The Velvet Hegemon

How soft power can help defeat terrorism.

When George Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, stood up at the 2003 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January and asked U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell why the United States seems to focus only on its hard power rather than its soft power, I was gratified and bemused. Gratified that a concept I had proposed in FOREIGN POLICY in 1990 has gained wide currency; bemused at how often that concept is misunderstood.

Power is the ability to produce the outcomes you want. When someone does something he would otherwise not do but for force or inducement, that’s hard power — the use of sticks and carrots. Soft power is the ability to secure those outcomes through attraction rather than coercion. It is the ability to shape what others want. Hard and soft power sometimes reinforce and sometimes substitute for each other. If you can produce the right outcomes by attracting others to want what you want, you can afford to spend less on carrots and sticks.

Hard and soft power can also limit each other. That may explain why some of the unilateralists in the Pentagon now seem to neglect soft power. Unfortunately, that neglect may have dangerous consequences for the successful prosecution of both the war on terrorism and a conflict with Iraq.

Soft power can rest on the attractiveness of one’s culture, political ideals, and policies, or on one’s ability to manipulate other countries’ political agendas. But many people confuse the resources that can generate soft power with the essence of soft power itself. Writing in FOREIGN POLICY ("Think Again: Power," January/February 2003), the distinguished historian Niall Ferguson describes soft power as "nontraditional forces such as cultural and commercial goods" and then dismisses it on the grounds "that it’s, well, soft." Of course, Coke and Big Macs do not necessarily encourage people in the Islamic world to love the United States. And Hollywood films that make the United States attractive in China or Latin America may have the opposite effect and actually diminish U.S. soft power in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Ferguson concludes that real power depends on "having credibility and legitimacy." Exactly! "Credibility and legitimacy” are what soft power is all about.

The attractiveness of the United States rests on resources such as its culture (sometimes), its political values of democracy and human rights (when it lives up to them), and its policies (when they are framed with some humility and awareness of others’ interests). At Davos, Secretary Powell correctly replied to George Carey that the United States needed hard power to win World War II but followed up with the Marshall Plan and support for democracy. By providing tangible economic incentives and making the United States more attractive, the Marshall Plan was a source of both hard and soft power. And, of course, soft power was crucial to the U.S. victory in the Cold War. After all, the Soviet Union was still attractive in many parts of Western Europe after World War II, but it squandered its soft power with repressive policies at home and the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Some hard-line skeptics in the Bush administration might say that whatever the merits of soft power, it has little role to play in the current war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden and his followers are repelled, not attracted, by U.S. culture, values, and policies. Military power was essential in defeating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; soft power will never convert fanatics. True, but the skeptics mistake half the answer for the whole answer.

Look again at Afghanistan. Precision bombing and U.S. Special Forces may have subdued the Taliban, but so far, U.S. agents have captured only a fraction of al Qaeda operatives, who form a transnational network with cells in 60 countries. The United States cannot bomb al Qaeda cells in Hamburg, Kuala Lumpur, or Detroit. Success against this network depends on close civilian cooperation across borders, whether that means sharing intelligence, coordinating police work across borders, or tracking global financial flows. U.S. allies and partners collaborate partly out of self-interest, but the inherent attractiveness of U.S. policies influences the degree of such collaboration. Equally important, the current war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations but a struggle whose outcome is closely tied to a civil war between moderates and extremists within Islamic civilization. The United States will win only if moderate Muslims win, and the United States’ ability to attract moderates is critical to victory. The United States must adopt policies that appeal to moderates and must use public diplomacy more effectively to explain common interests to would-be allies in the Muslim world.

How would a war in Iraq affect our soft power vis-à-vis moderate Muslims around the world? Hawks reply that the successful exercise of hard power can also attract, pointing to the rise of American prestige in the Middle East after the first Gulf War. But that war was fought by a broad coalition with the United Nations’ blessing. The strength of U.S. soft power depends in part on the breadth of U.S. coalitions. For example, a multinational force and administration in Iraq may be less efficient than a U.S. force, but what the United States loses in efficiency it more than gains in legitimacy and in the protection of its soft power.

U.S. economic policies not directly linked to the war on terrorism also affect soft power. Skeptics correctly argue that development assistance cannot remove the roots of terrorism because most of the terrorists who have struck the United States and other targets are not poor. Yes, but terrorist movements are often led by people who claim to act in the name of the poor and then recruit them to violent causes. The United States can reduce such appeal and enhance its soft power by aligning its policies with the aspirations of ordinary citizens in poor countries. U.S. President George W. Bush’s commitment to increase development assistance and to spend an additional $10 billion to combat aids in Africa and the Caribbean is not only right for humanitarian reasons — it is also a wise investment in U.S. soft power. Equally important is the formulation of policies for the upcoming Doha round of trade negotiations that take the interests of poor countries into greater account.

Nearly five centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli advised princes in Italy that it was more important to be feared than to be loved. In today’s world, it is best to be both. To defeat terrorism, the United States must learn to combine soft and hard power more effectively.

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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