Scholar and international affairs expert Joseph S. Nye Jr. ’58 spoke to packed audiences in Robertson Hall Feb. 21 and 22, discussing American presidential leadership in foreign policy as part of the 2012 Richard Ullman Lecture Series.
Nye, a former dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, worked with collaborator (and current Princeton professor) Robert Keohane to develop the theory of neoliberalism in their 1977 book Power and Interdependence. He also has held posts that included chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 1993-94 and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Clinton administration.
Nye's first lecture focused on the efficacy of seven presidents who presided over what Nye called the “American era.” He separated the definition of leadership into two categories — style and objectives — with two subtypes each. Leaders, he said, can have inspirational or transactional styles and transformational or incremental objectives.
According to Nye, the differences between broadly transformational and transactional leadership can also be described in terms of “soft power” and “hard power,” with the ideal mix of the two being “smart power,” which uses “contextual IQ” to combine resources and understand the situation.
“Contextual intelligence is the self-made part of luck,” Nye said, later explaining, “Leaders with contextual intelligence are skilled in finding the meaning or roadmap in the issue the group confronts … and understand the group’s culture, power, and structure.”
Parsing the achievements, foreign policy, and governance styles of U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson 1879, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, Nye detailed the ways in which each president handled important points in the U.S.’s rise to power, from entering the global balance of power at the beginning of the 20th century to becoming the world’s sole superpower.
Nye praised Eisenhower and Bush’s incremental objectives and “extraordinary contextual management” and wondered what these presidents might have achieved had they set more transformational goals. He also posed counterfactuals about Wilson and Reagan: What if the former had better “emotional intelligence” and compromised with Congress on the establishment of the League of Nations, and what if the latter had better organizational skills in the lead-up to the Iran-Contra scandal?
Nye devoted his second session to ethics in leadership, separating a state’s ethics into three dimensions: ends the state has, means it uses, and consequences of its actions.
Particularly important in the context of ethics and leadership, according to Nye, are the qualities that must separate leaders from an everyday citizen. “Take the Biblical injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” he said. “This is a very good thing of thing to look out for in a spouse or a roommate … but it’s also interesting to look at whether you want an absolute pacifist for president.”
Nye used Truman’s choice to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of this ethical dilemma in leadership. “Even if Truman had refused to drop the bomb because of personal moral beliefs, at what point does it translate into selfishness and violation of followers’ trust?” he said.
He went on to describe two parts of good ethical leadership as “teaching and persuasion” in “helping a group how to decide” and in designing “good and effective institutions.” Referencing the transformational roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Nye explained, “One of the most important ways in which a leader creates meaning is by establishing or changing a group’s identity.”
After explaining certain foundations of moral philosophy and political theory, Nye applied those concepts to foreign policy in examining “what Americans owe foreigners, and when intervention in another country is moral.” The key, he discovered, is often prudence in ends, means, and consequences.
“In sum, most of the leaders of the American era had good objectives, but some used questionable means,” Nye said. “The consequences for the United States were mostly good, while the consequences for non-Americans were mostly bad.”

Sarah Xiyi Chen ’13 is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Arcadia, Calif.