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28th March 2007 India Bourke

Joseph Nye and the Future of American Power

The talk given by the eminent American political theorist Joseph Nye was arguably an embodiment of everything one expects from the concept of “university” both in terms of scholarship and stretch of discourse. A past Rhodes scholar at Exeter College Nye’s personal history and his approach to politics impressed on the audience the need to think in terms of a global community. His eloquence, clarity of thought and sense of humour were enough to make you believe that the idealism of the West Wing might just be a reality.

Contemporaries have posed the question of whether Iraq will have the same significance for America as the Boer war did for the British Empire in terms of a tipping point of power. Nye complicates this premise by attacking the concept of power and identifying three different dimensions to the “chess-game” of international relations. In terms of military power he argues that the world is uni-polar since no other nation can realistically compete with America. However, in terms of economic power and the third form of “soft” power the board is wide open. “Soft” power is an intriguing term, coined by Nye, which denotes the fundamental attractiveness of a nation and is something that neoconservatives among the American administration admit not to understand. This lack of appreciation is reflected in the US’s declining ability to wield “soft” power. A situation influenced by the disastrous after-math of the Iraq war. Nye cited a BBC poll which revealed that in 2006 36% of people in eighteen countries polled, believed the US had a positive influence on the world yet in a year this has dropped to just 29%. However, instead of nihilistically pointing to the many ways that history seems to be repeating itself, Nye uses history to suggest that there is hope that America can recover its lost credence. He points to the unpopularity of the American government after Vietnam but then also to the remarkable recovery that was made in the succeeding decades. A repeat performance is however, conditional on a change of direction in government policy.

Nye refuses to see the rise of fundamentalism as an apocalyptic clash of civilisations. Instead he delves below the rhetoric to stress the internal divisions that exist within the Islamic community between moderates and extremists. He also warned against cultural blindness and stressed the need to appreciate the complexity of any political choice. For example he articulated the possibility that Sadam Hussein’s reluctance to allow free access to weapons inspectors may have been a defence mechanism against ambitious neighbouring powers since it left Iraq’s ambiguous nuclear status as a powerful deterent.

Nye brought a wonderfully light touch to the immensely complex and some may say gloomy state of international affairs. By constantly referring to historical precedent he made a powerful argument against historical determinism. And by pointing out the essentially surprising and unpredictable nature of history he promoted a feeling of great hope and belief in the possibility of wielding power to change even the apparently inevitable.

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