Discourse on Power

JOSEPH S. NYE – As leaders increasingly understand the character of power in international politics, the better their policy will become.

The importance of building a consensus has become very important when considering international political or military action. During the Cold War the US and its allies were faced with a single existential threat, the USSR, which perhaps made agreement much easier to achieve. What factors contribute to the US’ ability to achieve consensus today? 

It is important to remember a few things. First, there was not always consensus during the Cold War, even among the allies; France withdrew from the operational aspects of NATO in the 1960s. One must be careful to not exaggerate the fact that in a bipolar world everything was completely agreed upon.

Second, whether or not a consensus can be reached depends significantly on the context of the conditions. In 2003, George W. Bush was unable to reach such an agreement about the invasion of Iraq, but a decade earlier his father was able to get a fairly broad consensus to invade the country. The difference was, partly, the circumstances in which the United Nations and the United States were operating at these different times, and partly the nature of the cause. In the Gulf War, there was a clear case of aggression; in 2003, it looked much more dubious as to what the facts were and how they had been interpreted.

Yes, it is important to get a consensus, but these kind of agreements are not simply functions of bipolarity of multipolarity, but rather with the merits of the given case. Specifying the context in detail, and not just the polarities, is critical.

What is the importance and role of domestic consensus towards maintaining national power on the international stage?

A President is more likely to be successful when he has the country’s support behind him. On the other hand, there are times when a president can go ahead without consensus. But in those cases, he is unlikely to receive more resources to support his actions. It is very hard to build this consensus. There are studies by George Edwards and others that suggest Presidential rhetoric is often less effective than people expect; often, this ability depends more on events and how those events are interpreted.

How can we quantify power on the international stage?

I discuss this issue in length in the first chapter of The Future of Power. Essentially, the distribution of power is dependent on resources, the things that make or produce the desired power-behavior, or rather, the achieving of the desired outcome. The three major power resources are likely to be military, economic, and soft power. Each of those has limits, but it is possible to gain a first approximation of the power resources a country might possess; whether these will prove effective or not depends on the context. For example, if a country has 10,000 tanks and a second country has 1,000 tanks, it might be tempting to conclude that the first country is ten times stronger. But if the battle is in a swamp, as it was in Vietnam, rather than a desert as in Iraq, the outcomes may not be what the resources predict.

Turning to the Middle East, can the US exert its own power to shape and assist burgeoning democracies find their feet — can power be used to build nations just as effectively as it can be used to topple them?

When considering “power,” one must always consider the complementary question of “power to do what?” It is often much easier to break something than it is to build something. Nation-building is not a great term, but has proven to be an extraordinarily complex set of behaviors rather than a single one. So the same power that the United States had, for example, to overthrown Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks during the 2003 military campaign proved inadequate when it came to nation-building.

One must distinguish between discussions about nation-building and state-building. Very often people confuse these two terms, which are in reality quite different. A nation is usually defined as a large group of people who share a common identity or who have a common identity. State building refers to the institutions — police force, bureaucracy, the military, and other key offices — that are crucial to a functioning society. It is very often hard to “nation-build,” to get a group of people together to be a part of a single entity, if they do not like each other, such as the Sunni and Shia after the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Part of the United State’s inability to create a stable government in Iraq is due to a confusion of these terms and their inherent goals. When there are deep suspicions and divisions along ethnic lines, people are simply less willing to cooperate, and less willing to agree on the institutions under which they will live. After the last elections in Iraq, for example, it became very difficult to reach an agreement among Sunni and Shia about the outcome of how to run an Iraqi state.

Considering a country like Syria — where the government seems able to wield great amounts of power yet at the same time seems to be losing its grasp — can we say that large amounts of power can act as a double-edged sword, that is, can too much power be damaging?

It might be possible to say that it would be damaging to have too much of one kind of power and not enough of other kinds, but it seems folly to say that too much power in general can be damaging. In Syria, Assad has a fair amount of military and police power, but he does not have much soft power except among the fifteen percent of Alawites and Christians.

You coined the term, “soft power.” How could the Syrian government best find a balance between soft and hard power at this stage?

I do not think Assad can find such a balance now. Soft power is the ability to affect others to achieve a desired outcome through attraction and persuasion. Assad has basically alienated a large portion of the Sunni population. Although he might have some ability to exert soft power among his own clique, he has lost that ability with regards to the majority of the population.

Debates about the possible decline of American power have been quite pronounced in recent years. How can analysts assess these claims, given the multifaceted nature of power?

The Americans go through cycles of belief in the decline of their country’s power every ten years or so. I have been writing about the fact that American power is not declining since I published Bound to Lead in 1990, and again last year in The Future of Power.

Is power a universal concept, that is, can American “power” be examined through historical lenses?

History can give some clues, but there are no perfect historical metaphors. Context changes, and power depends on context. One might draw suggestions from history, but not perfect comparisons.

Some analysts have pointed out that there seems to be a difference between constructed realities and true situations in international politics. Is the idea of a paradise of power valid, that is, does international-political might prevent leaders from understanding reality?

There is a danger of not having an accurate perception of reality. Whether that danger is created by an abundance or lack of power is a different question. In the Vietnam period, Fulbright said the same thing about the conflict in Vietnam when he described the “arrogance of power.” Americans had so much power of a certain type that they thought they could do certain things in Vietnam, that in reality they could not do. That idea might be applied to the modern Middle East.


JOSEPH S. NYE is the University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science, and Technology. His many publications include Bound to Lead (Basic Books, 1991) and The Future of Power (PublicAffairs; 1 edition, 2011). In 2011, he was named to Foreign Policy Magazine’s list of the top 100 most influential global thinkers.

2 thoughts on “Discourse on Power

  1. I’d just like to say that, in a matter of 5 minutes, this interview has changed how I consider and analyze History. I’ve written the word “power” on countless History exams and papers, but I’m not sure if I ever understood (or even thought to reflect on) the term. Thank you, Professor Nye, and thank you Post-War Watch, for this interview!

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