Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics
Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics

Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics

Apr 13, 2004

Joseph Nye's concept of "soft power" has become part of the international relations lexicon. In this 2004 book talk, he argues that hard power alone cannot deal with terrorism successfully. We must use a combination of hard and soft power.

The concept of "soft power" has become part of the international relations lexicon. Professor Joseph Nye created it in the late 1980s and introduced it in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He developed it further in his 2004 book, which he discusses here.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, director of Merrill House Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I’d like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us, as we welcome Joe Nye to our Books for Breakfast program.

Today he will be discussing his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. His book is available at the end of the program.

Well, it is an election year in America. While foreign policy and national security have not always been the predominant issues in American presidential campaigns, perhaps this is the year they will have their just due. Saddled as we are with a foreign policy that largely relies on the hard power of our military and economic might, rather than capitalizing on the soft power of shared values, we would all agree that America’s recent foreign policy initiatives are seen as less than successful in the eyes of the world.

However, as long as we realize that it is not American power per se that is a problem, but rather how that power is utilized, Americans can begin to engage in a serious debate about our foreign policy objectives and the importance of using not only military strength but soft power to achieve our long-range goals.

As we move forward this election year and begin to seriously ask what we must do to remain the global superpower we are without alienating the rest of the world, it is with confidence that we turn to our guest today to tell us why America should be making more use of its soft power so that we can achieve success on the world stage.

Mr. Nye first developed the concept of soft power in Bound to Lead, a book published in 1990 that disputed the then-prevalent view that America was in decline. At that time he pointed out that the United States was not only the strongest nation in military and economic power, but also in a third dimension he called soft power. He defined this as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.” He went on to note that this power “could be cultivated through relations with allies, economic assistance, and cultural exchanges.” He argued that this would result in “a more favorable public opinion and credibility abroad.”

He returned to this theme again in 2001 with the publication of The Paradox of American Power, a book you may have heard him discuss here, a book that cautioned against sounding the trumpets of triumphalism.

Given the history of recent events, it is no surprise that the concept of soft power has resurfaced and is repeatedly invoked once again in foreign policy debates today.

Professor Nye first served in Washington during the Carter Administration as Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science, and Technology, and later in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. His years in government provided him with the invaluable experience and the political vision to address the challenges we face today.

So when he tells us that it is soft power that will prevent terrorists from recruiting supporters from among the moderate majority and it is soft power that will help us deal with critical global issues that require multilateral cooperation among states, we should listen carefully and use his most recent work, Soft Power, as our guide.

At this time it gives me great pleasure to welcome back the current Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, Joe Nye, to our Books for Breakfast program.


JOSEPH NYE: Thank you.

As we look at the situation in the world today, let’s step back from the front pages, although we will get back to them I’m sure in Q&A, and think back to September 11th and what that meant.

September 11th had the effect of a flash of lightning on a summer evening, suddenly revealing a difficult and treacherous landscape to cross before it goes dark again.

We are now trying to pick our way across that landscape which was created by two deeper changes that have been occurring in world politics in the latter part of the 20th century. One was the great increase in globalization. September 11th illustrated that in the case of Afghanistan. If you had asked many Americans about Afghanistan in the 1990s, they would have said, “Conditions in Afghanistan are dreadful, but what does that mean to us?” September 11th revealed that conditions in a poor, weak country halfway around the world can make a very great difference to us.

The other deep change was the extraordinary advances in technology that are sometimes summarized as the “information revolution.” They may be best illustrated by the fact that computing power declined in cost 1,000-fold from 1970 to 2000. A similar drop in automobile prices would mean that you would be able to buy a car today for $5.00. Any time you have an extraordinary reduction in price, the barriers to entry go down, and that means opportunities for many more players in the game. The nongovernmental players who became involved, like the various NGOs, had a benign effect, but some of the new nongovernmental actors, such as transnational terrorist groups, were quite malign.

Terrorism isn’t new. It’s been around for decades, indeed centuries. But technology was giving terrorists agility and lethality that they hadn’t had before, the ability for an al Qaeda, for example, to communicate and organize across fifty or sixty police jurisdictions or national jurisdictions, and the ability to use miniaturized weapons or airplanes as weapons.

This led to the privatization of war. On September 11th, transnational terrorists were able to kill more Americans than the government of Japan did with its attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. And if terrorists get hold of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear or biological, instead of the destruction of just two towers in the south of Manhattan, we might see the loss of the whole southern half of Manhattan. This would be profoundly challenging to our civilization, to people’s willingness to live in cities, to support cultural institutions like museums and theaters that are a part of cities. This privatization of war is a challenge well beyond anything we have faced.

President Bush was right to reorient American foreign policy from the rather narrow realistic focus that he had campaigned on in 2000 to a broad new strategy that said that we do involve ourselves in nation-building, we do have to worry about poor weak states failing, we do have to treat terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as a new type of challenge.

But the means chosen to implement this shift place much too much emphasis on American military preeminence and not enough on the other dimensions of power. Power always depends on context. To describe the context of power in the 21st century, I would use the metaphor of a three-dimensional chess game: on the top board of the three-dimensional game, the United States is the world’s only superpower, and we are unlikely to see a balance in military power for the next decade or two, or perhaps even more.

But if you go to the middle board, of economic relations between states, there is already a balance of power. The United States cannot get a trade agreement or an antitrust solution if the European Union acts collectively, and without that balance and agreement, you can’t achieve the desired outcomes. It is a bit anomalous to call international economic relations “American hegemony” or “empire.”

But if you go to the bottom board of transnational relations, problems across borders outside the control of governments, whether it’s infectious diseases or drug smuggling or terrorism, no one is in charge; power is chaotically organized or distributed. The only ways to deal with these issues is by cooperation among governments. To call that “American empire” or “American hegemony” or “unipolarity” makes no sense at all. You are taking a metaphor from the top board and applying it to the bottom board, and it doesn’t fit.

New threats are arising from the bottom board of transnational relations. While military power can be of some use occasionally on the bottom board, more often you will need other forms of power, particularly soft power.

The trouble is that a group of people within the Administration, who came into power and looked at American military preeminence, devised the view that Charles Krauthammerhas called “the new unilateralism:” that the United States is so powerful that we can do as we wish and others have no choice but to follow. They have used that view as a way of applying American military power to all sorts of problems.

The problem is that this is a one-dimensional view in a three-dimensional world. If you play one-dimensional chess on one board only and it’s a three-dimensional game, in the long run you will lose. That is my great fear about the way in which we have implemented the strategy.

What about soft power? The basic concept of power is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third is to attract them or co-opt them, so that they want what you want. If you can get others to be attracted, to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks.

The Bush Administration has neglected using our American soft power. In this new world of transnational threats and the information age, it is not just whose army wins, it’s whose story wins. They have not been very attentive to the question of whose story wins.

If you look at the results of their strategy, the polls are quite chilling. Not only do you find situations like Europe, where the United States has lost on average thirty points of attractiveness in all European capitals, including countries that supported us in the Iraq war, but if you go beyond that to the Islamic world, the decline of American attraction is quite appalling.

In 2000, in Indonesia, the largest Islamic country, three-quarters of the people said they were attracted to the United States. By May 2003, that had dropped to 15 percent. And yet these are the people that we will need for cooperation against organizations like al-Gama’a at-al-Islamiyyaand other offshoots of al Qaeda in the region.

If you look at trends in polls in countries like Jordan or Pakistan, which are allegedly somewhat more friendly towards the United States, we see that larger majorities are attracted to Osama bin Laden than to George Bush or Tony Blair. Again, this is a bit chastening when those are the people whose cooperation we will need to deal with this new type of threat.

The new unilateralists’ reaction is: “Not to worry. You should never base foreign policy on polls. Popularity is ephemeral. We have been unpopular in the past—look how unpopular the Americans were during the Vietnam War, and yet we recovered. We should keep on track and decide what we think is right, pursue it, and then let the chips fall as they may.”

This skepticism about the role of soft power, quite frequent among neo-conservatives, is a very powerful view. The great danger is that it sells short the importance of being able to attract others.

And it ignores the fact that a country’s soft power can affect its hard power. If you take the example of Turkey a year ago, the Americans wanted to persuade the Turkish government to send the Fourth Infantry Division across Turkey to enter Iraq from the north. The Turkish government might have been willing to concede, but the Turkish parliament said, “No,” because the United States had become so unpopular, its policies perceived as so illegitimate, that they were not willing to allow this transfer of troops across the country.

The net effect was that the Fourth Infantry Division had to go down through the Canal, up through the Gulf, and arrived late to the war, which made a difference in the number of troops on the ground in areas like the Sunni Triangle. Neglect of soft power had a definite negative effect on hard power.

The question is sometimes further rebutted by the skeptics who say: “Yes, that may all be well and good, and it may also be true that the Americans and the West used soft power to prevail in the Cold War, but it has nothing to do with the current situation of terrorism. Terrorists are a new type of threat and are not attractable. The idea that we will defeat bin Laden or al Qaeda by attracting them is sticking your head in the sand.”

To some extent that is true. If you ask, “Are we going to attract bin Laden or people like Mohamed Atta, who flew into the World Trade Towers?” No. You do need hard power to defeat these people who are irreconcilable.

But the important role for soft power is to be found in the larger context. If you think of the war on terrorism as a clash between Islam and the West—Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”—you are mischaracterizing the situation. It’s a clash within Islamic civilization, between a group of people at the extreme who are trying to use force to impose their view of a pure version of their religion on others, a majority who want things that are similar to what we want: a better life, education, health care, opportunities, and a sense of dignity.

The key question is: how do you prevent those extremists from prevailing as they try to radicalize the majority, the moderates? Soft power is essential to be able to attract the majorities to the values that I just described—not necessarily to being Americans, but in a diverse and pluralistic world to better opportunities, education, health care, and a sense of dignity. We can appeal to these values and try to inoculate them against the appeal of the extremists.

We will not prevail in this struggle against terrorism unless the majority wins, unless the moderates win. And we will not prevail against extremists unless we are able to attract that majority, those moderates. That is the role of soft power.

In addition, even when you need to use hard power against the hard-core terrorist, you will need cooperation from other governments in a civilian matter. You will not solve this by bombs alone. You will need close civilian cooperation—intelligence sharing, policy work across borders, tracing financial flows.

To some extent other governments will share information to deal with terrorists out of their self-interest, but the degree of sharing you get depends upon the degree to which you are attractive to other countries. For example, if being pro-American or sympathetic to the Americans or being seen to cooperate with the Americans is the kiss of death in domestic politics, you will get less cooperation from those governments—witness the Turkish example I just gave.

So for both reasons, both to attract the moderate majority and to reach a context or setting in which governments can cooperate more fully with us to deal with the hard core, soft power is key to being able to wage this struggle against terrorism.

How are we doing? Not well. We are not doing well for several reasons.

One is the style and substance of our policies. Soft power grows out of a country’s culture; it grows out of our values—democracy and human rights, when we live up to them; it grows out of our policies. When our policies are formulated in ways which are consultative, which involve the views and interests of others, we are far more likely to be seen as legitimate and to attract others. And certainly the style of the new unilateralists in the Bush Administration has decreased the legitimacy of American policy. So to restore our soft power, we need to change both the substance and style of our foreign policy.

We also need to find better ways to present this policy. This country, the leader in the information age, supposedly the greatest communicating country in the world, is being out-communicated by people in caves. This is a bizarre situation.

With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, we wanted a peace dividend not only in military expenditures but also in our public diplomacy, and so we cut back dramatically. The U.S. Information Agency had half the number of people that it had at the height of the Cold War when it was folded into the State Department, itself a big mistake.

International exchange programs were cut by a third. Look at how poorly we do in broadcasting—for example if you take Urdu, the lingua franca of Pakistan, the Voice of America broadcasts two hours a day in Urdu, and yet Pakistan is allegedly a frontline country in this struggle against terrorism.

Ambassador Djerejian, who chaired a bipartisan panel on Public Diplomacy in the Islamic World, argued that the United States spent $150 million on public diplomacy for the whole Islamic world last year, and that is about the equal of two hours of the defense budget, an extraordinary imbalance. The United States spends 400 times more on its hard power than on its soft power, if you take all the exchange programs and broadcasting programs and lump them together as a measure of soft power.

If we were to spend just 1 percent of the military budget on soft power, it would mean quadrupling our public diplomacy programs. There is something wrong with our approach.

In short, the challenge that we face in dealing with this new threat of terrorism, particularly the danger of their obtaining weapons of mass destruction, is a challenge which is very new and real in American foreign policy. But beyond the United States, it is a challenge for all of modern urban civilization. If this spreads, and we find that people will no longer live in cities because of fear, we will live in a very different and less favorable world.

At the same time, our approach to the problem has relied much too heavily on one dimension of a three-dimensional world, one instrument between hard and soft power.

The answer is not to pretend that hard power doesn’t matter—it does and we will need to continue to use it—but realise that to use hard power without combining it with soft power, which has all too often been the practice in the last few years, is a serious mistake.

The good news is that in the past the United States has, as in the Cold War, combined hard and soft power. The bad news is that we are not doing it yet. But since we have done it once, presumably we can do it again. When we learn how to better combine hard and soft power, then we will be what I call a smart power.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

I’d like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Is the visceral criticism of American foreign policy which characterizes much of the discourse in this country, particularly in an election year, not itself potentially destructive?

I was very struck by your point about the way in which American policy was rapidly reoriented after September 11th. In that context, particularly on the Korean Peninsula, the United States was dealt a strong hand when it came into office, threw the cards in immediately and left itself very exposed in an area of the world where the situation is every bit as crucial as in the Middle East. That is part of the transatlantic tyranny that goes on here in New York.

Since then, the Administration has pursued Korea policy admirably, working extremely effectively with the Chinese. But the risk is that if the whole of American foreign policy is dismissed as frequently as it is, both this Administration and successor administrations will be tempted to become more isolationist, more inward-looking, the very reverse of what the world needs from the United States.

Expenditure on public diplomacy is useless unless you’ve got the message right. I agree that the U. S. Administration hasn’t always got the message right, but spending money on a bad message is a waste of money.

JOSEPH NYE: On your last point I fully agree. It is not enough to advertise if you don’t have a good product. The best advertising won’t sell a bad product. On the other hand, if you make a good product and you don’t advertise, you don’t do too well either.

Going back to your first point, if the criticism were to suggest that the United States is so profoundly divided that we cannot act coherently in international affairs, it could have a dangerous effect.

But I don’t detect that sort of criticism. I think we’re hearing criticism of the means and not the focus of policy. But there are differences on means. If you took seriously what the President said about weapons of mass destruction, you would have put Korea first on your list, not Iraq.

The criticism is not a profound criticism, which would lead to isolation. There is an acceptance that we cannot, because of these effects of globalization and information technology, escape from the world. We may not be interested in the world, but the world is interested in us, and Americans are beginning to realize that.

If we focus on improving the means by which we deal with these ends, criticism can be healthy. And after all, if our message, or part of our message, is that we are a democracy, seeing a healthy democratic debate is good for American soft power.

QUESTION: If America spends too much time and energy on hard power and not enough on soft, then what of other countries in the world—Canada; France; Germany? Is the reverse true?

JOSEPH NYE: My chapter on “The Soft Power of Others” points out that soft power is available to all. Bin Laden has soft power for those who want to follow him or are attracted to him.

Many small countries have been very adept in using soft power. Canada and Norway are good examples. Norway, which doesn’t have the advantage of the English language, is not a member of the European Union, nonetheless, as the British put it, “punches above its weight,” because it has identified itself with the interests of others—peace processes in the Middle East and Sri Lanka; international development assistance. This has given Norway a better image, better access. It doesn’t make Norway a superpower, but it makes it more powerful than it would otherwise be.

The same is true of Canada. The Canadian association in the past with peacekeeping and international development has increased its soft power. I have sometimes argued that Canada should spend a little bit more on hard power. It’s not enough to rely on soft power alone. The ability to combine the two is the best solution.

QUESTION: Applying soft power to European nations is one thing, attempting to reach accommodation on matters of mutual interest, but what is your application of soft power to theocracies, revolutionary governments, plutocracies, various other kinds of dictatorships, where those in power are not necessarily so concerned with providing for their citizens the peaceful life, food and education, but are more interested in the consolidation of power and the rifling of the treasuries?

How do you deal with these situations?

JOSEPH NYE: There are all too many governments in the world today where the interest of the elite in stealing and feathering their own nests is totally separate from the interests of the people. It may be that you have to deal with those through hard power.

Sierra Leone or Liberia were cases where the exploitation of the people was such that without the application of force you were not going to be able to attract a Charles Taylor. It’s important to realize that soft power doesn’t solve all problems.

On the other hand, theocracies may be a bit different. If you look at Iran today, for some Iranians, particularly the ruling mullahs, American culture or Western culture is repulsive. A Hollywood film is a work of the great Satan, but there is nothing more that teenagers want than an American Hollywood video to watch in the privacy of their home.

Afar Mafiosi’s Zhou Enlaiwhen Kissinger asked him his view of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.” That is surely true of the war in Iraq.

Imagine that five or ten years from now we see a stable democratic Iraq which has begun to reverberate through the region so that it is imitated by its neighbors. We might say, “Yes, it was a success.”

The question is: how likely is that? The neo-conservatives argued that this would happen. Measured at year one on this ten-year scale, it doesn’t look plausible. But it is not out of the question that in ten years we would come to a different assessment.

One should always entertain the hypothesis that we don’t yet know the true balance sheet. On year one the balance sheet appears to be on the positive side of the ledger that we got rid of a miserable tyrant who was terrible to his people and a threat in the region. On the negative side, we probably increased recruitment by al Qaeda throughout the Islamic world—so we made things better on the top board, made them worse on the bottom board—and we also reduced American soft power; and we are now paying quite a high price for it in hard power, in blood and treasure.

The other question is: even if you did have an optimistic year ten, could you have done it at a lower cost? Suppose, for example, you had followed the example of Bush 41, instead of Bush 43, and taken more time and built a broader coalition. If you did feel that you had a case for removing Saddam by the use of force and you had the legitimacy of a very broad coalition instead of being imperial occupier, the reconstruction of Iraq would have been seen as a collective public good. Even if we had gone in, as we did, with a narrow coalition and then in May 2003, as I urged in an article in the Herald Tribune, and we had said: “Okay, now let’s let bygones be bygones, we invite you all in. We want the UN involved, the French, Russians, Chinese, everybody. You’ll get your share of contracts, but this is a common task to reconstruct Iraq.” The eventual cost on the balance sheet would have been lower.

QUESTION: Is it too late in the case of Iraq for the exercise of soft power, or can soft power be used to attract people who have not been involved in this project so far? If so, just exactly how would you do this, because that appears to be the only effective critique of the Administration’s current policy—not that we shouldn’t be there, not that we never should have been there in the first place, but how we get the rest of the way forward?

JOSEPH NYE: We may have already squandered our best opportunities to use soft power. One would have been this idea last May of inviting others in, of making it a collective activity.

A second would have been to be far better communicators when we were there. The United States set up a TV station that communicated four hours a day, mostly with communiqués from the CPA, while Iran and al Jazeera were 24/7 with popular programming.

When people are fighting and dying in the streets, it is hard to use soft power. If you look at the tactics that the Marines who were just brought in a few weeks ago were planning to use, it was to focus much more on hearts and minds—building schools, giving out candy bars. You can’t do that when you’re fighting for your life.

The solution looking forward is to strike a political deal. It will not to produce a Western-style democracy. It will probably require striking a deal with Sistani and al Hakim and others of the Shiite, trying to get them to control al Sadr, and it will require a degree of autonomy for the Kurds, perhaps short of independence. If you can provide some political framework or deal, it might be possible to get to a situation stable enough that you can begin to use some of the instruments of soft power.

The solution is not to bomb mosques and go street by street through Iraqi cities; that use of hard power alone will not work.

QUESTION: In that bolt of lightning that illuminated the landscape after 9/11, many policymakers came to the conclusion that the doctrine of preemption should guide our foreign policy in the future, that it simply wouldn’t do to sit back and wait through a long history of terrorist acts against the United States. Is there a basic incompatibility with preemption and soft power, or would you rule out preemption as a doctrine?

JOSEPH NYE: I would not rule out preemption. I would rule out elevating it into a doctrine. Preemption itself, striking when you are in imminent peril before you are hit, is an extension of the right of self-defense, and in my view consistent with the UN Charter.

Where the mistake was made, was in blurring the difference between preemptive and preventive war, and of elevating it into a grandiose doctrine which we are unable to fulfill. We are not about to attack North Korea or Iran.

By taking a reasonable concept, a longstanding practice consistent with international law and order, and making it into a doctrine, they created a threat to the fabric of international order which others can use for their purposes, and unnecessarily created a great deal of fear, thereby undercutting American soft power.

What they failed to do was remember Teddy Roosevelt’s advice, which is if you have a big stick, speak softly.

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