Harvard professor Joseph Nye just might be the international relations expert who hit the nail on the head. His take on the complex reality of the modern world surpasses that of his predecessors such as Henry Kissinger who, in Martin Indyk’s recently published Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy, seems trapped in post-WWII notions about power structures and balances. I became acquainted with Nye when, as a student in the 1970s, I was enthralled by Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (1977) in which he discussed the potential for peace that can emerge from the duality of the title. In that work, Nye argues that peace does not come from the balance of deterrence but from internal sensitivities surrounding dealings with others in areas that have nothing to do with military power. Many more books would follow, introducing readers to such concepts as “soft power,” i.e., the historic and cultural factors that influence international power relations, and “smart power,” which added science and technology to the mix as a distinct arena for power relations and, simultaneously, one that might make them more peaceful and less inclined to war.
On 2 November, an opinion piece by Nye appeared in the New York Times: “China, a ‘Cold War’ Analogy Is Lazy and Dangerous”. Anyone who has followed Nye for decades will know that his major ideas come in stages. First there will be a short piece in a major newspaper. Then it will be fleshed out in a longer article in a respected periodical such as Foreign Affairs. Afterwards it will be expounded on further in a book that gains it more disciples. Although I did not have the opportunity to attend his classes at Harvard, circumstances would result in me meeting him – in Tokyo, at an international forum on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament following the nuclear test facedown between India and Pakistan in the late 1990s. The forum provided a period of calm and intense focus on ways to ensure the lasting wellbeing of the planet, which he felt was not solely a question of the actions of middle-sized powers.
Of course the world has changed considerably in the two decades since then. What with the Covid-19 pandemic and the universal challenge of climate change, Nye was concerned to see the idea that the US is in a Cold War with China gain currency among politicians in Washington. This, he says, is both a wrong and dangerous framework for explaining Sino-US relations. The situation is totally different from US relations with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union posed direct military and ideological threats that simply do not exist in the case of China. The US is still the world’s foremost military power and, though it is impossible to tell when and if China might become a rival in this domain, for the time being we can not speak in terms of the “mutual nuclear deterrence” that existed in the time of the Cold War with Moscow. Nor does China pose an ideological challenge of the sort that polarised the world during the Cold War. As Nye writes, “The United States and its allies are not threatened by the export of Communism in the same way they were in the days of Stalin or Mao. There is less proselytising; few today take to the streets in favor of ‘Xi Jinping thought.’”
What does exist, according to Nye, is a deep interdependence between the US and China. In 2020, there was over half a trillion dollars in trade between the two. To those voices in Washington that have floated the idea of “decoupling,” Nye responds that “it would be foolish to think we can separate our economy completely from China without enormous costs. And we should not expect other countries to do so either, since China is reportedly now the largest trading partner of more countries than the United States.” Moreover, not only the two countries are bound by millions of social connections, including students and tourists, “it’s physically impossible to decouple ecological issues like pandemics and climate change.”
Interdependence creates what Nye terms networks of sensitivity to what is happening in another country and it simultaneously creates vulnerabilities. The one might encourage the two sides to exercise caution; the other might serve as a tool for them to try to increase their influence over one another. Despite the complexities inherent to interdependence, there is room for conventional thinking about bilateral power relations and their attendant practices such as those followed half a century ago. For example, Washington’s moves to forge closer relations with Japan and India help to maintain the power balance in Asia “on the traditional military chessboard.” However, the US should not continue to ignore the different types of power relations that exist on “transnational boards.” If it does ignore them, Nye warns, it will suffer. The world economy, for example, is truly multipolar. The US and China are not the sole players. Other major players include Japan and the EU. What is more, Nye points out that on such transnational issues as climate change, pandemics or transnational terrorism, no country can solve them on its own. He notes that the US risks letting its relations with Beijing jeopardise climate goals. “China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has warned America not to expect climate negotiations to remain an oasis in a desert of overall relations.” In other words, everything is connected. Handling a problem like climate change needs to be approached from this perspective. Trying to divorce it from other issues will serve no one, including the US.
Nye has worked for the US Defence Department at various times as a secretary of defence, adviser and employee, though not much is known about his contribution to practical policy formation. It is interesting to bear this in mind when we read, for example, his warning about how “China manipulates the system of deep economic and political interdependence to support its authoritarian government and to influence opinion in democracies to counter and pre-empt criticism,” evidence for which can be found in Beijing’s economic punishment of Norway and Australia for criticising China on human rights. However, he says, the US can counter this not by ratcheting up tensions but by trade agreements and exporting US nuclear submarine technology to Australia, as has indeed occurred.
In this context, Nye coins another term for the international relations lexicon. The US and China, he writes, are “locked in a ‘cooperative rivalry’” and this “requires a strategy that can accomplish those two contradictory things — compete and cooperate — at the same time.” To this end, the US should increase support for research and development in order to augment its technological advantages. Militarily, it should restructure traditional forces to incorporate new technologies, and it should strengthen its alliances with traditional partners in Europe and in the Pacific. In terms of trade, the US should work to repair the “gaping hole” it created by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which handed China an unintended gift. The US also needs to rebuild its relations with and develop such international institutions and treaties as the World Health Organisation and the Paris Climate Agreement in order to handle global health and climate concerns better.
On a closing note, Nye dismisses the concerns of pessimists who see China’s population size and economic growth rates as indications that it will prevail. As long as the US treats its allies as assets, “the combined military strength and economic wealth of Western-aligned democracies — the United States, Europe, Japan — will far exceed that of China well into this century.”
It seems to me that this outlook is worth familiarising ourselves with further. It could be useful in this complex, multidimensional world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly