There is always a heightened sense of anticipation when you can see and listen to an author you have read for years. The RSA provided such an opportunity earlier this week when Professor Joseph Nye Jr gave a talk.
Nye did not disappoint. The hour long session fell into the standard RSA format: twenty minutes from the speaker; twenty minutes of questioning from Matthew Taylor, the RSA Chief Executive and twenty minutes for questions from the 200+ people in the audience.
Tonight it was simply power. Or rather the future of power in the future which coincidently is the title of his new book. Power in twenty years time: what will it look like? A book to sell and a consummate professional, dropping just enough hints to drive the sales.
To start with he came up with a reiteration of the two well known trends: the shift from West to East and from the state to a multiplicity of others notably citizens empowered by the ease of communications. Nye classifies them as power in transition and the diffusion of power.
Both trends were aptly illustrated with historical references. Thucydides, Martin Luther and AJP Taylor were referenced. A nice headliner example: if cars had reduced in price the same as computing power we would now be paying £5 for a car. (I bet the insurance would remain the same as the financial services sector inhabit a different world to the rest of us).
Nye came into his own with his analysis of current affairs. A master class in liberal and establishment progressive foreign policy (which means not very progressive). China worry? Not really. Asia held 50% of the world population and economy in 1800 and will regain both in the near future. World government? More likely a variable geometry of groupings for different purposes. Worried about China’s resources grab in Africa? Not really, more important is the effect of the emissions of those resources. Will China’s investment in soft power lead to attraction? No, not with domestic restrictions of which Ai Wei Wei’s arrest and disappearance is but the latest example. Corporations more powerful than government? Nothing new, been there in history. And a useful reminder that it is nowadays rarely “power over” but “power with”.
Cyber freedom? Now we moved into the newer areas of international affairs and one Nye clearly thought governments have not woken up to. A nice side trip to note that Mozorov’s Net Delusion provides a useful corrective against the cyber utopians as repressive regimes play cat and mouse with citizen’s net freedoms.
He saw the USA’s main threats as the debt crisis, (but didn’t expand on how long the US can continue to live on its Chinese credit card); a terrorist attack causing the US to turn in on itself. He gave a wonderful anecdote from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who said the US had 7bn people to choose from such was its power of attraction. Another useful phrase to use against the growing anti-immigrationists, progressive or not. Nye’s third risk was indeed different from most commentators: the poor state of education in the US below university level. I doubt if Michael Gove was listening.
The final question introduced the EU and its current range of problems “It will muddle through” was Nye’s comment; (echoing BBC’s Robert Peston’s recent comment) but the USA needs a strong Europe as Europe is the closest in values to the USA. And the EU needs a strong UK inside. A comment which sent this ardent European out into the warm May evening sunshine with a power spring in his step.