Joseph Nye picks 5 books about power

June 3, 2011

In an interview with the Browser, a British literary website, Joseph S. Nye, Jr. , author of “The Future of Power,” picked five books that best illuminate how global power is shifting in the 21st century.

1. The Post-American World , by Fareed Zakaria (2008). Zakaria looks at whether the United States is in decline, and decides that the problem with the term “decline” is that, if it means absolute decline, as with ancient Rome, then it’s not a very good description. What the United States faces is not absolute decline but relative decline, in that the gap between the Unites States and other countries is diminishing with the rise of China, India, Brazil and others. Zakaria chose a happy term that is better than relative decline — “the rise of the rest.”

2. History of the Peloponnesian War , by Thucydides (fifth century B.C.).Thucydides points out that sometimes people are worried not just about absolute gains but about relative gains. That is, we’re all getting better off, but if you’re getting a lot better off than I am, then you’re going to be able to exercise power over me, and I begin to develop anxieties. So when Thucydides is trying to account for the Peloponnesian War, an extraordinary war in the fifth century B.C. in which the Greek city-state system tore itself apart, he says the basic cause was the rise in power of Athens and the fear that this created in Sparta. He points out that this kind of fear, along with a belief that war is inevitable, can itself become a cause of war.

3. Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade , by Bill Emmott (2008). As we look at the rise of China, we have to ask whether China will present the kind of challenge to the United States that Athens did to Sparta. But Emmott argues that if you look more carefully, you see that Asia has its own internal balance of power. As China’s power grows, the Japanese, Indians — not to mention the Vietnamese, South Koreans and so on — become worried and ask themselves, how can we balance that power? That makes them actually welcome America’s presence.

4. Power: A Radical View , by Steven Lukes (1974). This book on radical views of power follows a tradition of people writing that power was the ability to get others to do what they otherwise wouldn’t do. Lukes said, wait a minute, if I can set the agenda so that your items don’t even arise for us to discuss, then I don’t have to twist your arm. What’s more, if I can establish your preferences, then I don’t have to coerce you to get you to do what I want. What Lukes did was to identify three faces of power: coercion and payments (or sticks and carrots); setting the agenda so that your issues don’t come up; and shaping your preferences so that you want what I want and I don’t have to spend anything on carrots and sticks.

5. Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It , by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake (2010). When you look at the enormous opportunities that the Internet has presented — economic efficiency, great communication — we generally think of the positive side. But Clarke and Knake point out that, as we open these opportunities, we also make ourselves vulnerable to their disruption. For example, you may have the capacity to do damage in the physical world just by sending electrons across a border. If there were suddenly a loss of electricity, water supply or transportation in the United States, we wouldn’t know who did it, a government or an individual. “Cyber War” is a useful introduction to the increasing availability of power to non-state actors.

Excerpt from an interview with Joseph S. Nye Jr. conducted by Anna Blundy for the Browser. Read the complete interview at TheBrowser.com/fivebooks.

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