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Power Goes Soft

Soft power is the second half of the equation Harvard University political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. first presented in his 1990 essay "Soft Power" in Foreign Policy. As opposed to hard power, which encompasses military and economic might, soft power is the power of attraction to U.S. ideals and culture. It draws others to ...

Soft power is the second half of the equation Harvard University political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. first presented in his 1990 essay "Soft Power" in Foreign Policy. As opposed to hard power, which encompasses military and economic might, soft power is the power of attraction to U.S. ideals and culture. It draws others to support or at least accept U.S. hegemony and policy. During the Cold War, for instance, U.S. anti-imperialism was an important facet of soft power. The United States never built a large colonial empire, and often it actively pressed European states to grant independence to their colonies after World War II. Political democracy and human rights have global appeal; when the United States is seen as supporting these values, U.S. soft power grows.

After World War II, the U.S. government worked to build a global system with broad international support, but the actions of U.S. companies, nonprofits, universities, and millions of individuals provided the real energy. Elvis Presley, Walt Disney, and Marilyn Monroe did as much to carry out this project as former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and former U.S. Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon. And W. Edwards Deming, the productivity guru who transformed postwar Japanese industry, had an influence rivaling that of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And multinationals originally based in the United States extended their sales, production, and management around the world, recruiting talented non-U.S. citizens and propelling the most successful into corporate leadership. The activity of these companies in helping to create a multinational, multicultural workspace in a climate of mutual respect remains critical to the success of the U.S. project for the free world.

The desire of tens of millions of people around the world to live in the United States is also powerful evidence of soft power. The remittances that immigrants send to their families back home give people worldwide a stake in U.S. success and a sense of participation in American life. Also, hundreds of thousands of foreign students come to the United States to study each year. While not all return home loving the United States, many come away with new networks of friends and contacts.

Finally, the generosity of U.S. humanitarian assistance abroad enhances U.S. soft power. Conventional surveys rank the United States among the world’s less generous powers when considering only official development aid. However, as former U.S. Agency for International Development official Carol C. Adelman has argued, such development assistance comprises only 17 percent of total U.S. giving overseas. When remittances are included, 61 percent of all U.S. assistance comes from the private sector, and international giving by U.S. foundations now reaches some $3 billion per year. Private giving may have more impact on foreign perceptions than government assistance — and thus strengthens U.S. soft power.

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