Nye: “Nastiness can be more effective than soft power”
Part X of our series: Joseph Nye regards President Trump’s handling of NATO as forceful. Moreover, the Professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University detects that Trump has adapted to foreign policy traditions more than he expected. In conversation with Atlantik-Brücke Nye points out nevertheless that the alliance is simultaneously affected by isolationist tendencies of the current U.S. government.
Professor Nye, in your book “Is the American Century Over?”, written in 2015, you express the expectation that the United States will still be playing a leading geopolitical role in 2041. Have you changed your position after one year of the Trump presidency?
Certainly, Donald Trump has put some doubts in the back of my mind. It is possible that he could derail these predictions. The Americans will generally still have the capacity to play a leading geopolitical role, but I am not sure if they are going to have the will. In the 1930s Americans drew inward, even though they were the strongest country in the world. This led to a terrible decade.
Is it perhaps too early to say after one year?
Trump has drawn upon a strand of populist nationalism which is common now in all countries in the developed world. It is, however, not dominant. If you look at public opinion polls, the majority of Americans still want overseas involvement including cooperation with other countries. But the strand that Trump has called upon is there. Even if Trump goes away, which I hope he will after four years, Trumpism or populist nationalism will persist. So, there is a certain danger that we face. We have to be careful to not just pin it on Trump’s difficult personality.
Trump has drawn upon a strand of populist nationalism which is common now in all countries in the developed world.Joseph Nye
You invented the term “soft power” describing the ability to attract and persuade. Did the United States become less or more attractive under Trump’s presidency?
The evidence is very clear. I wrote a column for Project Syndicate saying that Trump has definitely reduced American soft power. There is a Gallup poll that shows that American attractiveness has gone down in more than 130 countries. There is a similar poll that was taken by Pew with results that were very much like those of the Gallup poll. Finally, there is an index of the soft power called the Soft Power 30 which is published in London by Portland, the British consultancy. The Americans dropped from first place in the last year of Obama to third place in the first year of Trump. That is not just a political statement or bias. There is evidence to substantiate that view.
What can be done to alter this course?
It is going to be difficult for President Trump because he tends to a bullying and unilateralist style which antagonizes others. If you use a phrase like ‘America first’ all the time, by definition this means that everybody else is second. That is not exactly the way to attract others. With that being said, however, let us note that Trump is able to make changes in his policy. Before he was elected he said NATO was obsolete. After a few months in office he discovered NATO was not obsolete. There are a lot of areas where he has initially challenged the traditions of American foreign policy but has come around to embrace those traditions. If you combine that with a resurgence in the economy, which he expects to get through his fiscal stimulus, and if that does not go off the rails into inflation, Trump can recover some of the American soft power. But he has to change his style to be able to fully recover.
If you use a phrase like ‘America first’ all the time, by definition this means that everybody else is second. That is not exactly the way to attract others.Joseph Nye
Which role will the United States be playing especially within NATO in 20 years’ time?
Probably since the 1950s, since the Suez Crisis, there have been articles and predictions about the death of NATO. That is now obsolete. NATO has proven a far more resilient concept and structure because of two reasons: One is the relatively open organization for democratic societies which enables them to interact with each other, more than just at the top level. The second point is that geopolitically, Russia still is a problem or a puzzle. If Russia remains that sort of a puzzle then NATO will not be obsolete. I am leery of these views that say NATO is finished.
And what will the role of the Unites States within NATO look like?
The United States will continue to seek its interests as it has since 1945 in being closely tied to an open and democratic Europe. That requires NATO and American participation in NATO.
Trump’s “America first” strategy seems to foster American protectionism. Does this affect NATO’s strength and the United States’ long-known aspiration to shape the liberal world order?
It does. The attitude which Trump and some of his close advisors have taken, that a trade surplus is a measure of moral failure, is simply not good economics. The basic view of most regular economists is that your trade surplus and deficit has more to do with your savings and investing rates. As Trump has pressed this issue that trade surpluses are rogue and demanded renegotiation, it does spill over into other aspects of alliances. Look at the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement or at the problems that Trump has had with his visits with Chancellor Merkel. This is a real problem.
Trump urges the Europeans to invest more in their military abilities. Is he right?
Asking the Europeans to do more to contribute to common defense has a long, long history. The 2-percent-target goes back many years. But because of his bluster and style Trump may be more credible than Obama on that.
Does he have more credibility by being more forceful in that matter?
Sometimes nastiness as a hard power is more effective than soft power.
Do you think the United States would ultimately appreciate a stronger European commitment within NATO?
The US has been interested in a stronger European military for some time, well before Donald Trump. There was a period when I was in the Defense Department in the 1990s when there were certain fears that France was trying to lead Europe out of NATO or reduce the American role in the alliance. That is ancient history. The view for a decade and more has been that a stronger Europe inside NATO is better for the United States. That is actually a pretty widely shared view among those people in the United States who pay attention to foreign policy.
What are the main and most urgent strategic challenges for NATO?
The issue of the return of great power politics and the issue of how Russia will behave will require a combination both of deterrence and also a way to think about retaining the democratic processes in Eastern and Central Europe. Both challenges are going to be central to NATO. I don’t expect countries like Poland or Hungary to defect to Russia. That is not plausible. But the quality of democracy in some of these former Visegrád countries has been under challenge from this same type of right-wing populist nationalism which has affected the United States. In addition to having a strong deterrent posture to prevent Russia from using its strength to bully its neighbors and expand, both NATO and the European Union have to think about the internal quality of democracy.
The issue of the return of great power politics and the issue of how Russia will behave will require a combination both of deterrence and also a way to think about retaining the democratic processes in Eastern and Central Europe.Joseph Nye
Are you less optimistic than 20 years ago that there will ever be a world in which Russia does not see NATO, the United States and Europe as competitors or even enemies?
20 years ago, we believed there was a profound change going on in terms of democratization and liberalization of Russia. That has been reversed. Part of it may have been mistakes made by the West. The Bush administration’s efforts to expand NATO membership right to the borders of Russia in Georgia and so forth were not appropriate in terms of reassurance for the Russians. But it is also true that some of the changes that occurred inside Russia have to do with problems in Russian society and economy which were not caused by NATO expansion.
But this serves as a good explanation for Russia blaming NATO for its domestic difficulties …
That is right. If one looks back at Putin’s policies and especially his Munich Security Conference speech in 2007, you can see this kind of blaming. The views that we had in the 1990s, when Yeltsin was in power and we used the NATO-Russia Council as a way to integrate Russia into NATO were overly optimistic. But if you take a long-run view we certainly should be hoping that changes inside Russia will allow a Europe that includes Russia again. But I don’t expect that in the near term, unfortunately.
When Obama was president one could get the impression that the relationship with Russia was not at the top of his agenda. Could that change with Donald Trump?
Ironically, one of the things that Trump got right in foreign policy was to think of ways to try to reduce the tensions with Russia and to improve the relationship. It is not that one has to accept Russian behavior. But it is true that Russia is a great power. We have to do business with them. To sharpen antagonism is not healthy for Russia, for Europe and the United States. In that sense, Trump’s insight might have been better even if his motives were somewhat unclear. Putin and the Russian intelligence overachieved in their efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and they have made rapprochement with Russia so radioactive inside American politics that not even Trump can do anything about it.
Putin and the Russian intelligence overachieved in their efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and they have made rapprochement with Russia so radioactive inside American politics that not even Trump can do anything about it.Joseph Nye
The Munich Security Conference 2018 will focus in particular on the future role of the European Union as a global actor and its relations with Russia as well as the United States. What is your opinion on the EU’s future role?
The EU plays a very important role. I have always thought of the EU as a magnet which should draw others towards an open, rules-based society both domestically and internationally. On the other hand, there is a historical danger of Central Europeans like Germany being drawn too much into the Russian orbit. The effort is to build bridges – but sometimes in the effort to build bridges they may go too far. The key question for Europe is whether it is careful enough not to be played by Putin in order to divide the United States from Europe. It is interesting to me that the sanctions were applied to show that a country cannot steal its neighbor’s territory without paying a price. Those sanctions applied after the annexation of Crimea have maintained an important role and the West is not divided on that so far.
Do you think the sanctions should stay for the near future?
Yes. Until you see changes in Russian behavior. One could imagine steps that might be taken to reduce Russian interference in Luhansk and Donbass for example which could lead to some degree of relaxation of sanctions in a step-by-step process. A total removal of sanctions right now would be a mistake.
There is much more movement within the European Union than in the United States. Some countries are in favor of lifting the sanctions …
Correct. Italy and other countries like the former Visegrád countries would like to see more rapid progress than is healthy. What is interesting to see is that the transatlantic relationship has survived these temptations.
What role will NATO be playing in transatlantic security policy in ten years’ time?
NATO provides a security blanket in the sense of reassurance. Despite of different national interests and different political pressures which tend to pull states in different directions there is an overarching security framework which helps states to avoid rash or desperate types of actions. NATO in that sense is a complement to the EU. But the heart of the future of Europe is obviously to find ways to continue the process that has begun under the rubric of the European Union. That does not mean a federation. The political and public opinion do not back this kind of system right now.
NATO and the EU are complementary, like hard and soft power.Joseph Nye
NATO and the EU are complementary, like hard and soft power. The danger is that the Trump administration disrupts this larger picture. So far – and it is only a little over a year into his presidency – he has adapted more than I expected and has not broken that basic consensus in the Atlantic area. I don’t want to sound like somebody who is a Trump supporter because it is very clear that I am not. But it is important that we keep what he is doing in some degree of perspective. So far he has not broken the basic hard power framework which underlies a smart power policy.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. was interviewed by Juliane Schäuble, head of the politics department at the Berlin daily paper Der Tagesspiegel.
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