Think Again: Soft Power

In 1990, Foreign Policy was the first journal to publish the concept “soft power” in an article I wrote. Since then, the idea has circled the globe, as a quick Google search will show. A British rock band, Ladytron, even uses it as the title of a song in its new album. But as it has moved into common usage, the term has been stretched and twisted, sometimes beyond recognition. What exactly is soft power and how useful is it in dealing with today’s challenges?

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 goodsand then promptly dismissed it on the grounds that its, 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 countrys 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. Theres 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 Europes 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 Europes successful economic and political system? Its 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 Arafats 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. Arafats 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, its 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 countrys 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 fallacythe notion that the only important resources are those that can be dropped on your foot (or on a city). Thats 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 Kagans 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 Americas 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 dont know what it means. The administration and the country paid a high price for that ignorance. Fortunately, in Bushs second term, with Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes at the State Department and Rumsfelds reputation dented by the kind of failures the private sector would never tolerate, the second term team has shown an increased concern about Americas 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 Ils 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 administrations 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 limitsas 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 countrys 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 Diplomacymodeled on the U.S. Corporation for Public Broadcastingto 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 Huntingtons 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 a professor at Harvard University and former chair of the National Intelligence Council and the author, most recently, of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy From FDR to Trump. Twitter: @Joe_Nye

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