Nye sat down with The Hankyroeh’s Washington correspondent Ryu Jae-hoon after U.S. presidential election for an interview on his thoughts about the importance of “soft power,” a term he is credited for having coined in the late 1980s, and his expectations for Barack Obama’s presidency.
Ryu: I want to begin with Barack Obama’s foreign policy and vision for foreign policy. As I understand, you strongly supported Obama. Originally, you supported Hillary Clinton, but you later switched to supporting Obama. What made you change your mind? Which leadership characteristics and merits of leadership did you find in Obama?
Nye: Well, I originally supported Hillary Clinton during the primary because I knew her personally and I was impressed by her experience, and I worried that Obama did not have as much experience. But the way Obama ran his campaign impressed me and made me think that he would make a good president.
The election of Obama contributed to the elevation of the profile of the United States abroad. What do you think will be different about the Obama administration’s foreign policy?
A: Well, Obama, as the first African-American president, shows that the United States has the ability to overcome some of its deepest problems, like racism. And it’s a society that can recreate itself, the idea the son of an immigrant father could become president is rare in most societies. So I think that by itself will do a great deal to restore American soft power, which was damaged during the Bush administration.
How you met him? I heard you advised Obama
A: Well I’ve been a peripheral adviser. I haven’t been in the center circle of advisers, because I had started out as an adviser to Hillary Clinton. I was invited to be adviser to Obama but I couldn’t because I already told Hillary Clinton I would support her. But after the primaries were over, I did things to help Obama.
What advice did you give to Obama about the use of soft power? How much does he understand about soft power?
A: Well, I think he understands soft power very well without me. I mean, if you look at his behavior, the way he ran his campaign, he was fully knowledgeable about soft power. So I didn’t suggest that he use soft power, he did it himself.
You criticized the decline of soft power during the eight years of the Bush administration. What do you think was the Bush administration’s biggest mistake?
A: The biggest mistake was the Iraq War, which I think was a huge strategic blunder. But I think there was a bigger problem, which is even before the Iraq War, turning to unilateralism and not spending enough time working with our allies and our multilateral institutions.
President-elect Obama faces one of the most difficult foreign policy landscapes in history. For example, the financial crisis, the Iraq and Afghan Wars, the war against terrorism, even the nuclear issues in Iran and North Korea. Some say the financial crisis was the start of the decline of American power. What do you think about that?
A: I think that’s not true. If the financial crisis was the start of the decline of American power, we would see the dollar declining, but the dollar has become stronger. I think one has to distinguish between the series of mistakes, which have undercut the particular Wall Street model, and the question of whether the American economy itself remains competitive and productive. I think the financial crisis is driving us into a recession, but after the recession the American economy will remain stronger than ever.
The financial crisis remains a priority for the Obama administration.
A: Well, it will certainly make it more difficult to have funds for some of the things that he wants, but it is worth noticing that, in the short run, the fact that you have a recession is going to mean you’re going to want deficit spending, which will relieve some of the pressure on the fiscal side. Because if there had been no recession, then the money spent on the financial crisis would mean there’s not much money for anything else. Because of the recession, you want deficit spending and that will free up some money.
What do you think the effects of the financial crisis on foreign policy will be?
A: Well, the effects will be complex. In some areas that require extra expenditure, that will become difficult. With the recession there is some danger that as unemployment increases, it will give rise to protectionism. On the other hand, one of the effects of the recession is the decline in the price of oil. The decline in the price of oil means less power for Russia, Iran and Venezuela. So there are mixed effects on foreign policy. Take, for example, Iran. When oil is $150 a barrel, sanctions against Iran do not hurt very much. When oil is $70, sanctions might begin to have more effect.
When we think about the foreign policy of a new administration, the person appointed as secretary of state is key to understanding the foreign policy of that administration. I’d like to know which of the candidates for Obama’s secretary of state has the best understanding of soft power and hard power.
A: Well, nobody knows who the appointee will be at this stage except Obama, but I hope he will make a major Republican appointment for bipartisan purposes. Among the people who’ve been talked about are people like Senator (Chuck) Hagel, or perhaps Secretary (Robert) Gates might stay in his position. I think both of these men have a clear understanding of soft power. For example, Secretary Gates said that the United States needs to spend more time and energy on soft power.
Q: Of the challenges Obama faces, one is the rise of China and the arrogance of Putin’s Russia. How do you expect Obama will manage relations with China and Russia?
A: Well, he’s spoken about the desire to have good relations with China and accepting the importance of Asia. And of course he has direct experience with Asia having lived in Indonesia as a child. So I think he will have interest in Asia and an interest in good relations with not just China, but also Japan and Korea as well. I think the major danger would come if the Chinese currency remains undervalued, and it leads to pressure on the jobs in the United States. That could put pressure on Obama in that direction. But on issues like Taiwan and the six-party talks on North Korea, I think Obama’s policies will look similar to those of the Bush administration.
Q: How about the relationship with Japan? The Bush administration considered the U.S.-Japan alliance the pillar of Asian policy.
A: Well, that’s been true before, that was true even during the Clinton administration. And after the Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration of ’96, the view was that good U.S.-Japan relations were the bedrock for post-Cold War East Asia, and I’ve often said that you have a triangle of relations in East Asia -- between the U.S., China and Japan -- and it’s important to have good relations in each leg of this triangle, but between the U.S. and Japan there is this formal alliance that doesn’t exist with China.
Q: What do you expect for the future of missile defense and the Proliferation Security Initiative, both of which the Bush administration has emphasized during the last eight years?
A: I think those will probably continue, I don’t think there will be a big change in that dimension. I think, for example, the joint research with Japan on AEGIS and regional ballistic missile defense will continue.
Q: On the issue of missile defense, Russia criticized U.S. intentions.
A: That’s different. That’s the European side, putting interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic. That was more controversial, but I think in East Asia there will be less controversy about missile defense.
Q: Do you think South Korea has to join MD and the PSI in the future?
A: It’s up to South Korea, if they feel it’s good for them I think they’d be welcomed.
Q: I’d like to ask about the North Korea nuclear issue. It’s likely to be one of the headaches for Obama. The last time you visited South Korea, you recommended that the soft power of South Korea and the hard power of China could be used to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Could you explain?
A: I think we need to continue the framework of the six-party talks. Within that framework China has a special role, it can cut off food and fuel supplies to North Korea if it needed to, and that gives it a lot of hard power. South Korea can provide an example of a successful society, which could be attractive to many North Koreans when they become more aware of it. So that’s what I meant when I said within the six-party framework, China has hard power and Korea has soft power.
Q: South Korea is medium-sized country, and it is geographically located between China and Japan. I think we Koreans need to encourage the use of soft power to survive. What do you recommend to Korean leaders and people?
A: Well (South) Korea is an enormous success story both economically and politically. The fact that you’ve been able to become the 12th largest economy in the world, and that you have a vibrant democracy, this is a huge success story which can be attractive to many people not just in East Asia, but around the world. And so getting the story out more is important.
Q: Regarding the nation-state as an actor in international politics, this year seems like a special year. In August the Georgian War laid out profound questions about multinational organizations like NATO, and after the financial crisis nation-states intensified the laws regulating banks. So is the increase in the role of the nation-state a temporary phenomenon?
A: Well, technology is giving more power to non-state actors all the time. For example, communications are now so cheap that non-state actors have capacities that were once reserved for governments or even multinational corporations. But government and state remain the most important actors in international politics. Because non-state actors are being empowered by technology, the stage is becoming more crowded. So the non-state actors will not replace the state actors, but will crowd the stage, and the nation-state will continue to be the most important actor.
Q: Even in the 21st century?
Q: The world has high expectations for Obama. What kind of leader do you expect him to be?
A: I think he will probably try to act more multilaterally, working with other countries and international organizations. But I think he’s also careful to make sure that expectations don’t rise too high. If you look at his acceptance speech last Tuesday (November 4), he was very careful to dampen some expectations, which is a mark of good leadership.
Q: What foreign policy changes do you expect in the next few months?
A: Well, more multilateralism, more attention to global climate change, I think change in the position on the Geneva Conventions and Guantanamo, I think these changes will be the most obvious.
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