How I Got Here: Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

A conversation with
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Mar 14, 2021

Mar 14, 2021 • by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

  • Chair, U.S. National Intelligence Council

  • U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs

  • Dean, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

I grew up on a farm. I love the outdoors, and at first, I wanted to be a forest ranger. Then I briefly thought I might want to be a minister. Then I thought I would follow my father into business. He was on Wall Street. As a senior at Princeton I bumped into an old English professor of mine, E. D. H. Johnson, in the library one day. He said, “Nye, what are you doing next year?” I said, “I’m joining the Marine Platoon Leaders Corps.” And he said, “Oh, you can’t do that. You’ve got to apply for a Rhodes.” I thought, “I might as well try.” I applied and got it, and then spent two years in Oxford. 

That all sounds very straightforward. Were you nervous about it? Was it as big a deal then as it is now?

Oh, it’s a big deal, and you have to take it seriously. But you also know that it’s a lottery. You have to hit the right state, the right competitors, the right year, and so forth. I had a classmate who came up my year and didn’t make it. The next year, he did.

What was your major in college? 

I majored in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which combined history and economics and politics, and that’s basically what I’ve done ever since.

What did you study at Oxford? 

Philosophy, politics, and economics, a continuation of the same multidisciplinary approach. Back then, philosophy was a mandatory course, and unexpectedly, it turned out to be the part I liked best. The rigor of Oxford’s analytical philosophy in and around 1960 really sharpened my thinking and has stayed with me longer than the rest. After my second year, I started thinking about a career and was leaning toward going into the Foreign Service. But there was another almost detour when I thought I wanted to be a novelist. I started writing a novel, and it was pretty awful. When I showed it to friends who were specialists, they said, “You’ve got a lot to learn.” 

You published a novel later on. Was it the same one?

No, no, very different. That was in 2004. I had spent a good deal of time going to summer courses on how to write fiction. It’s totally different from the prose that I’m used to writing. With social science, you try to get as wide an angle as you can. With fiction, you zoom in, trying to find a particular detail that can illuminate something broader. Instead of looking at a meadow, you look at a dewdrop on a blade of grass in the early morning. I think the novel turned out pretty well. It was called The Power Game. But it definitely scratched an itch from years earlier. 

So instead of becoming a novelist, you decided to become a political scientist? 

I came back to Harvard to do a Ph.D. in government, because I thought I would go into the Foreign Service. I figured if that didn’t work out, at least I would have a Ph.D. to fall back on. The academic credential was more of an insurance policy. 

At that point, many African countries were becoming independent, and I would stay up and talk long into the night about African democracy with a good friend, a Ghanaian in my college at Oxford. I decided to use graduate school as a way to explore Africa and got a grant from the Ford Foundation to pay for it. One of my professors, Edward Mason, had come back from a World Bank mission to Uganda. He said, “As an economist, I don’t know whether I should be telling them to plan for a market of eight million [Uganda alone] or 30 million [the East African Common Market]. Some political scientist will have to answer that one.” I said, “Bingo, there’s my thesis.” And that’s what I did. I went to Africa. I saw two countries become independent, Uganda and Kenya, got to interview leaders like Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote and others, and wrote a book called Pan-Africanism and East African Integration, which said it wasn’t going to work. Sadly for them, happily for me, I was right.

Did your hopes and predictions for the newly decolonized states you were studying pan out? 

No, I was too optimistic. I think there’s nothing wrong with a bit of optimism as long as you let reality creep in. Having strongly supported the new pan-African leaders, I watched as they trampled on civil liberties, both for Africans and for the Europeans who had stayed on trying to help the countries. A sympathetic French observer [René Dumont] wrote a book called L’Afrique noire est mal partie—Africa Is Off to a Bad Start. That was how I felt, and I didn’t want to stay in African studies. I didn’t want to hammer these elites, but I wasn’t going to become their toady, either.

That first book of mine was on the structural factors that make it hard for developing countries to create common markets. I discovered there was a common market in Central America that was actually working quite well and decided to study why. So when I came back from Africa to Harvard as an assistant professor, I learned Spanish, applied for a grant, and soon went off to live in Central America, doing a study of the Central American Common Market. From there, I went on to look at the European Common Market and did a book on regional integration in general. Back then, people thought this was the future. Europe has done moderately well—or at least much better than it did before, although not quite up to what people like [the political scientist] Ernie [Ernst] Haas hoped.

I followed a thread of curiosity across regions, trying to explain a common puzzle. From there, I got interested in the politics of trade. I got asked to join a group that looked at trade in the nuclear industry and how it affected proliferation. And that led me to nonproliferation, which I handled in the Carter administration.

So you went from studying cooperation in economic integration to studying cooperation on nonproliferation?

In the mid-’70s, I was asked to join a group that the Ford Foundation set up with the MITRE Corporation, which produced the Ford-MITRE report, which became the basis for Jimmy Carter’s nonproliferation policy. I see a clear thread from Africa to work I’ve done on nuclear weapons: How do politics and economics and ideas interact as you try to explain anomalies or puzzles? When students ask what they should study, I say, “Follow your curiosity. If you have an interesting puzzle, try to answer it.”

How did you go from academia to government? 

I had originally wanted to go into the Foreign Service. I enjoyed teaching and writing but still had an interest in the action of foreign policy. I had gotten to know Cyrus Vance through meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ditchley, and other such places. A number of people from the Ford-MITRE commission went into the Carter administration. I was on the transition team for [the] State [Department], and when Vance was named secretary, he asked whether I would work with him on nonproliferation, and so I did.

What was government like? 

It was fascinating. And I actually did some good. I think we prevented a couple of countries from going nuclear.

Which ones? 

Brazil and Argentina. Brazil had made a deal with Germany for an enrichment plant, which, I was told by the head of the [National] Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina, was forcing Buenos Aires to follow suit. By stopping that deal, we were able, with other pressures, to turn off the Argentine program. And I think that nipped a nuclear arms race early. We also put pressure on South Korea and Taiwan not to develop nuclear weapons. And we were able to get the French to cancel a deal to sell a reprocessing plant to Pakistan (though our success there was undone in the Reagan period when the administration cared more about getting Pakistan’s help against the Soviets in Afghanistan than in stopping its proliferation). All very interesting, sometimes tense experiences.

The novel that I wrote much later grew out of something Cy Vance told as I was leaving. He said, “I want you to write me a personal note, on personal stationary, no classification. Should we or should we not use force to stop Pakistan’s nuclear program?” I wrote the note, saying probably not, because there were too many moving parts and too many unforeseeable consequences to the attempt. But I kept wondering, “What if I had answered that the other way?” And I decided to explore the other path through fiction. So the novel is about what happens when the CIA discovers Pakistan is about to deliver nuclear weapons to Iran and decides to destroy them beforehand. 

The Carter administration was famously torn between Brzezinski and Vance factions.

Yes. Bureaucratically, it was quite tough. I had good personal relations with Zbig [Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser], but I worked for and was loyal to Cy. A couple of times, I remember asking Vance if I could challenge what I felt was a wrong decision made by the White House on my issues. He demurred, because he had other things on his plate with the president and didn’t want to spend his political capital. I said, “Would you mind if I talked to Zbig?” And he said, “Nope, go ahead.” So I went to Zbig and said, “If we do it this way, the president is going to fall on his face.” And Zbig, to his credit, went in and said that, and he got Carter to reverse himself.

Did you approach academia differently after your stint in government? 

Yes. I had been running around the world telling these countries they shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, and they’d say, “But you have them.” I kept thinking, “Is there an ethical basis for this?” When you’re in government, you don’t have time to think about that. So I promised myself: “When I get back to Harvard, I’m going to teach a seminar on ethics and nuclear weapons”—which I did, and eventually published a book called Nuclear Ethics, trying to think through that puzzle. 

I also realized that the kinds of papers my colleagues in the Government Department had been sending me were totally useless. After 14 hours of work and processing all the intelligence and cables, I was not going to read a 40-page academic paper on Pakistan’s nuclear program. So I decided to teach a course in the Kennedy School on how to communicate effectively in government, based on short, action-oriented memos. And I kept giving my lectures to undergraduates on international relations, going from the Greeks through the twentieth century. Six hundred students in Sanders Theatre. That was fun. 

The Kennedy School and the Government Department at Harvard have been somewhat at odds historically, and you’ve been one of the few people to go back and forth.

That’s right. I always had good relations on both sides. My tenure was in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and I only really switched over full-time to the Kennedy School when I became dean, which wasn’t until I came back from the Clinton administration in the ’90s. But I taught there and so had a foot in both worlds. The Kennedy School is able to deal with interdisciplinary issues better than the Government Department can. The most important questions are often at the peripheries of disciplines or in the seams between fields. That’s where my regional integration work was. It was not in the mainstream of the field. But the importance of transnational relations increased and economics became central after the oil crisis. That was when Bob Keohane and I wrote Power and Interdependence, stressing that you had to think of power as not just military power but the ability to manipulate interdependence. It was basically because I didn’t start in the middle of the field—I came at issues of power from a different angle, and that let me see things others hadn’t.

Tell me about the Nye/Keohane partnership.

Everybody says, “You must have become friends in graduate school.” Actually, we didn’t even know each other there. That’s how warm and fuzzy Harvard graduate student life was. In ’67 or ’68, we were both asked to join the board of the journal International Organization, which wanted to update itself. We went to a meeting and said, “All these studies of UN voting and exegeses of the UN Charter are not very interesting. We should think of our title with a lowercase i and o and look at the transnational relations that are going on.” The other board members challenged us to do a special issue on it, which came out in 1971 as “Transnational Relations and World Politics.” And that’s when Bob and I started our intellectual collaboration. 

With computers, working together on a paper is not difficult. But in those days, “cut and paste” wasn’t done with the click of a button. It meant taking a pair of scissors and slicing up yellow pages with longhand or typing on them, then using Scotch tape to put them where you wanted. We would snail-mail these batches of pages back and forth across the continent (he was at Stanford then; I was at Harvard), occasionally getting together in person. It worked because neither of us wore our egos on our sleeves. Sometimes he’d destroy some words that I thought were just fine, and then I’d step back, and I’d say, “Well, you know, maybe they weren’t quite as well formed as they should be.” And he was the same. So we not only were able to work together effectively but also became good friends, which we are to this day.

You spent a lot of time on the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and then they both disappeared. Did you call that? 

No, I certainly did not. I don’t know many people who did. In the 1980s, I ran something called the Avoiding Nuclear War Project with Graham Allison and Al Carnesale at the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School. We did a series of books, including Hawks, Doves, and Owls. Another was Fateful Visions, which contained different scenarios of how things might turn out, including the Soviet Union decaying or standing down. But it’s not as though we said, “This is what’s going to happen.” That was the closest I came.

You’re a distinguished, big-shot professional in midcareer, teaching all of this stuff at Harvard, and then the world suddenly flips upside down. How do you keep pronouncing authoritatively on the future? Where does the self-confidence to do that come from? 

It’s not self-confidence; it’s curiosity. If I knew the answers, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. It’s the effort that’s fun. How should we think about the future? After the Berlin Wall came down, there were various views of what the future would be like. Sam Huntington had his “clash of civilizations.” Sam was a close friend, but I told him I didn’t think he got it right. It was the narcissism of small differences, not the clash of Toynbee-like civilizations. Frank Fukuyama had his “end of History,” and I disagreed with that, too. I thought the world was going to become more complex and that the work that I had done on different levels of international politics was a better fit. Paul Kennedy, meanwhile, said that the United States was going the way of Philip II’s Spain, and I didn’t see that, either. So I started to write a book, which became Bound to Lead, arguing that Americans had more capacity in this odd new world than the declinists thought. 

That’s when I developed the concept of soft power. After I totaled up American economic power and military power, it was clear there was something else, something nonmaterial, going on that wasn’t being caught by traditional measures. That was the ability to attract others. Several years later, Hu Jintao told the 17th Party Congress that China had to invest more in soft power. Sitting at the kitchen table trying to figure out what factors might shape the post−Cold War world, I would never have dreamt that the president of China would pick up the idea and spend billions of dollars on it.

You went back into government during the Clinton administration. 

Right. Les Aspin was appointed secretary of defense, and he asked me to come work with him. I liked Les a lot, but I didn’t like the way he was organizing the department. Meanwhile, Jim Woolsey [director of the CIA] asked me to head the National Intelligence Council. I thought I’d have more freedom there. 

What does the National Intelligence Council do? 

The National Intelligence Council does estimative intelligence. Current intelligence is about immediate events: “Here’s what [Slobodan] Milosevic [the president of Serbia] said yesterday.” Estimative intelligence says, “Here are the bases of Milosevic’s power and why it’s likely to diminish.” You create scenarios of the future and try to estimate their probabilities. And then, after you’ve coordinated the views from 16 different intelligence agencies, you say why it might all be wrong. The analysts hated that last part. They’d say, “We work so hard on this!” I’d say, “Yes, but you can always be wrong. The policymaker needs to be aware of why things could go wrong. That will expose your assumptions and give them more information to consider in deciding just how much they want to bet on this.” Estimative intelligence and the NIC were great fun. I really enjoyed it.

How did seeing all the fruits of American intelligence change your view of the world? 

You have illusions of omniscience, but you quickly realize there’s just an awful lot missing, a lot you don’t know. I remember reading a set of intelligence reports about how [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin was about to collapse, just before I went on a trip to Russia with Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. I sat at a table with Yeltsin in the Kremlin, eight of us total. He was clearheaded, taking notes. Yes, he did have problems with alcohol, and he did collapse a few years later. But it gave me an appreciation that reading intelligence is not quite the same as being there and seeing for yourself.

Did knowing secrets make you discount the views of people who did not have clearances? 

Not necessarily. The clearances were important, but if you focus just on secret material, you miss the broader context. I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs about this, based on my experiences at the NIC. I said that in the post−Cold War world, it was less important to know how many warheads were on a particular missile than to know who controls the missiles and what social forces control them. Secret intelligence can provide crucial pieces of the puzzle, but to assemble them, it helps to see the picture on the cover of the box, which you get from open-source intelligence and the academy and journalism.

From the NIC, you went to the Department of Defense. 

Before going into the Clinton administration, I had chaired a study group at Harvard on what to do about Japan. It’s hard to remember, but at that time, Japan was seen as a rising superpower. There were books about the coming war with Japan, exaggerated economic fears. In the Harvard study group, which I worked on with Ezra Vogel, and an Aspen Strategy Group one I was co-chairing with Bill Perry, I decided our approach to East Asia was wrong.

We were too focused on the economic threat from Japan and not paying enough attention to the rise of China. That rise was creating a regional system of three powers—the United States, China, and Japan—and we wanted to be part of the two. As head of the NIC, I could go to meetings in the Situation Room and tell people facts, but I couldn’t make policy recommendations. People would say, “How can we punish Japan?” And I’d say, “Wait a minute—you’ve got a larger question. What relationship do we want between Japan and China?” When Bill Perry replaced Les Aspin as secretary of defense, he asked me to come over there and develop a strategy for Asia. So I traded omniscience for a little bit of potency. 

And we were able to transform American policy toward Japan and East Asia. I don’t think people in the U.S. were aware of it, but the Japanese called it “the Nye Initiative,” which was fun. In 1996, [President Bill] Clinton and [Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro] Hashimoto signed a declaration saying that the U.S.-Japan alliance was the basis for security in East Asia after the Cold War. It was a 180-degree turn in our policy. The logic was that getting the balance of power right by reaffirming the U.S. Japan alliance would give us an insurance policy, allowing us to afford to try opening up to China. We called the policy “engage but hedge” and put the hedge in place first. 

After that, you come back to Harvard yet again. Are you getting bored with teaching at this point? 

I actually resigned my tenure at the end of 1994. The school allows you two years of leave, and my time was up. But I wanted to finish the work I was doing on Japan. Then the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 showed how many citizens thought government was evil and worthless. It was disillusioning, because the people I worked around were dedicated, hard-working professionals. So when Harvard offered me the deanship of the Kennedy School a couple of weeks later, I decided to take it, because I could explore the role of government in the world. I told them I would take it if we could keep the appointment quiet until the Japan negotiations were done.

What was being dean of the Kennedy School like? 

It was interesting. The school was by nature interdisciplinary, including faculty from about 20 different disciplines. It was a place where you could try to deal with real issues. We had to walk a tightrope, neither being yet another graduate school for economics and politics nor being yet another business school. I wanted to make sure we had a mission, which I saw as combining the best academic virtues with preparation for public service as well as private careers. I also wanted to increase the role of women and develop new centers in areas such as human rights. Perhaps the most intriguing project was called “Visions of Governance for the 21st Century.” Elaine Kamarck directed that. We created a faculty study group and produced a lot of good work on what was happening around the world, including a book I edited with Phil Zelikow and David King called Why People Don’t Trust Government.

How does all this come from studying the East African Common Market? To me, the continuous thread is following your curiosity. I find that one puzzle leads to another. Other people look and say, “He’s all over the lot.”

The Ivy League is much more diverse now than it was when you entered it. Did you realize back then how non-diverse American elites were? 

I was aware. There were two African Americans in the class ahead of me at Princeton, but none in my class. I enjoyed Princeton; it was a great teaching institution. You had first-rate professors giving you precepts. Paul Bohannan, a leading Africanist, taught anthropology as a required sophomore course. But the social system was awful, and it was clear that it wasn’t going to change. It was a different world. No women, very few minorities. I hoped to be a part of changing that.

Has there been intellectual cumulation and progress in political science since you entered the field? 

We understand some problems better than others. Unfortunately, it amounts to less than half of the major problems of the day. Take the field of international relations. When I was in graduate school, the mainstream approach was a very simplistic realist model—the Melian dialogue. It never occurred to people that ethical dimensions were just being ignored. As [the political theorist] Michael Walzer has said, “Thinking about ethics and international relations at that time was just outside the bounds of the discipline.” The field was quite narrow. Today, with the rise of neoliberalism and constructivism, people realize the importance of institutions and culture, so we’re better off than when I started. In general, however, as political science has become deeper, it has also become narrower and more dogmatic. It’s so removed from practical questions that it’s a lot harder now than it used to be to think about policy and academia simultaneously, to blend both in a career.

Were you surprised by the backlash against globalism and the rise of populism and nationalism? 

That’s part of the half we don’t understand. I don’t think we were very good at capturing the rise of populism. And we haven’t done a good job of understanding the interrelations between domestic and international politics.

You’ve served in many organizations, including Harvard and government departments. Any thoughts on how to maneuver and survive in them? 

The most interesting thing to realize was how different academic life is from government because of time. If you have to get a memo to the secretary of state for a 4:00 PM meeting with the French ambassador, you can’t read it over at 2:00 PM and say, “This isn’t quite right. I’m going to keep working until it’s better.” If you turn it in at 4:15 PM, it’s an F, no matter how good the final product is—whereas in academia, you might take an incomplete and polish and polish, and eventually, the professor might say, “It’s late, but it’s brilliant.” 

If government puts a premium on time, academia puts a premium on truth. You try to say what you actually think about problems and their solutions. In government, you need to be careful about politics and bureaucracy. You say to yourself, “If I frame my position this way, these people will oppose it. By framing it differently, I can muster a coalition that will get the idea promoted.” You should never write an academic paper that way. But unless you write your bureaucratic memos like that, your ideas aren’t going to have any effect inside the system. The key to government service is making sure you keep your sense of integrity as you make the necessary accommodations to time and power. You have to understand the compromises you’re making, so that you can grapple properly with questions about resignation.

Academia and government are very different. The question is, can you cope? When I first went to Washington, in the Carter administration, it was the proverbial kid being thrown into the pool and told to swim. A couple of times, I thought I was drowning. Everybody else knew more than I did; they’d been there, had read all the files, etc. And my instincts weren’t always right. If I got a lousy memo from my staff, I’d try to rewrite it. I quickly realized that in order to get things done, I had to learn how to encourage, tutor, mentor, and delegate.

Did you ever consider resigning on principle? 

Several times. At one point, the Carter administration was going to take a position on reprocessing that was the opposite of what I thought we should be doing. I said to myself, “If they do this, I’m going to have to resign. I can’t implement this policy, because I’m on record saying it’s wrong.” Luckily, I didn’t have to. There are other cases where you tell yourself, “If I resign over every little thing, I’ll have no power at all.” Figuring out the line is hard.

How has the conduct of American foreign policy changed over the course of your career? 

In the early postwar period, it was run by a relatively narrow elite, recruited largely from New York financial and legal circles. Harry Truman was a farmer from Missouri who became a senator and then an accidental president, but the people around him were the heart of the WASP establishment. When I first began coming to the Council [on Foreign Relations], in the early ’70s, it still had the atmosphere of a tight-knit men’s club. Diversity has been good, but with it has come an increasing difficulty of reaching any sort of consensus.

As a pillar of that establishment yourself, have you consciously tried to play a role bridging the old guard and rising cohorts?

Very much so. I’ve always tried to open things up, whether at the council, or the Trilateral Commission, or the Kennedy School, or the Aspen Strategy Group.

You have this amazing equanimity, a calm reasonableness throughout all circumstances and situations. Where does that come from? 

That’s a good question. It must be from my mother. She got through one year of Smith College before she had to drop out with the Depression and was always very stoic. It’s an innate temperament. But some of my assistants might say, “We can tell when you’re angry: you get quiet instead of screaming and yelling.”

What are you proudest of in your career? 

It sounds corny, but I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve had a warm, loving relationship with the same woman for 60 years; and surrounding that, children and grandchildren; and surrounding that, interesting friends; and surrounding that, a really large number of students. Then would be the things that I’ve written, and then the things that I’ve done in government. In the Carter period, I changed nonproliferation policy for the better, and in the Clinton period, I changed Asia policy for the better.

What are your greatest regrets? 

I suppose my regret is that I didn’t get to have more power, in order to be able to change American policy more than I did. I was mentioned as a possible national security adviser had [Michael] Dukakis won [the 1988 presidential election], and that would have been a great opportunity. On the other hand, as it turned out, George H. W. Bush was an excellent president. So although I regretted his victory at the time, I didn’t regret it later.

What advice do you have for those starting out? 

Follow your curiosity, find puzzles and think of solutions, be helpful and try to make the world better, and help others to do the same. If you do that, you’re not going to be bored, you may leave a little good behind you, and you will feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Don’t worry too much about whether you have it all planned out. If you’re following your curiosity and keeping your mind open to new things and new events, you can roll with the punches.

This interview has been edited and condensed.