It is not every day that one gets to enjoy sitting in the company of scholars and thinkers who have, and continue to influence the course of American politics. For that reason, when the opportunity arises, one is careful to spend some time in the presence of greatness (okay, maybe I exaggerate a little). This afternoon-to-evening, as part of Old Dominion University’s Presidential Lecture Series, one of America’s foremost foreign policy experts, Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, former Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University, “most influential scholar on American Foreign Policy, 4th most influential scholar in international relations since 1990 and among the top 100 global thinkers, spoke to the Graduate Program in International Studies (GPIS) select group of students, and then had a public lecture at the Webb Center. Professor Nye, a former deputy Undersecretary of State and chair of the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and former chair of the National Intelligence Council (which writes the National Intelligence Estimates, or NIEs), is also an author of 13 academic books and more than 200 academic articles. It was most decidedly an honor for the GPIS students and the University to host him. Professor Nye spoke to the future international relations and policy makers at a time when the United States is facing several challenges, notably from Iran, China and North Korea.
Dr. Nye’s session with the GPIS students was more of a Q & A session. It is a strategy that Dr. Nye found quite useful, since it allowed for questions on a broad range of topics, ranging from how China can increase its soft power, to how India’s Bollywood film scene can contribute to India’s soft power. Other topics ranged from the role of resource scarcity and its role in Russia’s soft power to the intersections of energy independence and how this might affect Russia’s relationships with Europe (and Ukraine). It was an occasion to point out the way the world is interconnected and how, literally, “the butterfly effect” concept works. My favorite was the answer to the unasked question on the age of soft power, when Dr. Nye confirmed that in his view, soft power is as old as human society: people have been trying to influence others through culture, music and so on. Dr. Nye provided the example of the Alliance Francaise institutes as a way for the post-Napoleonic France to spread its influence in Europe and other countries, which was quickly emulated by Germany with the Goethe Instituts. Dr. Nye also addressed questions of how NATO and other security and international organizations can leverage soft power to expand their influence. It was truly a great session.
Later in the evening, Dr. Nye was the guest speaker at the PResidential Lecture Series, part of the 20th Anniversary of the GPIS program at ODU. This, being a more formal lecture, featured Dr. Nye speaking about American presidential leadership, a synopsis of his forthcoming book, “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.” Dr. Nye spoke of the differences between “transformational presidents” and “transactional presidents” through four distinct periods of the rise of American power in the 20th Century, these being pre-World War I, end of World War I to the end of World War II, the Cold War period and the post Cold War era. Dr. Nye observed correctly that some presidents do not start out aspiring to be transformational, but that their presidencies are often affected by events outside their control, and lead them to becoming transformational figures. Other presidents start out wanting to be transformational but the nature of the international system reduces them to become transactional presidents. Dr. Nye concluded that a mix of both attributes was perhaps the optimal mix, but there was really no way of socially or genetically engineering such a mix. Sometimes the transformation is severely hindered by Congress – and that, perhaps, is the nature of American leadership.
All in all, it was one of the more memorable Presidential Lectures and the ODU community most decidedly benefitted from such a distinguished speaker.