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World Should Take 'Declining Power' Russia 'More Seriously,' Says Political Analyst Nye

Nye says that Vladimir Putin's Russia is still a vast country with "talented people" and a nuclear arsenal.
Nye says that Vladimir Putin's Russia is still a vast country with "talented people" and a nuclear arsenal.

One of the most vocal champions of global "interdependence" in international affairs, Joseph Nye, has warned that the United States and the world should take Russia "much more seriously."

Nye, a political scientist whose influence helped shape Western thought in the latter stages of the Cold War, also downplayed the notion that Europe might be eager to significantly boost ties to Russia or China at the expense of transatlantic relations.

"I think that basically, the Europeans are not that attracted to China, and I think the Europeans also still have a fear about Russia," Nye, former dean at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in a wide-ranging interview on May 11.

"Sure, Europe is in the center of a struggle between outside countries, but I don't see it as anything close to resembling the situation in the 1950s, for example."

Joseph Nye speaks during a symposium in Tokyo in October 2012.
Joseph Nye speaks during a symposium in Tokyo in October 2012.

On international influence in light of the current global coronavirus pandemic and the current U.S. administration's "America first" agenda, Nye stressed obstacles to Russian leadership on the issue and said he saw no "relative change" in the U.S.-Chinese balance.

One of the fathers of neoliberalism in foreign affairs in the 1970s, Nye is a longtime advocate of "interdependence" on the international stage.

His ideas have been seen as something akin to organizing foreign policy principles under several Democratic presidential administrations, and often run counter to neorealism, which emphasizes the role of a country's military power to accomplish goals abroad.

Nye has been a harsh critic of U.S. President Donald Trump.

He coined the term "smart power" a decade ago to argue for a greater reliance on accurate information and cultural and political arguments to complement military strength to achieve foreign policy goals.

Nye told RFE/RL he believed "American soft power has declined" since 2015, when he famously asked in the title of a book, Is The American Century Over?

Declining, Dangerous

But he argued that people in Poland or other Central European countries will tell you they could not imagine being in an alliance with Russia.

Nye cited continued European support for U.S. engagement and NATO, for instance. But added that Russia cannot be ignored. "I think Russia has to be taken very seriously," Nye said.

He called Russia a "declining state" by virtue of its annual loss of around 750,000 people from its workforce in recent years and its failure "to adapt its economy to a modern-technology economy as opposed to an energy-based economy."

But it is still a vast country with "talented people" and a nuclear arsenal, he added.

"After all, sometimes it is declining countries which are the most dangerous, because they're the most willing to take risks," Nye said. "So Russia should not fall below the radar; it's something we should take much more seriously."

The West's relations with Moscow have been tested by Russia's military ventures -- foremost among them its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine -- but also its ongoing suppression of peaceful dissenters and other perceived rights abuses, and suspected Russian assassinations and attempted killings in Europe, including fresh accusations that a Russian intelligence agent was recently dispatched to Prague with the poison ricin.

EU's Issues Internal, Not External

Meanwhile, China has funneled increased investment and lending to Europe, including particularly to aspiring European Union members in the Balkans, and has waged a publicity campaign alongside donations and sales of medical supplies as Europe battled the coronavirus that emerged from central China and has infected 4.8 million people worldwide and killed more than 315,000 as of May 17.

Asked about recent Russian and Chinese efforts to increase their influence in Europe, Nye downplayed the idea that the EU was torn over its affinities.

Energy pipeline politics and divisions over the use of Chinese technology like Huawei's 5G equipment "are not the kind of issues that will break Europe apart."

"I worry more about Europe's own responses to the coronavirus," he said, citing differences over financing of COVID-19 recovery efforts.

Nye suggested that perceived internal disparities pose a greater threat to the EU than any maneuvering by outside powers.

"I hope that the Europeans will find ways to set up a COVID recovery fund and have economic assistance to the countries [in Europe] that are having more difficulties, and out of this you try to get a stronger Europe," he said.

"That's the area that worries me more than the competition between the Russians, and the Chinese, and the Americans."

Meanwhile, Nye said, "The Chinese have been trying to use economic advances to have more influence in Europe.... Look at the European responses to the Chinese soft-power initiative about the pandemic. They haven't bought very much of the Chinese propaganda line."

'Cooperative Rivalry'

In the wake of an agreed trade deal to break out of a years-long trade war with China, the Trump administration has accused Chinese officials of obfuscations and lies that have contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic -- if not flat-out caused it, since they have suggested the deadly new coronavirus was perhaps released from a lab in Wuhan.

That has raised the specter of an impasse in bilateral relations that could block virtually all cooperation between the world's top economic powers.

Nye accused both China and the United States of engaging in "denial" and "blame-shifting" since the coronavirus pandemic began, citing perceived blows to both countries' "soft power" as well as their economies.

But he said he hadn't sensed any "relative change" in their global influence.

Nye argued that Washington and Beijing "need to cooperate," for example, on issues like the pandemic and climate change. He described those as issues of "ecological globalization" that will continue despite reduced "economic globalization."

"The U.S. and China can't cope with those issues alone," he said.

"So I think we're going to see a mixed situation of, instead of a new Cold War, I think you're going to see what I call a cooperative rivalry: There'll be some areas where there will be rivalry and some areas where there will have to be cooperation."

He cited "very deep differences" between those two countries, including territorial issues like Taiwan and "ideological disagreements" like the punishment of dissidents and the forced internment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority, in western China.

But he rejected talk of any 1950s-style, U.S.-Soviet Cold War, this time between Beijing and Washington.

"I think what you're going to see in the U.S.-China relations is a selective decoupling, but not a total decoupling," he said.

Nye and fellow American academic Robert Keohane co-founded the neoliberalist theory of foreign affairs four decades ago, arguing that while military might and balance of power remained important, international relations were being increasingly transformed by a "complex interdependence" that made cooperation more likely.

Nye has warned of an overreliance on military superiority and argued for a strategy of "smart power" that combined "co-optive" or "soft power" (a term that he coined in the late 1980s) and military strength as a path to international influence.

Written by Andy Heil based on an interview by Dragan Stavljanin
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    Dragan Stavljanin

    Dragan Stavljanin is the foreign affairs editor of RFE/RL's Balkan Service. He has published numerous articles and written two books, The Cold Peace: The Caucasus And Kosovo and The Balkanization Of The Internet And The 'Death' Of The Journalist.