1 March, 2005Issue 4.2FictionInterviewsLiteratureNorth AmericaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Talking Power

Tim Soutphommasane & Shaun Chau

Joseph S. Nye Jr.
The Power Game: A Washington Novel
Public Affairs, 2004
247 pages
ISBN: 1586482262

There are very few professors of political science writing novels today. Joseph Nye may be the only one. Until recently the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Nye’s name is synonymous among students of politics and international relations with the concept of ‘soft power’. He is also esteemed as one of the most senior national security advisors. During the Clinton years, Nye served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and as Chair of the National Intelligence Council; and had John Kerry won last year’s presidential election, it was expected that Nye would have been offered a senior post in the administration. But now, if only temporarily, Nye has chosen a different medium for exploring ideas in the world of foreign affairs, turning his mind from the intricacies of international relations theory to the no less testing demands of character development, plot and dialogue.

In his first novel The Power Game, Nye tells a tale of political intrigue and power within the Washington defence and foreign policy establishment centring around Pakistan selling nuclear technology to Iran. It is a story to which Nye brings his own experience of working on defence, non-proliferation and intelligence matters. Indeed, on the surface, the story of The Power Game is not dissimilar from the author’s own life. Peter Cutler, an idealistic political scientist, is lured from his comfortable academic post at Princeton University by the offer of a plum position as Undersecretary of State for Security Affairs in Washington. Cutler begins somewhat na√Øvely, but quickly finds his feet in the high-stakes power politics of the Washington elite.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, soft power, the idea for which Nye is best known, forms an important backdrop to the book. Since first coining the term in the late 1980s, Nye has been a prominent advocate of soft power, that is, the deployment of the ‘attractive’ power of cultural values and diplomacy, as opposed to economic and military coercion, to achieve political ends. Elsewhere Nye has criticised the current US administration for being too unilateralist in its approach to foreign policy and failing to engage sufficiently with other countries. In the figure of Cutler, Nye is able to develop and test the concept of soft power, showing not only in its manifest strengths, but also at times, its potential weaknesses. Politics aside, it is perhaps ethics with which Nye is most concerned in The Power Game. Cutler is an intelligent, decent man who is steadily corrupted by power politics. Nye seems to ask: What is the price of power? Can power ever be used purely for justified ends? What truth is there in Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely? The personal and political fortunes of Cutler, ending ultimately in his political downfall, provide the setting for an exploration, if not necessarily a resolution, of these provocative questions.

To understand the purpose behind the writing of The Power Game, as well as the concept of soft power that lurks in the shadows of its pages, we interviewed Professor Nye, currently on leave from Harvard as a visiting fellow at Balliol College and the Department of Politics and International Relations in Oxford.

Professor Nye, why did you decide to write The Power Game?

Nye: I’ve been intrigued by questions about ethics and power for some time, and thought I could explore it with more subtlety perhaps than I could in academic prose. I’m particularly interested in the seductiveness of power. When you get into a position of power you can become tempted by the opportunities it presents. Then, the question becomes one of how you keep your own sense of balance or moral compass. I found that when I first went to Washington during the Carter administration, I had to adjust to a very different kind of environment. It’s something I try to describe in the chapters of the book, when I deal with what it’s like to go from an academic career to a bureaucratic political struggle. Part of my reason for writing the book grew out of that—the question of how to keep your sense of balance. Another part of it grew out of my work in the Carter administration in trying to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. At the time we knew that Pakistan was trying to get a nuclear bomb, and the question was whether we could use force to stop Pakistan. This got wrapped up in the plot of the book as well. So part of writing The Power Game was personal, and part of it had to do with certain policy questions.

There are obvious similarities between Joseph Nye and Peter Cutler. How much of Joseph Nye is there in Peter Cutler? And, more generally, how much autobiography was involved in The Power Game?

Nye: No one character in the novel is a one-on-one mapping with anybody. The nice thing about fiction is you can take bits and pieces from people and make characters of your own. There are a number of things Peter Cutler experiences which were things that I experienced. But there are also experiences that I didn’t experience. The book is a composite of these things. I would think of events or actions that happened to friends of mine that I put into Peter Cutler’s life. The Power Game is not autobiographical in a one-to-one sense.

The picture that comes out of The Power Game is that power is really the only currency that counts in Washington. Is this the harsh reality of life there?

Nye: If you’re not successful in power games, you can’t accomplish the purposes you had set out. If you want to use power for good, you have to obtain power first of all. The question is what are your means in seeking out power, and what is the relationship between your means and your ends. But I think by and large the danger is one in which you become entranced with the means of power, the intrinsic satisfaction you get from power, and you forget about the larger ethical purposes you were trying to pursue.

How do you avoid this trap of power? Is it possible to avoid it?

Nye: Well, yes, you can. You keep a sense of perspective on who you are, and not let yourself become too self-important. It helps to have a good spouse who can keep you from running off the rails, and give you a sense of balance. It helps to get away from Washington, whether it be through running or taking a long walk in the woods, or anything that makes you step back and get a little bit of perspective. One of my friends in Washington talked about escaping up to the balcony and watching the people on the dance floor. It’s hard to have that perspective when you’re in the middle of the dance floor. Occasionally you have to put yourself up on the balcony.

The main character in The Power Game, Peter Cutler, clashes with hawks in the White House and the Pentagon in arguing for more diplomacy and less heavy-handed strategies. You have been a very vocal advocate of ‘soft power’, that is, the power of persuasion and attraction. Is it possible to read The Power Game as an allegory about soft power?

Nye: I drew this novel as one in which soft power doesn’t prevail. Peter Cutler advocates soft power but he doesn’t win. And I think in that sense I don’t think I was writing a fictionalized version of my book about soft power. I was turning to a different question—about how power relates to morality whether it be soft power or hard power. And so essentially it’s a story about decline and fall. Peter Cutler starts out with good intentions, but in the process he becomes corrupted by power. It’s not an allegory of soft power as much as it is a description of power and morality and I read the ending as slightly optimistic but somebody could read it as pessimistic.

You’ve said in one interview that at a conference in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld was asked about his opinion on soft power, but replied he didn’t know what it meant. Is soft power something that has been ignored within defense and foreign policy circles in Washington?

Nye: It has been ignored in the Pentagon—by the civilians in the Pentagon. But it’s not ignored in the State Department. For example, Colin Powell used the term soft power and he often referred to it. It is ironic that it is not ignored by many within the military, who know that winning hearts and minds is part of winning the battle. But the people who came in around Rumsfeld and Cheney remain very fixated with hard power and I think underplay the role of soft power.

We’ve recently had what seem to be successful elections in Iraq. Does this demonstrate that the use of hard power over soft power with respect to Iraq has been justified?

Nye: It’s probably too early to make a judgment about Iraq. If you try to do a balance sheet on Iraq after the first year, I think you can say that the negatives outweigh the positives. After a year and a half, you’ve had the elections, you’ve seen a little bit more of the positive side of the balance sheet than you did before. But much will depend on whether you were able to create a stable government, whether you have really established democracy, whether ordinary Iraqis are truly better off than they were before, whether that justifies the number of people killed. Those are the things that you might be able to identify only after ten years. At this stage, if you’re trying to sum up the balance sheet, it’s still probably more heavily negative than positive. This is not to take away from the importance of the Iraq election, which was a very significant achievement, but we should put it into context of a continuing stream of events.

Critics of the current Bush administration would say that American soft power has suffered immeasurably in recent years, with perceptions of American unilateralism and the neoconservative thrust of American foreign policy. Is this a fair assessment? And if so, how long will it take to recover American soft power?

Nye: Looking back at the Vietnam period, when America was very unpopular around the world because of the Vietnam War, you had a situation where America had managed to turn around its unpopularity by the end of the 70s. And part of that was because we changed our policies. We got out of Vietnam, we had an emphasis on human rights. So there are things you can do to regain soft power. I think in the case of the aftermath of Iraq, you have Bush’s ability to achieve a political solution in Iraq, the ability to make real progress in the Middle East with the peace process, and the willingness to be more consultative in its foreign policy style. And in the early stages of the second term of the Bush Administration, it’s almost as though it’s rediscovered soft power. It seems to be heading in that direction, but it’s probably too early to make a definitive judgment.

Is rebuilding American soft power the most important challenge facing America at the moment in the international context?

Nye: I think it’s extraordinarily important because in the long run you can’t prevail in the struggle against Jihadist terrorism unless you rebuild your soft power. And the reason is that you can’t kill all the possible terrorists, because there will always be a new supply of terrorists coming along. Therefore your ability to win the hearts and minds of the populace from which the terrorists will try to recruit is the secret to success in the war.

It might be said that soft power can’t be used by America to combat the threat of terrorism effectively. For example, you might ask why Islamist terrorists would care about America’s attractiveness when they want to destroy America. Where does soft power then fit in?

Nye: I think that’s true so far as the terrorists themselves. You’re not going to attract bin Laden or Al Qaeda and the point is you need hard power to respond to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The question I’m raising is how do you prevent bin Laden and Al Qaeda from recruiting a new generation of replacements or from broadening their appeal. That’s where your soft power comes in. If you’re attractive to the larger majority of the Muslim world, they’ll be less able to persuade other people from supporting what I would say is their narrow and ideological version of their religion which they’re propounding.

Are there any countries at the moment that are using soft power more effectively than the US?

Nye: Europe has been effective in its use of soft power, if you look at the ability of Europe to attract other countries to join the EU, and the efforts that countries like Turkey have made in changing their policies on human rights and democratic reform. A lot of that can be attributed to Europe’s soft power. But the Europeans, while they have been effective in their use of soft power, sometimes don’t pay enough attention to the need for hard power.

Finally, Professor Nye, are there times when you miss the politics of Washington?

Nye: At times. If Kerry had won last year, I probably would have been invited to go back to Washington and probably would have succumbed to the temptation to go back. There’s something about having your hands on the levers of power, about people able to shape policy in what you would consider to be a good direction. It would have been a very tempting proposition.

Tim Soutphommasane is an MPhil student in political theory at Balliol College. Shaun Chau is an MPhil student in comparative social policy at Green College. Both hail from Sydney, Australia.