A Life in the American Century

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Release Date: 
January 24, 2024
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“drawn from Nye’s brilliance reflected in the written word and innumerable consultations both domestic and foreign.”

In February of 1941 in Life magazine, Henry Luce, owner and publisher of Time and Life magazines, wrote an editorial calling on the United States as the most powerful nation in the world to accept an international role in what he termed “The American Century.” Luce feared a retreat into the isolation that followed World War I and remained a powerful force through the 1930s. The entry of the United States into World War II marked the beginning of the acceptance of that international role.

This is the concept referenced in the title of Joseph Nye’s brief and rich description of his career in American foreign affairs and academic life. This is also an account of a very American life story.

Joseph Nye came from a modest background in rural New Jersey. He was educated in ordinary primary and secondary schools, but nevertheless was admitted to Princeton University. In the process, he moved from a world of rural isolation to one of the best universities in the United States. This marked the beginning of a remarkable career spanning much of the American century.

The book is divided into ten chapters. The first chronicles the early years from birth through a Ford Foundation Grant to study the economic structure of post-colonial East Africa. Princeton was followed by Nye’s time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and the pursuit of a graduate degree at Harvard where he studied with some of the most important scholars of international affairs in the United States, including Henry Kissinger.

In each of the remaining nine chapters, Nye spells out his careers in and out of government in the presidencies from Johnson through Biden. Nye’s various positions in the sixties included a faculty position at Harvard; six months in Guatemala to study the Central American Common Market; a return to Harvard, serving as the Carnegie Endowment International Peace Scholar in Geneva in 1968; returning to Harvard in 1969, in the midst of protest and turmoil, where he became the director of student programs.

Through it all, Nye published several books and began an intellectual relationship with Robert Keohane. The two of them are often cited as the founders of “neoliberalism” in international affairs. In 1976, they published Power and Independence, which became a standard text for international relations courses.

During the Carter Administration, Nye served in the State Department, participated in various projects at the Council of Foreign Relations, and at the Murphy Commission on the Organization of the Government for the Conduct of Foreign Policy. Nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism were areas of much of Nye’s work during his time at the State Department, and he was central in the development of President Carter’s policy on plutonium.

During his time in the Carter Administration, he seemed to be in constant motion, moving from country to country: advising, consulting, and persuading at a remarkable pace. Two years of this hectic pace was enough, and so he returned to Harvard. This turned out to be the trajectory of the next three decades of service in and out of government, culminating with his appointment as the Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in the mid-1990s. Here he transformed the Kennedy School into a powerhouse institution that trained countless numbers of government servants and consultants across the globe.

Nye recounts his activities and, along the way, offers policy assessments and comments on the various politicians for whom he worked and with whom he often sparred. He continued to be a prolific publisher of books, articles, studies, and reports. He is generally credited with coining the phrase and developing the concept of “soft power” in international relations. He moved in high circles of world leaders and consulted with many government agencies across the globe. During his career, he met with nearly every significant head of state and major figures in governments, both allies and adversaries.

A sense of his involvement and the pace of his work can be seen from this short passage describing his travel schedule: “Between January 6 and February 6, 1995, I was out of the country for twenty-four days of the thirty-one days on three trips to ten different countries.”

Nye’s work has been recognized by numerous awards from government departments in the U.S. and across the world. Among these are: The Distinguished Service Award from the Defense Department, The Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts at Harvard, The Distinguished Service Medal from the National Intelligence Council, and The Order of the Rising Sun given by the Emperor of Japan.

It is perhaps no surprise that a 2008 poll of several thousand international relations scholars ranked Nye as the sixth most influential scholar over the previous two decades. They ranked him as the most influential scholar on foreign policy. These sorts of recognitions became commonplace across the expanse of Nye’s career.

Joseph Nye, Jr. is a major figure in international relations and someone who influenced every significant debate on issues related to the foreign relations of the United States. As such, this book is a basic primer for more than a half century of American policy formation. Its content is drawn from Nye’s brilliance reflected in the written word and innumerable consultations both domestic and foreign. It is difficult to imagine a better place for an introduction to the study of U.S. Foreign Policy than with this impressive volume of memoir and history.