Think Again: Soft Power

In 1990, “Foreign Policy” first analyzed “soft power.” Here, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., author of the original article, returns to correct notions that have since become associated with soft power. The concept, he asserts, is the power of “attraction,” as opposed to the power of “coercion” or “payment.” Soft power is not exclusively cultural power, yet exporting cultural goods that hold attraction for other countries can communicate values and influence those societies. Economic strength, on the other hand, is usually not soft power. Responding to an economic incentive or sanction is not the same as aligning politically with a cause that is admired or respected. Likewise, soft power is not necessarily humane: The soft-power activism of Gandhi and Martin Luther King revealed a triumphant humanity, but reviled leaders like Hitler and Stalin also relied on “twisting minds.” Nye analyzes the potential use of soft power for some of today’s most pressing issues, and suggests that the strategy has taken on a greater prominence during President Bush’s second term. Soft power alone will not resolve nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea, Nye admits, but it can convince other nations to isolate those countries. Soft power will also help win the war on terror, as extremist and moderate Muslims compete for the support of ordinary people, Military maneuvers in the Middle East can’t succeed without a soft-power policy that convinces Muslims to reject radical groups who encourage violence. For these reasons, “Soft power is more relevant than ever,” and Nye recommends that political leaders understand its nuances. – YaleGlobal

Think Again: Soft Power

Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

“Soft Power Is Cultural Power”

Partly. Power is the ability to alter the behavior of others to get what you want. There are basically three ways to do that: coercion (sticks), payments (carrots), and attraction (soft power). British historian Niall Ferguson described soft power as “non-traditional forces such as cultural and commercial goods”—and then promptly dismissed it on the grounds that “it’s, well, soft.” Of course, the fact that a foreigner drinks Coca-Cola or wears a Michael Jordan T-shirt does not in itself mean that America has power over him. This view confuses resources with behavior. Whether power resources produce a favorable outcome depends upon the context. This reality is not unique to soft-power resources: Having a larger tank army may produce military victory if a battle is fought in the desert, but not if it is fought in swampy jungles such as Vietnam.

A country’s soft power can come from three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority). Consider Iran. Western music and videos are anathema to the ruling mullahs, but attractive to many of the younger generation to whom they transmit ideas of freedom and choice. American culture produces soft power among some Iranians, but not others.

“Economic Strength Is Soft Power"

No. In a recent article on options for dealing with Iran, Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation refers to “soft power options such as economic sanctions.” But there is nothing soft about sanctions if you are on the receiving end. They are clearly intended to coerce and are thus a form of hard power. Economic strength can be converted into hard or soft power: You can coerce countries with sanctions or woo them with wealth. As Walter Russell Mead has argued, “economic power is sticky power; it seduces as much as it compels.” There’s no doubt that a successful economy is an important source of attraction. Sometimes in real-world situations, it is difficult to distinguish what part of an economic relationship is comprised of hard and soft power. European leaders describe other countries’ desire to accede to the European Union (EU) as a sign of Europe’s soft power. Turkey today is making changes in its human rights policies and domestic law to adjust to EU standards. How much of this change is driven by the economic inducement of market access, and how much by the attractiveness of Europe’s successful economic and political system? It’s clear that some Turks are replying more to the hard power of inducement, whereas others are attracted to the European model of human rights and economic freedom.

“Soft Power Is More Humane Than Hard Power”

Not necessarily. Because soft power has been hyped as an alternative to raw power politics, it is often embraced by ethically minded scholars and policymakers. But soft power is a description, not an ethical prescription. Like any form of power, it can be wielded for good or ill. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, after all, possessed a great deal of soft power in the eyes of their acolytes. It is not necessarily better to twist minds than to twist arms. If I want to steal your money, I can threaten you with a gun, or I can swindle you with a get-rich-quick scheme in which you invest, or I can persuade you to hand over your estate as part of a spiritual journey. The third way is through soft power, but the result is still theft.

Although soft power in the wrong hands can have horrible consequences, it can in some cases offer morally superior means to certain goals. Contrast the consequences of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.’s choice of soft power with Yasir Arafat’s choice of the gun. Gandhi and King were able to attract moderate majorities over time, and the consequences were impressive both in effectiveness and in ethical terms. Arafat’s strategy of hard power, by contrast, killed innocent Israelis and drove Israeli moderates into the arms of the hard right.

"Hard power Can Be measured, and Soft Power Cannot"

False. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland has complained that soft power, like globalization, is too “elastic” a concept to be useful. Like others, he fails to understand the difference between power resources and behavior. In fact, it’s quite possible to quantify sources of soft power. One can, for example, measure and compare the cultural, communications, and diplomatic resources that might produce soft power for a country. Public opinion polls can quantify changes in a country’s attractiveness over time. Nor is hard power as easy to quantify as Hoagland seems to believe. The apparent precision of the measurement of hard power resources is often spurious and might be called “the concrete fallacy”—the notion that the only important resources are those that can be dropped on your foot (or on a city). That’s a mistake. The United States had far more measurable military resources than North Vietnam, but it nonetheless lost the Vietnam War. Whether soft power produces behavior that we want will depend on the context and the skills with which the resources are converted into outcomes.

“Europe Counts Too Much on Soft Power and the United States Too Much on Hard Power”

True. Robert Kagan’s clever phrase that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus is an overstatement, but it contains a core of truth. Europe has successfully used the attraction of its successful political and economic integration to obtain outcomes it wants, and the United States has often acted as though its military preeminence can solve all problems. But it is a mistake to rely on hard or soft power alone. The ability to combine them effectively might be termed “smart power.” During the Cold War, the West used hard power to deter Soviet aggression, while it also used soft power to erode faith in Communism behind the iron curtain. That was smart power. To be smart today, Europe should invest more in its hard-power resources, and the United States should pay more attention to its soft power.

“The Bush Administration Neglects America’s Soft Power”

More true in the first term than the second. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about soft power in 2003, he replied “I don’t know what it means.” The administration and the country paid a high price for that ignorance. Fortunately, in Bush’s second term, with Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes at the State Department and Rumsfeld’s reputation dented by the kind of failures the private sector would never tolerate, the second term team has shown an increased concern about America’s soft power. The president has stressed values in foreign policy and has increased the budget for public diplomacy.

“Some Goals Can Only Be Achieved by Hard Power”

No Doubt. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s penchant for Hollywood movies is unlikely to affect his decision on developing nuclear weapons. Hard power just might dissuade him, particularly if China agreed to economic sanctions. Nor will soft power be sufficient to stop the Iranian nuclear program, though the legitimacy of the administration’s current multilateral approach may help to recruit other countries to a coalition that isolates Iran. And soft power got nowhere in luring the Taliban away from al Qaeda in the 1990s. It took American military might to do that. But other goals, such as the promotion of democracy and human rights are better achieved by soft power. Coercive democratization has its limits—as the United States has (re)discovered in Iraq.

“Military Resources Produce Only Hard Power”

No. The mention of hard power immediately conjures up images of tanks, fighters, and missiles. But military prowess and competence can sometimes create soft power. Dictators such as Hitler and Stalin cultivated myths of invincibility and inevitability to structure expectations and attract others to join their cause. As Osama bin Laden has said, people are attracted to a strong horse rather than a weak horse. A well-run military can be a source of admiration. The impressive job of the U.S. military in providing humanitarian relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the South Asian earthquake in 2005 helped restore the attractiveness of the United States. Military-to-military cooperation and training programs, for example, can establish transnational networks that enhance a country’s soft power.

Of course, misuse of military resources can also undercut soft power. The Soviets had a great deal of soft power in the years after World War II, but they destroyed it by the way they used their hard power against Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Brutality and indifference to just war principles of discrimination and proportionality can also destroy legitimacy. The efficiency of the initial U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003 created admiration in the eyes of some foreigners, but that soft power was undercut by the subsequent inefficiency of the occupation and the scenes of mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

“Soft Power Is Difficult to Use.”

Partly true. Governments can control and change foreign policies. They can spend money on public diplomacy, broadcasting, and exchange programs. They can promote, but not control popular culture. In that sense, one of the key resources that produce soft power is largely independent of government control. That is why the Council on Foreign Relations recently suggested the formation of a Corporation for Public Diplomacy—modeled on the U.S. Corporation for Public Broadcasting—to engage wider participation among private groups and individuals (who are often unwilling to be part of official government productions).

“Soft Power Is Irrelevant to the Current Terrorist Threat”

False. There is a small likelihood that the West will ever attract such people as Mohammed Atta or Osama bin Laden. We need hard power to deal with people like them. But the current terrorist threat is not Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations. It is a civil war within Islam between a majority of moderates and a small minority who want to coerce others into an extremist and oversimplified version of their religion. The United States cannot win unless the moderates win. We cannot win unless the number of people the extremists are recruiting is lower than the number we are killing and deterring. Rumsfeld himself asked in a 2003 memo: “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?” That equation will be very hard to balance without a strategy to win hearts and minds. Soft power is more relevant than ever.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is distinguished service professor at Harvard University and author, most recently, of “The Power Game: A Washington Novel” (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004).

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