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Foreign Policy

Condemned to Cooperate, or Be Condemned

Mar 29, 2019
  • James Chau

    President, China-United States Exchange Foundation

—— An interview with Professor Joseph Nye

In his final term as UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon told the international community that the state of the world was less secure than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

I agree with the spirit of his warning – especially in light of the challenges facing China, the United States, and the relationship they share.

But I am more hopeful for the global future after a conversation with Professor Joseph Nye, a visionary whose insights inform many of our actions. I interviewed him on March 25, 2019, at his office at the Harvard Kennedy School, in Cambridge, MA.


James Chau is Anchor of China-US Focus; Joseph Nye is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, and a regular contributor to China-US Focus. The following is the full transcript of the interview.

Listen to this interview as a podcast here.


James Chau: Professor Nye, thank you very much for having me here today in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you look outside this glorious window and terrace that you have to your left, what do you make of the world as it stands?

Professor Nye: It's a more difficult world than it was, let’s say, 10 years ago, but I am not a pessimist about the long-term future. I think that things are somewhat chaotic, but when people tell me this is the worst it's ever been, I say, you’ve forgotten the 1930s, you’ve forgotten the 1960s. This is not the worst it’s ever been and I expect over time, things may improve.

JC: If we look to the 1970s, that was the beginning of the movements [towards] a U.S.-China relationship in the modern sense?

PN: It was. The 1970s, after the meeting between Nixon and Mao, was the start of a new relationship, but it was also very much forwarded by Deng Xiaoping’s policies, and the [diplomatic] recognition of course in 1979, and there was a period of quite good relations and improving relations that went through the ’90s. It really doesn't turn sour again until basically in a recent period. I think since the Trump administration, things in [the] U.S.-China relationship have gotten considerably worse. But it’s important not to blame it just on Trump. There was already a bipartisan disillusion[ment] with Chinese policy before the 2016 election.

JC: That said, it was supposed to be a celebration of some sort at 40 years. How do you see the relationship evolving given all the new settings and complexities that you just described?

PN: Well, right now we’re of course involved in a trade war and that makes things difficult, and we don't know how that will be resolved. There are really two types of issues. One, is the bilateral trade balance, which President Trump often focuses on. But that's not the real problem. The real problem is more related to coercive intellectual property transfer. Basically, there was a disillusion[ment] in Washington, both among Republicans and Democrats, about the way China had, if you want, ‘tilted’ the international trading relationship by subsidies to state owned enterprises, by coercive intellectual property transfer, by theft of intellectual property. This left a very bad taste in both political parties. But it also weakened support for China among the American business community, which had been a part of the political system and had been most supportive of China in the Congress. And so even before Trump was elected there was a difficulty. I’ve sometimes said that it was like a small fire was burning before the 2016 election, and then Trump was elected and he became a man who threw gasoline on the fire. But the fire was already there before Trump.

JC: When I spoke to President Carter [a] couple of weeks ago, he talked about the U.S.-Japanese relationship and how there was also not only some resentment from the recent historical past, but also how the Americans had felt that Japan had tilted the trade relationship more to its own favor. He then used his own example of setting up what was then a three-man panel— three men from Japan, three men from the United States, and he offered this as a potential model for today. Men and women, of course, anonymous, so they can work effectively, and report to their presidents who can then work together. Does that work in the ways and with the opportunities and resources that we have now between these two leaders?

PN: It's possible that you might have some benefits from a wise-persons group, but President Trump is [a] very idiosyncratic president or individual. He's unlike previous presidents and sometimes he doesn't even listen to the advice of his own closest advisers. He’s been known to tweet something, just the opposite of what his secretary of state has said. So it's not clear in the case with President Trump that the recommendations of a group of respected seniors would be able to change the views of the President. I’m not against such an idea, but I wouldn’t hold it having a very high likelihood of success because of the unique nature of this particular president.

JC: You mentioned social media, and you yourself are a selective tweeter. In recent posts, you asked an important question. You ask, can we learn to collaborate and compete at the same time? What does that mean in the U.S.-China context? What does smart competition mean to you?

PN: If you look at the U.S.-China relationship, rather than seeing it as a new cold war, we should see it as what I've called a ‘cooperative rivalry’. There are going to be elements of rivalry— take for example, issues like the South China Sea, but there are going to be areas of cooperation, areas like climate change. We have to learn to realize that the relationship is going to be complex, but if we lose sight of the cooperative part of the relationship, we’re all going to be the worse off for it. Climate change is a very major issue, even though President Trump doesn’t pay attention to it or doesn’t accept it. But I think you're going to find that by the next American president, whether that's in 2020 or 2024, public opinion is moving in a direction of taking climate change seriously. We’ll also see damages done by climate change, and I think when people realize that we have to do something, they realize that you can’t do it unless the U.S. and China cooperate, as the two largest powers in production of greenhouse gases. So I think that the important point is to educate the public to the fact that yes, we'll have areas of rivalry and competition, but we'll also have areas where neither of us can accomplish what we want without cooperation.

JC: When we look at the other areas where there are potential overlaps, ironically, perhaps not trade in the current setting. You’ve talked about climate change, but what about innovation, global governance, or security? What's the cleanest slate they could work off together?

PN: I think for example, governance in the area of cyber-relations are going to be important. It's interesting that Xi Jinping and Obama had begun to make progress in this with their meeting in 2015. Now it seems to [have] fallen by the wayside, but at some stage we’re going to have to get rules of the road for cyber. So there’s an area of global governance where I think we’re going to have to not necessarily agree completely, because we have different views, but find rules of the road that we can cooperate together. But I think there are other areas as well. International financial stability requires a degree of cooperation between our countries. Issues that may be dormant now, but could become very important in the future, are global pandemics and cooperation in global health. These are not things which either of us can solve by ourselves.

JC: Ironically, I often feel that ‘smart competition’, if it's done respectfully on both sides, could help extend the U.S. unipolar moment. Am I being too much of an optimist?

PN: Well, I think the unipolar moment is over, in the sense that that period in the ’90s and early 2000s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed, is not going to return. The Americans are still likely to remain the strongest power in the world— I don't think that China or anybody else is about to surpass the Americans in power, but they are going to be a lot closer than they were in the past. And in addition to that, there’s a greater diffusion of power among not only more states, but also non-state actors. Sometimes people call this ‘multipolarity’. It’s really much more complex than that. The U.S. could remain the dominant power in, let’s say, military power. There’s no other country able to project military power globally like the Americans can. But in economic power, the world, it is multipolar and in areas of transnational relations there are many more actors. It doesn’t make sense to call it unipolar or multipolar. It's a poly-centrism, if you want. So I think we’re not likely to see return of unipolarity. I think that was a brief moment.

JC: Would it be such a bad thing for there to be a greater sense of a shared space, even if countries were coming closer to one another?

PN: I think the United States has got to adjust its foreign policy attitudes to realize that we can't think just of power ‘over’ other countries, we have to think of power 'with' other countries. Many of the things that we want to accomplish can only be done with others, not just by trying to have power over others. So I think President Trump’s attitudes of ‘America First’ are the wrong way for American attitudes to develop. Every country puts its own interests first. Leaders are elected to represent their country's interests. But there’s a big difference between ‘America First’ or ‘China First’, meaning short-term self-interest, and meaning an enlightened long-term self-interest which respects the interest of others. And I think a post-Trump president is going to have to move our attitudes in that direction.

JC: Let us also talk about the larger Asia[-Pacific] in its engagement with America. You regularly visit the region. I think you were recently in Beijing and also in Tokyo and you noted a ‘Chinese concern’ that a cold war, that Jimmy Carter also warned of at the turn of this year, is in the offing. But you say that unlike the U.S.-Soviet example, the U.S.-China dynamic is very different at a very different time as well. Is that going to be enough to protect the world and protect humanity?

PN: I think that’s correct, and in that sense, the reason I don't think there's going to be another cold war is if you look back on the U.S.-Soviet Cold War there was almost no trade and there was almost no contact among peoples. And whereas if you look at the U.S. and China today, not only is there massive trade, which is hardly a source of contention, but there are massive exchanges of people. I read something on the number of Chinese students in the United States around 375,000 or something. Chinese tourists in the United States are in the millions, and American tourists in China similarly. These are good things. That social entanglement of the countries makes it more difficult to isolate and demonize the other country, and set some limits on the amount of conflict that grows out of the rivalry.

JC: I’ve been trying to listen hard to what American thinkers are saying. Some of them have expressed it as an approach that sees America reserving the right to respond to Chinese abuses while working with [China] when it chooses to. But rather than ask about the American approach, what would you say the Chinese approach should be?

PN: One thing is that Chinese leaders have to be aware of what I call, 'Two Audience Problem’. if you say that China will be first in artificial intelligence in 2030, as Xi Jinping has said, that may play very well in Chinese politics, but that plays terribly in Washington. It means China is going to defeat the U.S. by 2030. So, what sounds good in Beijing sounds terrible in Washington. Find a way to express that, which doesn't make it a direct challenge, that focuses more on the cooperative-sum aspects rather than the zero-sum aspects. And that goes for the way in which China sets its program of developing technologies, which will be important for China, and nobody can prevent or should prevent China from developing them. But if you use coercive intellectual property transfer, if you use intellectual property theft, if you give special subsidies to state-owned enterprises, if you don’t have reciprocity so that Alibaba can list in Washington, but Google can’t play in China, these give rise to resentment. And so if China wants to find a modus vivendi with the U.S., it has to be aware of how its policies and its statements are playing in America.

JC: So, on the one hand you're saying it's a question of communication, of branding, of expression, but also at the same time that it has to be backed up by the meat?

PN: Exactly.

JC: I mentioned to a friend today that I was coming to meet with you and she said to me, “It’s funny how collaboration and competition are antidotes to me”. The alternative though of course, I think, is a possible 'red scare' that we have seen not so long ago. What do you think will be the prevailing opinion? Do you think people will wake up to a certain approach or will it be the approach as they are familiar with at current?

PN: Well, I suspect that we’re going to go through several years of this suspicion and lack of trust in the relationship. It’s unfortunate, but it's going to take changes in policies in both countries—In China, the types of changes I just mentioned and in the U.S., I don't think much is going to change until the next president. We don't know if that'll be 2020, or 2024. But I think in the long run, the U.S. and China do not present existential threats to each other. Neither of us is trying to destroy the other. And that means that the rivalry is something we can manage. It doesn’t lead to the kinds of fears that we had in the 1930s about Hitler and Hitler’s Nazism, or the fears we had in the 1950s about Stalin and Stalin’s communism. So, whatever one thinks about the differences in our two social systems, and they are different, it's quite possible for us to have rules of the road that let us live and let live, and to also cooperate. But right now the domestic attitudes in both countries are not very healthy for this.

JC: So as the global leader that you are, if you were to project and anticipate, what would you tell us is the major trend or an important trend to come, and how should we prepare ourselves for it in advance?

PN: I do think that there are going to be common transnational challenges, and they are ones that no one country can solve by itself. So, if we don't learn how to cooperate, we’re not going to be able to achieve our own objectives. Climate change is a classic example of this, in the sense that I think it's going to get a lot worse and that we're going to have to cooperate to be able to deal with it at all. But many of the other issues I mentioned, whether it be transnational terrorism or whether it be cyber-relations, whether it be global pandemics, these are issues where nobody is going to be able to accomplish it by themselves, so we’re going to have to develop these networks of cooperation if we’re going to govern and manage these types of processes. And that means that we're condemned to cooperate, because if we don’t, we are really just condemned.

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