that it goes through cycles of too much pessimism and too much optimism. As for American soft power in particular, which is the ability to get the outcome you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment, I think American soft power is still pretty strong. We have done things which undercut our soft power, the invasion of Iraq, for example. But by and large, if you look at polls taken the BBC or by the Pew Charitable Trust, the Americans still come out either at the top or close to the top in terms of soft power. In hard power, I think the fact that the Americans are finally recovering from the great recession and the American economy is still ranked No. 1 in terms of entrepreneurship and R&D. It means that probably the American hard power is going to be recovering pretty well. The Financial Times last week had a headline that said that China will pass the U.S. in total size of its economy this year. But that is based on purchasing power parity, not exchange rates. And even when China passes the U.S. in exchange rates in about ten years. It will be a long time, perhaps another 30 or 40 years, before China will equal the U.S. in per capita income, which is a better measure of the sophistication of an economy. So in terms of hard power, I think the Americans are still in relatively good shape.

The Citizen: It is interesting that you mention this Financial Times article on China. If sometime in the future, the total size of China’s economy passes that of the U.S., however, at the same time, the GDP per capita of China is only a quarter of the U.S., how would that play out under a global context?

Nye: I wrote a book in 2011 called the Future of Power, which has a chapter on economic power.  It points out there are various measures of economic power. One is total size of GDP. That will give China a certain amount of power because people want to have access to that market. And so that is a source of power. But at the same time, per capita GDP tells you more about the sophistication of the economy. So that’s another measure.  When you compare economies, you have to also ask whether you use purchasing power parity, which tells you about the quality of life in terms of what consumers can buy with their money. But that does not tells you about, let’s say, military power, which means you are importing a jet engine or aircraft, which is done in an international exchange rate. So it might be, for example, much cheaper to get a haircut in Beijing than in New York. But it is also true it is harder to build a jet engine in China than in New York.

The Citizen:  How do you see the impact by the growing size of China’s economy in the global context? How would that impact China’s soft power?

Nye:  The enormous success that China has had over the past 30 years also of raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and creating such a rapid rate of economic growth has indeed increased the Chinese soft power.  Many people are attracted to China because of the success. On the other hand, there are some downsides to this, which you can see in the air quality in Beijing, or if you put growth above everything else, issues of food safety, air quality, so forth. That can hurt China’s soft power. Overall, I would say that Chinese economic success has helped its soft power.

The Citizen: How do you see China’s future? You mentioned that at a certain point in history, people in America used to see either the Soviet Union or Japan as ten feet high. Would China follow that pattern?

The Citizen: I am not a pessimist about China. I think that China will probably continue to grow at a respectable rate, not as fast as in the past, but at a good rate. I think that even though there are problems related to real estate bubble, or the weakness of certain banks, I don’t think these will lead to a collapse in China. But I do think that China has a problem it has to face in the future, which is how it is going to manage political participation.  When countries develop per capita income to 9 to 10 thousand dollars, they get a large middle class, and there is a greater demand for participation. One of the things that the communist party has to do is to figure out how to accommodate the broader demand for political participation. This is going to be exacerbated by the fact that in the era of Internet, everyone can share information on Weibo. That participation question becomes more acute.  So I don’t know how China is going to solve that problem. I think it can solve it. But if you ask is the future is going to be perfectly smooth for China, I would say no. But do I think that China is going to collapse? No.

The Citizen: what are some of the other major challenges that China faces?

Nye: I think first the challenge of economy, how you switch from an export-oriented growth strategy to a consumer-based growth strategy, which focuses on the internal market. That is a central feature of the new five year plan. It is also one of the features mentioned in the third plenary a few months ago. Those are good directions for China to go. But the problem is how you implement those. If you are a factory boss or a party chief in a coastal industry, you might be told to switch to the West. But your interests of your workers are right here in the East. You may resist that.

The Citizen: what are the challenges for the U.S.?

Nye: The biggest challenge for the U.S. is probably in relation to improving things at home, particularly the educational system at the lower levels, the primary and secondary levels. I think another problem is how we deal with growing economic inequality.  These are real problems that the U.S. faces. But I think they are still manageable. There is also the example of people complaining now, the political gridlock, the political polarizations. But the American political systems are designed to be fragmented, with checks and balances. So it is not totally new. I remain relatively optimistic about America’s ability to deal with these problems.

The Citizen: Regarding your book of Future of Power, you talked about the role of Internet. Can you talk about the economic, social and political impact by the internet on the world?

Nye: Mckinsey has recently done a study about the economic impact of the Internet, showing that it is becoming increasingly important to the global economy. And obviously it has major social impact. We see the change in the nature of press. What is the role of printed press as opposed to the social media? It is also having political effects. One of the interesting questions would be how those political effects will play out, not just in the U.S. and China, but also other countries, like Russia, so forth. There are an enormous set of questions that are fascinating that relate to what I call cyber politics. I taught a course this spring, a module, trying to develop international regimes, rules of roads for cyber governance. I am writing a paper about that now. So this topic is well worth exploring.


Wei Ran and Prof. AllisonGraham Allison is Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. As “Founding Dean” of the modern Kennedy School, under his leadership, from 1977 to 1989, a small, undefined program grew twenty-fold to become a major professional school of public policy and government. His latest book (2013), Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World (co-authored with Robert Blackwill), has been a bestseller in the US and abroad.

The Citizen: How do you see the situation in Ukraine? How do you predict the future of this country?

Allison: Things will get worse before they get worse. Ukraine is a serious challenge. It’s on a rapid slide of violence which has already shown into dismemberment. Two, the current approach or strategy of the U.S. and Europe is bound to fail. It will not cause Putin to withdraw from Crimea; will not cause the increasing violence and separation to stop. It won’t stop people from killing each other.  Three, the window of opportunity for effective and preventive intervention in Ukraine is rapidly closing. There were more opportunities a month ago than today. The number of opportunities are shrinking, the opportunities for external actors like U.S. and Europe intervening in a way that could produce a better outcome than otherwise it is going to occur. Four, that does not mean there is zero chance now. Contrary to people who say nobody knows what to do or there is nothing could be done, I have a counter view, which is that there is a pretty clear picture of what could be done.  That will produce an outcome that will be ugly and will not make anybody happy, but will be nonetheless better than what otherwise is going to happen.  That would be an agreement among Russia, U.S., Europe and Ukraine to agree that for the foreseeable future, let’s say the next 25 years, Ukraine will be a neutral and non-block state that will not seek to become a member of NATO, or EU, nor either of the Russian equivalent organizations. And as part of the compact, all parties involved would agree to a very concrete set of steps in which they on the one hand would not undermine Ukraine, but on the other hand will provide assistance to Ukraine, to whatever government emerges there, with a chance to build a viable state. So I think I could imagine that happening.   I don’t think it is likely because I don’t think either in Washington or Europe. People are sufficiently motivated to do something that is bold. So it is a pessimistic picture.

The Citizen: How do you see the interactions between the U.S. and China in the coming decades?

Allison: You probably came on a gloomy day today, because in such great spring da, I should have more good news. The way to think about the China-U.S. relationship is this metaphor of Thucydides Trap.  Actually I was very happy when Xi Jinping picked up this metaphor in his January comment.  So Thucydides Trap reminds us that when a rising power rivals a ruling power, mostly this does not turn out well. The study I have done, 11 out of the 15 cases in the last five hundred years, the result was war. If you were the statistician, that is the way to bet it. So the normal story is Germany rises a hundred years ago and rivals Britain. Thucydides wrote about this in the Peloponnesian War, which is fifth century B.C.,  which he said in this famous quote, he said, it was the rise of Athens and the fear in Sparta that made the war inevitable. That is a big line: rise, fear, inevitable. By inevitable, he does not really mean absolutely inevitable. He means very likely. So in rise of China, do you see normal behavior of a rising power? It gets bigger, it gets stronger, becomes more assertive, becomes more conscious of offenses to its dignity and respect in the past, demands more say and more sway, is less interested in lecture about how we should reform our system, all of the above. In Sparta, or in U.S., do you see fear? Or in UK: “Oh my god. The Chinese are coming.” Yellow peril words are long time ago, but now people are saying:” wait a minute, China’s military is strong, China’s economy is strong, China’s trade is growing, so a large part this pivot or rebalance is about: Yanks, we are in Iraq, but here is a guy who gets a lot bigger, stronger, and besides, he wants to settle disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea.  So normally that does not turn out very well. If you try to think about the relationship, good thing about Xi Jinping is that he has done thinking about this. What he and Obama did in Sunnylands was to say: OK guys, we recognize that we are dealing with the situation that inherently has a great deal of structural stress. Whoever is the leader of China, whoever is the leader of the U.S., this is just inevitable in the situation, the logic of the situation. Consequently, if we are going to do better than the history in the usual, we got to think of something better. That is the slogan that Xi Jinping brings up on the “new form of great power relations,” which means something that does not end up in Thucydides Trap. So now I think the big challenge is whether we can develop content for this slogan in concrete terms.  If you look at the cases that are successful, let’s say, the U.S. rise against Britain. So U.S. rose, just like China, a hundred years ago. The British had been the arbiters of events in the Western Hemisphere in the sea, in the Caribbean. The Americans thought this is unnatural. So you had some contestation. Overtime, basically, you had an accommodation. But if you look at that case, the adjustment on behalf of who is required to have the bigger adjustment of attitudes and actions, in that case, it was the ruling power. But it is much harder for me, if I am the big guy in the block, to get used to Europeans. But on both parties, it requires huge adjustments in attitudes and actions. So it was not impossible. In the case of British, it was easier, because they had two rising powers that they had to worry about. The Germans, who were very close by, and the Americans are further away. So if we can find the Russians or the Indians to rise up and challenge China. Or we can find the Mexicans or the Brazilians to challenge the U.S. as much as China does. Then that would be easier for China. But I don’t think that will happen.