Harvard professor Joseph Nye talks power to packed auditorium

By Dave Thomas

The U.S. needs to think differently about power in the 21st century, world-renowned political science professor Joseph Nye told a packed auditorium Wednesday.

Nye spoke to a group of about 200 NIU students, faculty and community members about how Americans usually think of power in terms of the military and weapons; what Nye calls “hard power.”

Instead, there needs to be a focus on what Nye calls “soft power,” which includes economic power and cultural power.

“It’s not just about whose army wins, but whose story wins,” Nye said.

In addition, Nye said power is also undergoing two shifts. The first shift is what some pundits and experts have called the “rise of Asia.”

Nye, however, said he likes to call it the “recovery of Asia” or “the rise of the rest.” In other words, Nye said the emergence of countries like China and India on the world stage is not because the U.S. has lost power, but the fact that the gap between U.S. power and Chinese power is shrinking.

Nye also noted the current pessimism Americans are feeling in the wake of the recent financial crisis. He said the idea of American decline is nothing new, and that for decades, Americans have viewed rivals as being “10 feet tall.”

Nye spent a good deal of the lecture discussing the U.S. and China. He said while China has spoken openly about investing in more “smart power” (a combination of hard and soft power), it is ultimately hamstrung by its government.

“It supresses the civil society,” Nye said, adding that the government needs to “relax.”

The second shift in power Nye described is a result of the Information Age. Because of how cheap it is to communicate across the globe, Nye said the barriers of entry for groups like Greenpeace or Al Qaeda have been lowered. It is easier for them to be players on the world stage.

Because of these changes, the U.S. needs to invest more in soft power. Nye said he is “relatively optimistic” about the U.S.’s future, if recent statements from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are any indications.

After the lecture, Nye took questions from 14 individuals, with topics ranging from the recent uprisings in the Middle East to the expanding gap between the rich and the poor.

Christopher Jones, chair of the political science department, said he thought the lecture was a success.

“I was very pleased by the audience and the turnout and the excellent questions,” Jones said. “I am heartened that Dr. Nye enjoyed his time at NIU.”