"Joseph Nye on Smart Power in Iran-U.S. Relations"

"Joseph Nye on Smart Power in Iran-U.S. Relations" by Kayhan Barzegar,
Q&A: July 11, 2008, Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

This interview elaborates on the applicability of Nye’s theory of “smart power” in the context of the Middle East and particularly Iran. The discussion further pushes the boundaries on how the current U.S policymakers should take into account soft and smart power towards Iran.

Joseph S. Nye Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor, is also the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations and former Dean of the Kennedy School. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. In 2004, he published Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics; Understanding International Conflict (5th edition); and The Power Game: A Washington Novel. In his most recent book, The Powers to Lead, Nye discusses the efficient American leadership of power in the 21st century.

Kayhan Barzegar is an Assistant Professor of International Relations in Science and Research Campus, Islamic Azad University, Tehran, and a Research Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Mahsa Rouhi, a Research Intern at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, and a Ph.D. student of International Relations acted as an assistant interviewer.

Kayhan Barzegar: You argue that “smart power” is the efficient American leadership of power in the 21st century. Could you first elaborate on what is smart power?

Joseph Nye: Well, power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want, and you can do that through coercion or payment, which is what I call hard power, or you could do it with attraction, which is what I call soft power. Now it is very rare that people use entirely soft power or entirely hard power. I suppose Dalai Lama uses entirely soft power, but most of the actors end up using a combination of hard and soft power and the ability to combine hard and soft power—carrots and sticks and attractions—is what I call smart power. So an effective strategy of using power resources both hard and soft is smart power. In the new book, The Powers to Lead, I explain that leadership and power are closely related and that there is more than one form of power and that it applies at all levels—both at level of individual or group and state or the interstate system.

Kayhan Barzegar: Let’s discuss the applicability of smart power in the context of the Middle East. Up to now it seems that the United States has mainly used hard power in this region. Don’t you think that the use of soft power and smart power could have handled the crisis in the region, particularly in the case of Iraq, much more effectively?

Joseph Nye: Well, I think that one of the problems that the United States has encountered during the eight years of the Bush administration is that it has neglected its soft power and tried to rely to primarily on its hard power. Soft power cannot solve all problems. Soft power did not persuade Taliban to stop giving safe havens to Al-Qaeda, and therefore a hard power response was essential. But if you look at Iraq, the use of hard power without soft power has been counterproductive. Indeed, America’s counterinsurgency strategy now includes a greater influence of soft power, along with hard power. So I think the original American strategy in Iraq was not smart power, but there is increasing interest in trying to combine hard and soft power in Iraq.

Kayhan Barzegar: One of the key aspects of the soft power theory is the role of the United States in regard to masses and nations. Don’t you think that this aspect of soft power has been failed or often missed in the Middle East region? The case of Iraq indicates that Arab nations in the region are not that welcoming of the United State’s soft power.

Joseph Nye: I think you are correct. I think Americans have made serious mistakes. If you think of the question of terrorism and particularly the role of Al-Qaeda, you can’t win any struggle like that unless you are able to attract mainstream Muslims. If you can’t attract the mainstream, then there is a constant pool of recruitment for Bin Laden or any other radical group. So you can’t win simply this by hard power. You have to use soft power as well.

Kayhan Barzegar: Let’s turn to Iran-U.S. relations, which is the focus of our discussion. I am sure you have heard that the Iranian nation is among the rare nations in the region that are potentially open to some aspects of American soft power, such as its higher education system, wealth and technology, cultural diversity and tolerance, etc. Conversely, Iranians have problems with American hard power such as its hegemonic role in the region, its military presence across Iran’s national borders, its use of authoritative language against Iran, using American power in international institutions against Iran, etc. I think this is the point where the ineffectiveness of the relations lies: too much use of hard power. Therefore, don’t you think there should be a swap between the American hard and soft power in dealing with Iran?

Joseph Nye: There is a joke that I’m sure you heard that says in the Middle East, the governments like the United States but people don’t. Iran is the one exception because the government hates the United States but the people don’t. But I think the point behind that joke is that the Americans have not been very good at using soft power in the case of Iran. My own personal view on policy is that we ought to have a broad based dialogue with Iran along the lines that Obama has suggested, with all issues open for discussion. Now there would still be differences. It is not surprising that Americans would use some hard power—for example, UN sanctions—as well as soft power, but I think if you have a broader framework for discussion, it would be possible to have less emphasis on hard power.

Kayhan Barzegar: Another instance is that right now the mainstream perspective inside Iranian society is that the United States will not attack Iran. In fact, Iranians believe that by initiating a military conflict, the United States will make a big historical mistake, because it will turn a nation, which is not by nature anti-American, into an enemy of the United States, and this will create a new wound that can not be easily removed for quite some time. We did not have a war between us; we do not have deep enmity or structural or crucial conflicts. The disagreements can be solved through negotiations and dialogue. However, a U.S. military attack will completely turn this state of affairs to an indefinite hostility. It blocks the American soft power capabilities by damaging the perception of the Iranian nation towards the United States. What is your take on this issue?

Joseph Nye: Well, I think that is correct. I think if the Americans, in efforts to try to stop the Iranians’ nuclear weapons program, were to bomb nuclear facilities in Iran, they might gain a few years of slowing down the nuclear weapons program, but they would lose the whole generation of younger Iranians who would respond in a nationalistic way. So I think that would be a very large cost for a very limited benefit.

Kayhan Barzegar: Let’s talk again about the Bush administration’s intense use of hard power towards Iran. Nicholas Burns, here at the Kennedy School just few months ago, mentioned that the main U.S. challenge with Iran is that Iran is located in a region—the Persian Gulf—in which the United States has crucial national interests. My point is that this is exactly the Iranians’ problem with the United States, because the Iranians claim that they have been in the region for centuries and they are only trying to protect their national interests and security in their backyard. Therefore, the issue is that what is for the United States protecting national interests is simultaneously endangering Iran’s national interests. Don’t you think that the United States should somehow accept and respect some of Iran’s ambitions in the region?

Joseph Nye: Absolutely. Iran is a major state and has to be recognized as such with legitimate interests in the region. I think the argument will not be, should Iran play a major role in the region, but how does it play that role. Americans do worry about Iran’s state support for terrorism. Iran’s involvement in Iraq is another concern, particularly the role that the Revolutionary Guard plays. That is a legitimate American concern about the Iranian development of a nuclear weapon which would destabilize and spread nuclear weapons to other states in the region. So I think Iran has very legitimate interests regionally in the Persian Gulf. But so does the United States. And the other countries in the region also have legitimate interests about Iran’s use of terrorism and development of nuclear weapons. So what we need is negotiations, which recognize the legitimate interests of all sides.

Kayhan Barzegar: And engaging Iran, perhaps in the regional political-security issues?

Joseph Nye: Yes, by all means.

Kayhan Barzegar: Let’s talk about sanctions on Iran. In your co-authored book with Robert Keohane, Power and Interdependence, you have talked about UN sanctions. What is your position on sanctions on Iran? Don’t you think that a comprehensive engagement and strengthening interdependence with Iran will solve problems more effectively rather than imposing sanctions?

Joseph Nye: In the long run, yes. I think you could say that sanctions are to catch the attention of the government. And to say that if there is no willingness to bargain, that it is expensive. But along with sanctions ought to be relief from not only new sanctions but relief from past sanctions, and the development of a much deeper interdependence. So, you basically say that here are two pictures of the future, one of which is not a good picture and the other one is a very good picture. Now let us see if we can bargain about how to choose a better picture. So, one would be, what I suggest, a temporary measure, the other a long term objective

Kayhan Barzegar: So, you are in favor of sanctions.

Joseph Nye: Yes, at this stage because if I understand what I read and hear about the bargaining that is going on, there is not much bargaining on the Iranian side. If you listen to Nick Burns, he describes an Iranian Government that is not willing to bargain, and which has not always kept its promises in the past. And in that case, I think sanctions are appropriate, but I would hope that is not the outcome in the long run. And in the broader conversation, we get to a situation in Iran’s relationship with not just the U.S. but with other countries, where sanctions were irrelevant or withdrawn.

Kayhan Barzegar: Thank you very much for taking the time!

Joseph Nye: You are welcome!


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