Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Distinguished Service Professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.Summary by Richard C. Longworth

Does it really matter who is president of the United States? This was the question that Joseph S. Nye asked a Chicago Council audience Tuesday evening. Would American history be that much different if other persons had occupied the Oval Office? 

Well, yes, Nye said. At least some of the time. But not as often as you’d think. And in ways that would surprise people who think they understand the presidency and US history.

Joe Nye, a familiar figure to Chicago Council audiences, is the Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. A former government official, he is viewed as one of America’s foremost political scientists, probably best known to the public for his concept of “soft power” in foreign affairs. 

In his new book, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, Nye has turned his attention to presidents, how they lead, what makes successful presidents, and their impact on American history, especially in the 20th century. 

There are two kinds of presidents, Nye said. One is “transformational………..leaders of vision and the objective of changing the world.” The other is “transactional,” basically managers interested “in making sure that the train stays on the tracks.” 

History pays most attention to the transformational presidents, Nye said, because they’re the ones with the grand design, who take the big bets and are assumed to have changed history. But the transactional presidents who may have the bigger effect, he said, and, moreover, follow the Hippocratic injunction to “do no harm.”

And sometimes, so-called transformational presidents aren’t transformational at all. 

Theodore Roosevelt is seen by history as a transformational president in his expansion of American power. “But I don’t think so,” Nye said. “If you look at the way that America was growing (in the early 20th century), this would have happened under any leader.”

Roosevelt built the Panama Canal, but Nye argued it would have been built anyway – although possibly through Nicaragua. 
On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson truly was transformational, Nye said, but not in the way he planned.

Wilson’s transformational impact on foreign policy was his reason for entering World War I and, following that, his attempt to create the League of Nations. Nye said that another president, such as Teddy Roosevelt, would have taken the country to war, “but what really mattered was how Wilson explained it.” 

Roosevelt would have said it was in the US national interest, Nye said. But Wilson, more of a visionary, cast the war and its aftermath as an attempt to end the balance of power in foreign relations, to create collective security through a League of Nations, and to make the world safe for democracy. All this so raised the hopes of the American people, he said, that when a skeptical Congress defeated the Treaty of Versailles, the nation swung into a spasm of isolationism – certainly not what Wilson had in mind. 

When World War II came, the personality of the president made a big difference, Nye said. Had Charles Lindberg, a Nazi sympathizer, been president, as some hoped at the time, he would have responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor by confining the war to Japan and Asia. Roosevelt used the attack as an opportunity to declare war on Germany, too. The upshot under Lindberg would have been a much different postwar Europe, possibly split between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The biggest personal impact on the presidency may have been Roosevelt’s dumping of his pro-Soviet vice president, Henry Wallace, in favor of Harry Truman, who quickly became president and proceeded to set in place the policies and institutions that guided US foreign policy through the Cold War. 

At the time, Truman was not seen as “transformational,” but he “made a huge difference,” Nye said. “I doubt that a President Wallace would have responded as Truman did.” 
Apart from Truman, Nye reserved his greatest praise for two “transactional” presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush. 

Eisenhower was “no crusader,” Nye said, but he was a good manager who “consolidated what Truman had started.” Ike also knew when to be non-transformational. Nye cited Eisenhower’s squashing of plans by his joint chiefs to use tactical nuclear weapons to defend the Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu. 

“What if he had said yes?” Nye asked. “It would be a very different world.” Eisenhower’s decision was “an extraordinary non-event,” not celebrated in history but crucial to it.  

The first President Bush said that “I don’t do the vision thing,” but Nye said he was the right man at the right time, when the Cold War ended and many of his advisors advocated a triumphalist American foreign policy. Bush “refused to celebrate,” he said, because it would have forced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev into a corner from which he “couldn’t do what we needed him to do.” 
Instead, Bush managed a complex process that ended with a united Germany inside NATO, “with no shots fired.”

The elder Bush “had an extraordinary contextual intelligence,” Nye said. “He really knew the world,” in contrast to his son, who tried to be a transformational president but didn’t know the world.
“All this,” Nye said, “should make us more cautious in what we look for in foreign policy leaders. We should look for those with the skills of a Bush 41, to keep the train on the tracks. 
“The results of grand visions that you can’t implement are worse than no grand vision at all,” he said.

“Above all, do no harm.” 

Additional Resources

   TUESDAY, JUNE 4, 2013


   Event Audio  (50.5MB, mp3) 
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