Prof. Joseph Nye Keynote Speech (Trans-Pacific Dialogue 2021)
The China Challenge and Lessons of History


On December 6-8 2021, the Chey Institute held the Trans-Pacific Dialogue 2021. During the inaugural conference, Joseph Nye, Distinguished Service Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, provided Keynote Remarks, entitled: “The China Challenge and Lessons of History.” As China rises on the world stage, analysts and policymakers often turn to history as a guide to the future. Although historical metaphors must always be treated with care, Professor Nye provided three analogies that are particularly salient in understanding the rise of China: Thucydides Trap, a new Cold War, and 1914 Sleepwalkers.

Thucydides Trap refers to the Greek historian Thucydides’ analysis of the underlying cause of the Peloponnesian War—the rise in the power of Athens, and the fear that it created in Sparta. Seen through the lens of Athens as China and the U.S. as Sparta, the analogy has been frightening to some: however, Professor Nye delineates the differences between the Greeks then, and our world today, reminding policymakers that they can help control the exacerbation of fear in Washington. Nye then notes that the rise of China also calls into question the Kindleberger Trap, and prompts us to ensure the maintenance of global public goods.

The second analogy Professor Nye details is the rhetoric of a “New Cold War,” one that is being exploited by both political leaders and scholars. Nye indicates that the Cold War metaphor often misleads policymakers about the nature of the challenge they face from China, citing the huge difference in economic interdependence between the U.S.S.R. and U.S. in the 20th century and the U.S. and China today, as well as the change in fears about the export of communism. Finally, he postulates that meeting the China challenge will require a complex strategy both at home and abroad, but that the metaphor of a Cold War will only be counterproductive as a strategy overseas.

In his final analogy, the “1914 Sleepwalkers”, Professor Nye submits that there is still a very real possibility of a new Cold War or hot war that can occur by accident, just like the beginning of World War I in 1914. A real loss of flexibility occurred in the early 20th century due to enflamed nationalism in Europe, a rise in complacency about peace, and an ambitious but vague and confusing German policy. These factors combined led to not a third Balkan War in 1914 as the great powers expected, but a World War into which the powers ‘sleepwalked’ unknowingly. Today between the U.S. and China lies Taiwan. History’s lesson, cautions Professor Nye, is to be wary of sleepwalking into a conflict.

To learn from and not fall into the traps of history, Professor Nye then lays out a variety of strategies for America to lead in a “competitive coexistence” with China: 1) Preserve U.S. democratic institutions that attract allies, 2) Invest in research and development that maintains technological advantage, 3) Maintain U.S. openness to the world, 4) Restructure U.S. legacy military forces to adapt to technological change, 5) Strengthen alliance structures including NATO, Japan, Australia, and Korea, 6) Enhance U.S. relations with India, 7) Strengthen U.S. participation in and supplement the existing set of international institutions created to set standards and manage interdependence, 8) Cooperate with China where possible on issues of transnational interdependence. Professor Nye says although the U.S. cannot contain China, working with democratic allies can shape the environment in which China continues to rise.

Joseph NYE


  • Joseph NYE, Harvard University

    The China Challenge and Lessons of History

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