By Fen Osler Hampson


The Montréal Review, January 2024



One might well ask why Canadians would be interested in a memoir by a Harvard professor describing his personal and intellectual journey first as a student at Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard and then teacher, punctuated by several senior government appointments in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon. But they should. Though Nye never reached the apex of government to serve as National Security Adviser to the President or Secretary of State, his influence extended well above and beyond his pay grade. He will also forever be known as the godfather of “soft power,” a term that is now part of the standard lexicon of diplomacy.

This is not the only reason to read this book, however. It tells an important story about the genesis of ideas, the role intellectuals can play in the public discourse of a nation, and perhaps more importantly, how they play that role through key networks of power and influence.

This book appears shortly after the death of arguably America’s most famous diplomat in the post War era, Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State during Richard Nixon’s presidency. What most Canadian readers of this book probably don’t know is that Nye’s friends and associates saw him as a Kissinger-in-the-making—someone who was politically savvy, ambitious, well-spoken, and a consummate networker. On two occasions it looked as if Nye might well follow Kissinger’s footsteps to the White House: first, when Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts made his bid for the presidency in 1988 and tapped Nye to head his foreign policy brain trust, and then when Senator John Kerry, another Massachusetts politician, became the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. However, both candidates’ campaigns faltered and their defeat to their Republican rivals dashed any such dreams.

Though Nye fits the Kissinger mould as a Harvard professor who was Washington-bound, he could not be more different as a person.

Kissinger came to the United States as a German Jew and refugee whose family had fled Nazi Germany. When he enrolled at Harvard in the late 1940s, the university was a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon protestant upper-class privilege. As a Jew, Kissinger was snubbed by his classmates and Boston’s Brahmin class. Kennedy confidant and former Harvard Dean McGeorge Bundy vetoed Kissinger’s appointment in the Kennedy administration on the grounds he was a “schemer who could not be trusted.” Those affronts left their indelible psychological imprint. Though he craved the limelight and the fawning attention of America’s rich and powerful, Kissinger was privately contemptuous of them all, including his boss, President Richard Nixon.

Nye, the all-American by birth and upbringing, suffered no such personal insecurities. His father was a well-to-do bond trader on Wall Street, and he was fortunate to grow up on the family farm in rural New Jersey, where he learned to pick apples, tend to the pigs and cows, and kill chickens for the family dinner. The family went to church every Sunday. Nye was instilled with the fundamental values of honesty, integrity, hard work, and self-discipline along with an abiding love of the outdoors and the simple pleasures in life—family, fishing, and farming. Those values were readily apparent to his students, academic and government colleagues, and even foreign officials. A Japanese diplomat who had extensive professional dealings with Nye once told me. “Nye flies straight as an arrow.” It was high praise but also true. He is someone people trust and like.

Nye takes us chronologically through his life story, beginning with his undergraduate days at Princeton and Oxford and then at Harvard, where he earned his doctorate. The sixties, when he was a student, were the bitter and turbulent days of the Vietnam War. There were massive protests against the war on America’s college campuses, some of which turned violent and even deadly.

Though he narrowly missed the military draft by winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, the war left a lasting impact on Nye as it did on many of his generation. He believed that the United States had made a catastrophic error when it intervened in Vietnam. He came early to the idea that the real strength of the United States, and the source of its influence in the world, was not its military but its “soft” powers of attraction rooted in its highly diversified and innovative economy (still the biggest in the world), its universities and cutting-edge research, its entertainment industry, its unrivalled technological supremacy, and its vibrant democracy and political institutions. As Nye saw it, the challenge for American diplomacy was to marshal those talents and inherent strengths though diplomacy to build a more orderly and prosperous world. It was an idea he tilled and honed in many books and articles on the sources of American power and influence in the world. 

Nye served in two Democratic administrations: first, as deputy to the undersecretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology, where he chaired the National Security Council on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He played a key role in nipping in the bud Brazil’s and Argentina’s nuclear ambitions while also curbing the worldwide sale of uranium enrichment plants, which would have almost certainly increased the risks of nuclear proliferation. Later, Nye would serve in the Clinton administration, first as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which prepares the daily intelligence briefing for the President of the United States and then as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs.

Although he resigned his Harvard professorship to serve in the Clinton administration, Nye was lured back to Harvard to become Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, a position he held from 1995-2004. During his tenure, the school oversaw its most significant expansion. He added major new programs and buildings, swelled the school’s enrollment, and attracted generous, multi-million-dollar donations. After he stepped down as Dean, Nye kept himself busy with new book projects on soft power, presidential leadership, ethics, and America’s role in the world.

As a Harvard professor, Nye understood better than many of his academic colleagues that the path to real influence is not to sit in the ivory tower and write academic tomes in the vain hope they will get the attention of somebody important but to join the club of Washington movers and shakers. As Chair of the North American branch of the Trilateral Commission, co-chair of the Aspen Strategy Group, and the lead on many blue-ribbon commissions, Nye became a go-to source for policy advice and ideas. This book offers valuable insights into how these political networks operate, especially in the Cambridge (Harvard)-Washington corridor, and how academics can use their own “soft power” to good effect.

At the end of the book, Nye expresses his profound misgivings about the state of America today “and what it could do to [America’s] soft power.” The chaotic and deeply divisive state of American politics is a stark reminder that a country’s soft power is mutable and easily squandered. Today, America’s global reputation and influence hang in the balance as its turns destructively inward to fight its cultural and identity wars and other political demons. America’s greatest enemy is not China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran but itself and the dysfunction that now plagues its political institutions and thwarts its capacity for global leadership and action.


Fen Osler Hampson is a former Director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) (2000-2012), Carleton University. He is currently Chancellor’s Professor and Professor of International Affairs in the School. Professor Hampson served as Director of the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) and is the President of the World Refugee & Migration Council.






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