Interview with Harvard University Professor and Renowned International Relations Scholar, Joseph Nye

06/12/2015 03:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Joseph Nye is a University Distinguished Professor at Harvard University. He was also the former Dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and an Assistant Secretary of Defense under the Clinton administration. In October 2014, Nye was appointed to Foreign Affairs Policy Board. His latest book, published earlier this year is Is the American Century Over? Nye agreed to sit down for an interview with me on United States and Russian foreign policy, after his speech at the University of Oxford on June 3, 2015. The script of that interview is below.

In your 2013 book on presidential leadership, you categorized modern American presidents as either transformational or transactional presidents. At the time, you mentioned that it was too early to accurately categorize Barack Obama. Two years on, have you been able to determine which presidential leadership model explains Obama's conduct?

Joseph Nye: Barack Obama campaigned with transformational rhetoric in 2008, but when he was encountered with the difficulties that he faced, he became more transactional. So I think he fits as more of a transactional president than a transformational one, but I think that transactional presidents can be as effective, if not more than transformational ones. For example, George W. Bush changed from being domestically focused into a transformational president after the 9/11 attacks with very bad results. His father, George H.W. Bush, was transactional and famously claimed not to have the "vision thing", but was a very successful foreign policy president.

United States foreign policy under the Obama administration has frequently been encapsulated by the phrase "leading from behind." What is your assessment of this approach? Is it a new way of projecting American hegemony or is it a tacit recognition on Obama's part that the international system is transitioning towards multipolarity?

Joseph Nye: The term leading from behind has become a term of mockery but in fact, it should not be. After all, Dwight D Eisenhower, an effective leader, realized that letting others take credit and take the lead is a more effective form of leadership. So if you take for example, America's response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine, the fact that Obama has allowed Merkel to take the lead has been quite effective. Vladimir Putin has been unable to depict the Americans and Europeans as a single entity, which is a propaganda goal that he has. If Obama had been leading from a white horse and charging ahead unilaterally, he likely would have lost the support he needed from Germany and Europe. So if that is an example of leading from behind, it shows that Obama has the quality of Eisenhower-type leadership.

Perhaps the most salient manifestation of Obama's leading from behind approach is America's role in the 2011 intervention in Libya. Do you believe that the Libyan intervention was an exercise of smart power (the appropriate balancing of soft and hard power)?

Joseph Nye: I think the initial intervention in Libya where Obama waited for an Arab League and then a UN resolution before using military force was a good example of smart power. Obama, through the use of multilateralism, was able to effectively frame his intervention in Libya as a responsibility to protect mission, rather than an invasion of another Muslim country. By recognizing the proximity of Libya to the European sphere, he wisely shared the costs of NATO military involvement with the Europeans. I think the failure to follow through and prevent Libya from deteriorating into warring camps was a second phase, where that smart power evaporated and was no longer there. The initial actions combined hard and soft power but there was not much follow through.

America's unwillingness to intervene in Syria against the Assad regime, while removing Gaddafi in Libya, has often been described as a foreign policy contradiction. What is your assessment of the Obama administration's strategy towards Syria?

Joseph Nye: On Syria, I think it is widely believed that Obama should have been more careful about some of his initial statements about red lines. I think he is correct by not trying to solve the problem in Syria with American military means. A military intervention against Assad at this point will likely become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

One of the factors that explains delayed responses to international crises is the deep polarization within the United Nations Security Council between the Western powers and the obstructionist Russia-China bloc. What explains consistent coordination between Russia and China on UN resolutions, and does this cooperation render the UN more ineffectual than during past crises?

Joseph Nye: I think Russia and China have interests to have diplomatic coordination, and we are seeing evidence of this coordination not only in the UN, but also amongst the BRIC group, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Both Russia and China have illiberal governments and problems with the United States. It stands to reach that they will work together to deal with their American problems. There is a big difference between a tactical alliance of convenience and a real alliance that coordinates military strategy. It does not make the UN more ineffective than in the past, as obstructionism has existed for a long time, and frequently displayed itself during the Cold War.

The Obama administration has increased emphasis on US coordination with the United Nations compared to the Bush era. How would you define the scope of the United Nations' role in contemporary world affairs?

Joseph Nye: I think the United Nations does play a useful role. It is a political organization that has legitimacy at a global level. The UN still plays an essential role in peacekeeping operations and so forth. China is the biggest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which has been an important avenue of cooperation. But there are limits to what the UN can do; it is not irrelevant, but it should not be regarded as a kind of world government. We should not have illusions about it; it is just one of many institutions that can manage inter-state foreign policy.

You were Assistant Secretary of Defense under the Clinton administration. During the 1990s, there was considerable optimism that Russia would emerge as a strategic partner or at the very least a country not on hostile terms with the West. Why do you think that has failed to occur and do you think that Clinton-era policymakers could have employed an alternative strategy to engage Russia more effectively?

Joseph Nye: I do not think the United States ever had the capacity to bring Russia into its camp. I think the evolution of post-1991 Russian foreign policy, was driven primarily by internal forces within Russia. Some have said that a Marshall Plan for Russia in the 1990s would have created a different outcome, but I do not think that Russia had the absorptive capacity for a Marshall Plan in the early transition-era. There were some modifications in policy could have impacted Russian foreign policy on the margins, but I do not think that we could have prevented the current hostile atmosphere from forming.

You wrote an article on Putin's Strategic calculus in the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea. What do you think were the underlying motivations behind Russia's military intervention in Ukraine; and what explains the 2014 timing?

Joseph Nye: I think Russia's response was precipitated by the fear that the disturbances in Maidan might spread to Moscow. And I think that Putin was very determined to prevent that from happening, and to avoid a repeat of the 2012 protests in Russia. Putin's domestic approval rating rose dramatically, after the initial involvement in Ukraine, and this has made it extremely difficult for anti-Putin forces to undermine or topple the regime. There are a lot of other reasons that have been given, such as NATO expansion and so forth, but they happened much earlier and he did not intervene in Ukraine earlier.

Do you believe that the European Union sanctions policy in response to the intervention in Ukraine has been effective in deterring further Russian aggression?

Joseph Nye: I think that the sanctions against Russia were important because they highlighted the West's commitment to upholding the 1945 norms. Unless there is a price, norms often are subverted. The fact that Russia has paid a price is important. I do not think that the sanctions will cause Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine, but they have shown Russia that stealing your neighbors' territory by force is unacceptable.

Russia in recent years has been attempting to synthesize hard military power with the projection of its own brand of soft power. Putin has frequently pointed out Russia's ability to rectify Western double standards and hypocrisies in his rhetoric. How effective do you think Russia has been in projecting a distinct normative identity abroad?

Joseph Nye: Russia has been placing a lot of emphasis on its propaganda and in trying to develop an authoritarian ideology. The period coinciding with the Sochi Olympics led to a temporary elite-level focus on soft power. The credibility of Putin's commitment to soft power expansion was damaged severely by the intervention in Ukraine, when Putin cited the 1999 Kosovo intervention as proof of Western double standards. Propaganda has had an effect on places like Belarus but I do not think that it has real credibility in Europe or America. The notion of a community of authoritarians has frequently been mentioned, but I do not think there is a coherent Russian national ideology that is transferrable globally.

A significant strategic threat to the United States exists in the realm of cyber-security, which is an issue you have recently written about. Do you agree with the notion that China is the biggest cyber-security threat to the United States?

Joseph Nye: I think China is one of several countries that pose significant cyber-security threats to the United States; Russia and Iran also come to mind. I think that America and China have a long way to go in building cooperation on the issue of cyber-security. American concerns about intellectual property law violations by China, and the Chinese response to the Edward Snowden revelations severely hindered cooperation prospects, despite the prior creation of a US-China cyber-security working group.

Finally, you have written extensively about the threat posed by nuclear proliferation. During the Clinton administration, aid provisions failed to thwart North Korea's eventual development of nuclear weapons. Do you think that the Iran nuclear deal can be effectively upheld, or do you think that Iran is likely to violate the terms of the deal like North Korea did and develop nuclear weapons?

Joseph Nye: The success of the Iran nuclear deal depends a great deal on the nature of the framework used to implement it. I support the idea of Iran needing to provide a year's warning, before building a potentially functional nuclear weapon, in the event of a deal violation. If we can achieve that, it would be optimal as alternative approaches to deal with Iran are much worse. It depends on what terms we are able to negotiate. I hope that the deal concluded with Iran will be more tightly written than the one with North Korea, though it is important to emphasize that the successful North Korean nuclear tests occurred years after the deal under the Bush administration.