Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor and former Dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. 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 latest book, Is the American Century Over?, is now available in paperback. On Monday, April 27, Professor Nye helped host Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan during a forum held at Harvard.
With Prime Minister Abe having recently been in Washington, with the US and Japan announcing new “guidelines” for the bilateral defense relationship, we turned to Nye to discuss Japan policy, the US “rebalance” toward Asia, and a range of other foreign policy issues. Starting in 1994, while serving as a senior Pentagon official, Nye led an initiative to upgrade the US-Japan defense relationship, culminating in the 1997 bilateral guidelines forged in large part to ensure a smooth US-Japan reaction to any potential crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The new guidelines announced last week are the first since those of 1997.
Professor Nye was an advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and remains an influential foreign policy voice within the Democratic Party.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You argue in your new book that the US will remain the world’s main power for quite some time, but that the diffusion of power will make the US relatively less-able to control others.
NYE: Yes. Entropy may prove a greater challenge to the American role than China. This means there will be times when the US will actually have to work with China to get things done. For example, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is not the kind of thing we should oppose. We should be encouraged that China will pick up some of the role of providing global public goods. And having other countries participate in the AIIB means that instead of it becoming a Chinese political slush fund, it will have to have transparency and organization.
The AIIB case is an example of the type of decision the US will have to make. The US will remain the dominant power, but we will have to learn to work more with others, and not just China. It is not possible to solve global climate change with just two countries. You can’t have international monetary stability with just two countries. We have to think of Europe, Japan, and others.
This requires an attitude about foreign policy that gets away from the kind of zero-sum way we have often approached it.
DISPATCH JAPAN: As you wrote the book, were you thinking to encourage Americans to think in a new way about foreign policy, or were you trying to reassure our allies and potential adversaries that America is not a declining nation?
NYE: Both. I try to write in an academically-respectable way, with footnotes and suggested additional readings. I addressed this book to people who are concerned about America’s role in the world, whether they are in the United States or abroad.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the general trend in American foreign policy? The Bush administration was quite interventionist, and the Obama administration seems to have retrenched.
NYE: There are periods in American foreign policy in which we are “maximalist,” and others during which we retrench. But retrenchment is not the same things as “isolationism.” Retrenchment is an adjustment of strategic goals and means. Dwight Eisenhower followed a retrenchment policy, and Obama is in the tradition of Eisenhower. By contrast, George W. Bush was a maximalist. I argue that maximalists often get us into worse trouble than retrenchment. But too much retrenchment can be a problem, and I do worry about that.
For example, look at the role of Congress in not ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty. Congress has refused to go forward with agreements reached to raise the quota for emerging countries in the International Monetary Fund. These are foolish decisions, and they hurt our position in the world.
In addition to this overview, it is important to look at specific regions. It would be foolish for the US to retrench in Asia or Europe, or even Latin America and Africa. But in the Middle East, we are going to see a period of revolutions of different types. Some will challenge state borders, as we are seeing now in the so-called Ottoman Provinces. We will also see increasing religious divisions. There will be popular discontent about delayed modernization, which occurred in the Arab Spring. These types of revolutions are not going to end quickly. It’s a bit like the French Revolution, which began in 1789, and it was not until 1815 – 25 years later – that the Congress of Vienna restored some semblance of stability to Europe. In circumstances like that, trying to control events through external intervention often makes the situation worse, not better. Prussia, Austria, and Britain found that out when they tried to control events in France.
In the Middle East, we are going to have to learn how to use shifting partners, try to nudge things when we can, but accept that controlling these revolutions will be beyond our capacity, or the capacity of any external actor.
In the Middle East, we will have to think of policy in terms of containment of the effects of these revolutions.
In East Asia, in contrast, there needs to be a major American presence, which is what the “rebalance” policy is all about. We are welcome in East Asia: Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, India, Australia. These countries want us there to help manage the rise of Chinese power.
This is not containment. It is to ensure that as China’s power increases there is a natural balance of power.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Some critics argue that President Obama looks weak.
NYE: In East Asia, the rebalance policy is correct. The administration has been challenged by so many problems that keep arising in the Middle East. So if you simply look at the travelogue of administration officials, you don’t seem to see much rebalancing. This is a case of the urgent driving out the important. In Europe, I think President Obama has been right to ensure that Vladimir Putin cannot divide the US from Europe, which has been a major Russian objective. Obama has been very smart to keep a close relationship of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, the opening to Cuba in Latin America was a good move. With Iran, we still do not know what is going to happen with the nuclear negotiations until next June. These are all steps in the right direction.
Overall, I would say President Obama is headed in the right direction.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Let’s look a bit more at the rebalance in East Asia.
NYE: One of the important questions is whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership will get through. One can complain about the details of trade agreements, and I am not a trade expert. But if TPP fails, it will be seen as a major American setback for rebalance policy. There are indications that US and Japanese negotiators are getting close to an agreement, but it is not done until it is done.
We are also going to have to find ways to work with China on the key issues. Obama has tried. The statement on climate change reached while he was in China late last year was useful; not earth-shaking, but useful. We are going to have to think about a more subtle approach to the AIIB.
And the US-Japan defense relationship is the better than I have seen in years. When I was in the Pentagon 20 years ago, people were talking about the security treaty with Japan being a relic of the Cold War. People don’t think that anymore.
American relations with India have moved in a healthy direction. So the overall direction of the rebalance is good, but it is occurring at a slower pace than I would like to see.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How do you evaluate Prime Minister Abe, especially on history issues?
NYE: It really is time to put the history issues behind us. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II should be a time to now turn to the 21st Century, and not get stuck in the details of the 20th Century. At times, Prime Minister Abe has been pragmatic on the issues. I hope that pragmatic side will continue to come through. Abe is Kishi’s grandson, and that does have effect on how he thinks back over history. The visit to Yasukuni Shrine in late-2013 not only irritated Japan’s neighbors but also disappointed Washington. I hope he will see that those kinds of steps are more costly than they are worth. He wants to create a legacy, including TPP, the upgraded defense guidelines, and repairing relations with South Korea so as to be prepared if something were to erupt with North Korea. These are the things to think about, not history.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Okinawa continues to be a source of unease. What do you think the US should do about the Futenma Replacement Facility project?
NYE: If there is enough political support on Okinawa to build the replacement facility at Henoko, I think we should carry it out. But I am not sure that is going to be possible. We’ll have to see. The more important issue is to think over a ten year period. How do we want to see American troops deployed? I have suggested that we ought to consider having US troops co-located on Japanese bases throughout the islands, which reduces their vulnerability, but also makes clear that these are Japanese bases, with Japanese flags, with the American presence rotating around these bases. Misawa Air base would be a case in point. If we think ahead 10 years and ask how we are going to ensure a continuing alliance, a continuing strong American presence, with US and Japanese forces capable of operating together, then we really have to get away from the idea of large, fixed bases on Okinawa as a long-term solution. We should be planning for that decade-long process, rather than letting everything sink or swim on the issue of relocating the Futenma operations to a new facility at Henoko.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is this you forward-thinking, or are you aware of this approach being on anyone’s radar screen in Washington?
NYE: This is my personal view, but I have raised it with friends in Washington. I participate in the US-Japan commission coordinated by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and there is also an annual conference held jointly by CSIS and Nihon Keizai Shimbun. I have floated these ideas in these forums. But I am not a stalking horse for any Pentagon consideration of new approaches to Okinawa. To the contrary; a lot of people would say I am out on a limb.