Those attending this week's latest 'Research in the World' public lecture had a rare opportunity to hear from eminent US political scientist, Professor Joseph Nye, on the role of Presidents in shaping American history.
Professor Nye, Distinguished Service Professor and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and renowned global thinker, is known widely for having coined the term 'soft power' in international relations - a country's ability to attract or co-opt, rather than coerce.
In his talk at the University, Professor Nye challenged the audience to consider the extent to which individuals can influence trends in global politics. In the US context, he questioned whether America would have become the global superpower it is regardless of who was President?
Drawing on insights from his new book, 'Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era', Professor Nye set out a case that leaders do matter, but that the type of leader they become determines their effectiveness in terms of foreign policy.
By focussing on four specific periods of US expansionism over the twentieth century, from its entry into World War 1 through to the end of the Cold War, Professor Nye looked at the decisions of successive US Presidents to define two distinct leadership types: transformational verses transactional.
And although transformational Presidents, such as Wilson or Reagan, may have changed how America sees the world through their rhetoric or idealism, Professor Nye argued that it is in fact transactional ones who may have been more effective and ethical in shaping the way the world sees America. Citing realists like Eisenhower or George Bush Senior, he suggested that the soft power of transactional leaders had often been more powerful than the idealism or visionary zeal of others, in particular around times of significant political change. Bush Senior's decision 'not to dance on the Wall' in reaction to the reunification of Germany in 1989, was highlighted as an example which ultimately speeded up the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In this analysis, Professor Nye turned to challenge 'what might have been?' had decisions been taken where they were not, or had elections swung in different ways. History, he suggested, should judge Presidents not just by what had happened during their time in office, but also by what had not. As Marx declared, "man makes history but not under the conditions of his own choosing."
In her vote of thanks, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Jane Millar said: "It has been a privilege to hear this thoughtful and insightful lecture, based on deep knowledge and understanding of US policy from academic study and personal experience."
You can find a podcast of Professor Nye's lecture here.