Joe Nye was right

My colleague Joe Nye has made many contributions to scholarship and policy, but his most lasting contribution to the political lexicon is the idea of “soft power.” It’s a concept that is simultaneously seductive and slippery: It captures something that most of us intuitively recognize — the capacity to influence others without twisting arms, threatening, ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My colleague Joe Nye has made many contributions to scholarship and policy, but his most lasting contribution to the political lexicon is the idea of “soft power.” It’s a concept that is simultaneously seductive and slippery: It captures something that most of us intuitively recognize -- the capacity to influence others without twisting arms, threatening, or compelling -- but it’s also hard to measure or define with a lot of precision. And for a realist like me, “soft power” has also seemed like a bit of an epiphenomenon, because you need a lot of hard power to produce much of the soft variety.

Nonetheless, I’d be remiss in not telling you about a recent article that provides systematic empirical support for the “soft power” concept. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Analysis, Carol Atkinson of Vanderbilt University presents results on the impact that student exchange programs (a classic instrument of “soft power”) have on the diffusion of liberal values. She finds that there is a strong positive effect, and offers the following provocative conclusion:  

. . . the U.S. government often uses educational exchanges as a negative sanction; prohibiting or limiting attendance by countries with poor human rights records.  However, my findings show that when the United States allows only “well behaved” countries to participate, it restricts its ability to build its own soft power across the international system. Over the long term, engaging potential political elites from authoritarian states, rather than excluding them from programs, provides an opportunity to channel liberal ideas into some of the most democratically austere regions of the world.”

My colleague Joe Nye has made many contributions to scholarship and policy, but his most lasting contribution to the political lexicon is the idea of “soft power.” It’s a concept that is simultaneously seductive and slippery: It captures something that most of us intuitively recognize — the capacity to influence others without twisting arms, threatening, or compelling — but it’s also hard to measure or define with a lot of precision. And for a realist like me, “soft power” has also seemed like a bit of an epiphenomenon, because you need a lot of hard power to produce much of the soft variety.

Nonetheless, I’d be remiss in not telling you about a recent article that provides systematic empirical support for the “soft power” concept. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Analysis, Carol Atkinson of Vanderbilt University presents results on the impact that student exchange programs (a classic instrument of “soft power”) have on the diffusion of liberal values. She finds that there is a strong positive effect, and offers the following provocative conclusion:  

. . . the U.S. government often uses educational exchanges as a negative sanction; prohibiting or limiting attendance by countries with poor human rights records.  However, my findings show that when the United States allows only “well behaved” countries to participate, it restricts its ability to build its own soft power across the international system. Over the long term, engaging potential political elites from authoritarian states, rather than excluding them from programs, provides an opportunity to channel liberal ideas into some of the most democratically austere regions of the world.”

At the risk of appearing to be pleading on behalf of my own line of work, I would just add that the United States is currently home to 17 of the top 20 universities in the world (Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of Tokyo are the other three), according to the annual survey by China’s Jiao Tong University. In addition to being engines of innovation, those universities are also powerful magnets for talented and ambitious people from all over the world. Not only does the United States benefit from their presence, but exposure to American ideals appears to have positive long-term effects on political attitudes among most of them, and perhaps especially for those who come from authoritarian societies. The lesson: If we let our universities decline — as California is now doing to the once-vaunted UC system — we are guaranteeing a much less influential future for subsequent generations.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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