Joseph Nye interviewed by Alexander Görlach and Constantin Weiss

Joseph Nye is one of our time’s leading political scientists. Former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, he is known for having developed the theory of neoliberalism with Robert Keohane in their 1977 book Power and Interdependence. He holds the title of University Distinguished Service Professor, and has served on the Clinton and Obama administration.

Görlach: In your book “Is the American Century Over?”, you argued that America is still the last superpower. Would you, now that we have president-elect Donald Trump, like to revise that statement?

Nye: Well, much depends on the definition. If one asks if the US will remain the most powerful country in terms of resources, I still believe the next 25 years or so we will still be the strongest country. The question that has changed is how we will use the power. With Trump in power, we have no guarantee that the policies set in place over the past 70 years will remain. The maintenance of alliances and institutions – the liberal international order – is not clear. If we take a look into the books of history, we see that after World War 1, the US was the world’s most powerful country, too. But they did not use that power in the international realm and decided to focus on domestic policy, which incidentally led to the economic chaos in the 1930s. Since World War 2, the US has been the most significant international actor, and whether that will continue under Trump is unclear.

Görlach: After the election, The New York Times came out saying Merkel is now the last remaining upholder of the West’s values. Would you agree? Is there a crisis of the West and its values?

Nye: No question, Merkel and Germany are great defenders of Western values. But on its own, Germany does not have the power to even out a Russia with nuclear weapons, or a China with a high sustained growth rate. Yes, Germany deserves credit for respecting and asserting Western values, but it’s essential that these values are backed up by power. If there is no American power behind those values, it will become a façade, simple rhetoric. It’s a matter of combining values with policy and implementation. Take Russia’s invasion of Crimea, for example. Putin stole land from his neighbor using force, something that is against any post-1945 agreement. Without US-imposed sanctions, Putin surely would have gotten away with it much easier and perhaps continued purging land.

Görlach: How do you make sense of what’s happening in the West? How do current political events qualify for this being a crisis?

Nye: The main issue is maintaining international order. Putin, Orban and their like-minded friends have not managed to change the fundamental world order – yet. If one interprets the rise of populism as something that will continue and change the large countries, then you will have long-term change in international order. My own guess, though, is that we should not over-interpret the American election. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and if 100.000 supporters in three rust-belt states had voted differently, then we would see no need to talk about this at all!

Görlach: Do you really think so? It was tight in the Brexit referendum, in Austria and France it also looks tight. Is there not a shift happening, regardless of margin?

Nye: Yes, something is happening, no doubt. Brexit won narrowly, and the younger voters were not in favor of Brexit at all. The same in America. Before we label this as an irreversible wave of populism, though, we need to closely look at these numbers and realize what they represent.

Weiss: But does that not say something about the relevance of politics in the younger generations’ minds? As a millennial myself, I can say that my generation has grown up in an environment shielded from any chaos; the Western millennials did not experience any tangible threats of war, the economic crisis of ’08 did not disrupt our lives either. Are we an ungrateful generation that forgot the importance of politics?

Nye: The type of world your generation grew up in is one of outward-looking internationalism. Millennial attitudes are open to the international mindset, but they don’t vocalize their beliefs effectively. That’s why the youth vote lost in the past two elections. Millennials have had an incredibly easy life. Don’t take the EU for granted! It’s worth reminding people that it was the EU that brought an end to centuries of conflict between European powers.

Görlach: But does that mean that the generational conflict is yet another cause of conflict in addition to xenophobia, income inequality, sexism, racism? Is it yet another cause for polarization?

Nye: There have been studies on this new wave of populism showing that it is mainly associated with old, white, males. The polarization also goes beyond economic situations and addresses a change in culture and loss in status. Take the US for example: America was the country of old white males, but now you have women, immigrants and LGBT people in leadership positions challenging the dominance of these old white males. Should this be a generational problem, then it will seize to be one in two or three decades time. As younger people, with a higher diversity and better education will come to the polls in the future, this populism should decrease significantly…

Görlach: …assuming that there will be no “explosion” of sorts. If the competition for leadership between Trumpists and Clintonites continues, we may as well see a sudden explosion of tension and a turning point!

Nye: Unless you have an economic crisis, nothing will happen. These conflicts – Black Lives Matter, alt-right – cultural conflicts – will continue over time but on a low flame. An economic crisis, however, will throw gasoline in that fire and cause an explosion.

Weiss: What role does immigration play in this?

Nye: Well, immigration is a much more universal problem in the international sphere. The question is how you combine domestic with immigrant culture to prevent polarization of societies. Europe is struggling with it, and so is America. But large countries – most notably Canada – have managed to successfully immigrate people into their culture. Though Trump has made a big deal out of immigration, a recent Pew Poll suggests that the majority of Americans actually thinks the US handles immigration well, and that it is good for the country! Personally, I would worry more about a recession or an economic depression.

Görlach: But wouldn’t the current discourse on trade deals give us reason to worry about the possibility of a depression?

Nye: Just because the large-scale agreements like TPP and TTIP may be over, does not mean trade is over. Trade is driven not by agreements. We may see less large-scale trade agreements, but I don’t think protectionism will resurface. Many economists currently argue that trade deals are not worth it – there is a decrease in income through trade deals as a percentage of GDP, so I think we will see less signings of large-scale trade agreements, but also not a return to protectionism.

Weiss: Would going back on these trade deals impact the progress of technology innovation in America? How will Silicon Valley be impacted?

Nye: If America were to become protectionist, that would certainly make life for tech companies much more difficult. But again, Trump is unpredictable. The scrapping of TPP may reduce American technology gains, but apart from that I don’t think Silicon Valley will not notice much of a Trump presidency.

Görlach: How do Western policymakers adjust to this new era? What are the next “sensible” steps for them?

Nye: They need to have policies that take into account the inequalities caused not just by trade and technological change, but also the cultural ones. Even if you are a protectionist economy, your jobs will still be taken over by robots! We ought to have policies that compensate this job loss – policy makers need to come up with a solution here. At the same time, Western countries individually need to maintain a stable economic growth rate. There has been talk about investment in infrastructure here in the US, and I am a supporter of this. We need to worry less about debt and austerity and more about whether the economy is growing fast enough.

Görlach: In fact, Trump is pushing these policy changes on the grounds that it was neoliberal politics of the last few decades that created the inequality we see today. Is neoliberalism dead?

Nye: Well, the term neoliberalism means different things in different contexts. In an economic sense, where it means leaving the markets with as little government control as possible, pure liberalism has been over for a long time. In a societal sense, it’s being put to test as we speak.

Görlach: But then how does America overcome this divide and unite before or during a Trump presidency?

Nye: I don’t think you can do it in four years. Trump can try to ease income inequality, he can try to bring jobs back to America again. But there are problems that will not go away, for example the coal industry, whose miners he convinced they would get their jobs back. They are suffering from competition with the natural gas industry, yet Trump said he would stimulate fracking. There simply are some things Trump will not be able to solve. I have a feeling he will struggle immensely with adapting the labour market to long-term technological change…

Görlach: …so we stay in a politically conflicted atmosphere for the next four years?

Nye: I would be surprised if we saw a reduction in partisanship over the course of this presidency. But then again, he is unpredictable and may surprise us with something completely unexpected.

Weiss: So what will happen in 2020?

Nye: That is impossible to say. He has not even assumed office yet, and four years are a long time for him to do things. To be honest, this upcoming presidency is marking an unprecedented era of uncertainty for many of us. Trying to predict how Trump will be is very difficult. And that surely is dangerous on some ends, too – having an unpredictable commander-in-chief is nothing this country has ever experienced.

Görlach: Thank you for your time.

Joseph Nye is one of our time’s leading political scientists. Former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, he is known for having developed the theory of neoliberalism with Robert Keohane in their 1977 book Power and Interdependence. He holds the title of University Distinguished Service Professor, and has served on the Clinton and Obama administration.