Book review: “The future of Power” by Joseph Nye Jr.

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Book review: Joseph Nye. The Future of Power. PublicAffairs, 2011. 320 pages. U$ 14.88 (paperback), amazon.com 

Joseph Nye, professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is one of the world's most influential foreign policy thinkers. This is partly due to his highly unusual decision to not only mingle with policy makers, but to actually hold important positions in US government at several moments of his career, thus gaining insights that provide him with a unique perspective. Nye has also had the courage to try to expand his readership beyond academia, and several of his concepts such as soft power and smart power have turned into household concepts – even if that achievement has earned him some criticism among fellow academics, who accuse him of overly targeting non-academic readers.

After “The Paradox of American Power” (2002), “Soft Power – The Means to Success in World Politics” (2004) and “The Power to Lead” (2008), this is Nye’s fourth and probably final book on the concept of power. In Chapter 1, the author reviews his overall idea, distinguishing between hard power (economic and military), soft power (“the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes”), and smart power (the combination of the two). Anyone who has read his previous books (as has the vast majority of the IR community) will not find much news here, but it is certainly a welcome summary for first-timers. In Chapter 2 (“military power”), Nye argues that military power very much depends on the context, and that armies need to be increasingly versatile to deal with very different kinds of issues, ranging from classic warfare, counterinsurgency, to humanitarian intervention and assistance.

The author repeats his basic argument when he declares that while military power remains crucial in world politics, it no longer is sufficient to prevail, as shown by NATO’s difficulties to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people. In Chapter 3 on economic power, Nye elaborates on the fact that economic power is a prerequisite for both hard (military) and soft power. Particularly in this chapter, the book feels textbook-like, introducing the basic principles of sanctions, aid, etc., underlining the author’s intention to offer an introductory text adequate for those with little prior knowledge of international affairs. Chapter 3 (“Soft Power”) is interesting because Nye discusses how China has been one of the most avid international actors to embrace the concept, and how the Chinese government’s willingness to develop an attractive narrative influences its foreign policy. One of the few actual policy recommendations here is to empower the US State Department and to create a more centralized public diplomacy apparatus.

In Part II, “Diffusion and Cyberpower”, the author dwells on how Facebook and Twitter are changing our lives, but this is hardly news to the reader. As early as 2000, Nye wrote about the fact that non-state actors are increasingly important, but that the state will not cease to exist. He makes the interesting point that the internet and social media are by no means tools meant solely to mobilize the good causes, but they can also help repressive governments undermine movements. Nye raises interesting and important questions regarding how to think of “hacktivism”, what the role of governments should be in cyberspace, and how one should deal with the threat of economic espionage, cyberwar and cyberterrorism. He argues that while cyberspace will strongly affect international politics, it is “unlikely to be a game changer in the power transitions” of the next decades.

While the book is very well-written and highly readable, the reader is left with the impression that in his attempt to address the general, non-expert audience, Nye often remains on the surface, careful not to make any controversial statements. This is particularly so in Chapter 6, where he briefly analyzes different countries’ situations and merely summarizes general wisdom without offering his point of view until the very end: Nye argues that one-dimensional extrapolations of Chinese growth are unrealistic and predicts that the United States will still be the world’s most powerful country by 2050 – provided that it does not repeat the mistakes of the Bush years. In sum, despite some glitches (Facebook does not have half a trillion, but half a billion users, and São Paulo is wrongly identified as Brazil’s capital), Nye’s latest book provides an interesting overview over international politics, but given the author's vast knowledge and experience, he could have, in several instances, provided a more in-depth analysis.

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