Soft Power Outage

The revelations about the United States' brutal torture program have damaged the country's best asset abroad.


The release of a long-awaited report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation program dealt yet another blow to the United States’ moral authority and its credibility as a defender of human rights around the globe. It also begs the question: How much damage must the United States suffer before it learns to take soft power more seriously and, finally, learn to use it more proactively?

To understand the immediate damage done to U.S. influence, look no further than the commentary surrounding the report’s release. According to the Washington Post, the state-run Chinese news service Xinhua editorialized that “America is neither a suitable role model nor a qualified judge on human rights issues in other countries,” while a pro-government television commentator in Egypt observed, “The United States cannot demand human rights reports from other countries since this [document] proves they know nothing about human rights.” The Islamic State and other extremists joined the propaganda gold rush. One tweet, quoted in a report from the SITE Intelligence Group, pointed to the audacity of the United States lecturing Muslims about brutality, adding, “Getting beheaded is 100 times more humane, more dignified than what these filthy scumbags do to Muslims.”

Such reactions are galling and they do real harm to U.S. credibility. But the fault lies not with those who released the report, as some critics argue, but with those who permitted and perpetrated acts of torture, those who lied about it to America’s elected representatives, and those who willfully kept the president and senior members of the Bush administration in the dark. Their actions undermined not only American values, but also American influence and national security interests. In the words of a former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the actions laid out in the Senate report “stained our national honor” and “did much harm and little practical good.”

The release of the report provides Americans with an opportunity to reflect on the morality of their nation’s actions. But it is also should be seen an opportunity to reflect on the United States’ soft power strategy, which is related to moral authority, but also distinct. While morality is a normative system of values and principles that guides just behavior, soft power is ultimately about influence. As Joseph Nye, the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has argued, there are many different ways to affect the behavior of others. One can coerce with threats. One can induce with incentives. Or one can exercise the power of attraction, co-opting others who want the same things you want through the legitimacy of your policies and the values upon which they’re founded. The latter is called soft power.

Moral authority facilitates soft power, but so do relationships, shared values, and interlinking interests. Given the ideological component of so many of the national security threats that face the United States going forward — and the inability of any one country to meet them alone — soft power can be an important part of the strategy to address these threats. But Americans will need to cultivate it.

The United States is a natural soft power leader, founded on principles that are now embraced widely across cultures and geographies. For decades, it has built a network of partners and allies around the world that endure through shared values as well as shared interests. While the United States may not always be popular, American values of political pluralism, economic competition, and human rights are enduring. Over the long haul, these values often win the day, even when opponents are more ruthless, more committed, and more willing to expend resources. (It is worth remembering this as diplomats privately bemoan the billions spent on Russian propaganda or the social media sophistication of the Islamic State.)

Despite its comparative advantage in soft power, the United States is still far more adept at the strategy and tactics of military, economic, and diplomatic coercion than the strategy and tactics of attraction. It takes its soft power for granted, like oxygen in the air, assuming it will always be there. This approach not only carries risk, it underutilizes a strategic resource.

How might the United States take soft power more seriously?

First, it has to “walk the walk,” aligning actions and values, rhetoric and deeds. This is understandably difficult in a country with complex and wide-ranging foreign policy interests, but the United States could do better in one key respect: weighing potential damage to America’s moral authority when considering policy options. Such considerations are often trumped, and not without cause. Policymakers are regularly forced to choose from a series of bad options, and when they do, clear and short-term consequences weigh more heavily than diffuse costs to notions like reputation. If the United States is serious about countering challenges to its national security interests and democratic ideals, however, this must change. Perceptions that the United States does not live up to its own values fundamentally undermine American power and inhibit the country’s ability to defend not just its own interests, but also universal standards of what is right and just. They undermine America’s ability to defend the time-proven value of the moral high ground, and they empower cynical actors eager to seize the propaganda advantage.

The constant din of social and traditional media is raising the stakes, subjecting policymakers to unrelenting scrutiny and empowering those who are loud and opinionated, whether or not they are right. The simultaneous trends of proliferating information and the decentralization of control over it present real challenges to leaders in government and elsewhere. These trends are a fact, for good or ill, but they are also opportunities. Scrutiny pressures the United States to be better, forcing it to reflect on how its actions will be perceived and whether those perceptions should lead it to behave differently in the first place. The link between scrutiny and virtuous behavior is long recognized. Indeed, Adam Smith’s under-studied text The Theory of Moral Sentiments asks the just man to consider how his actions would be perceived by an impartial spectator as a test of their virtue. If the publicity of our actions and how they would be received gives us pause, Smith argued, perhaps we should reconsider those actions in the first place. The most challenging aspect of today’s information environment is the constant presence of partial spectators, who are all too ready to eager to seize on any perceived failing, publicize it widely, and use it to their own advantage.

Second, soft power should also be used proactively, which entails actively exposing others to ideas. Confidence is required; others may not choose to share ideas to which they are introduced. But time and time again, people who are exposed to accurate information and universally held values become positive forces in their own communities and strong (if not entirely uncritical) partners.

All too often — and across presidential administrations — soft power falls down the list of foreign policy priorities, underweighted in comprehensive strategies that include diplomacy and defense. Dominating the moral high ground and using it to spur social change is not at the center of national security policymaking, but it should be. Serious public engagement strategies, which are natural components of soft power, are rare. The once frequently heard term “public diplomacy” is falling into increasing disuse.

A recent example of positive public engagement is the Obama administration’s creation of the Mandela Fellows Program, also known as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Inaugurated last summer at the President’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the program brings 500 rising African leaders to the United States for leadership and entrepreneurship training, and also creates sustained professional development for these and many more talented young people on the ground in Africa, in concert with American universities and companies. YALI is one part of a broader strategy to invest in the potential of Africa — a strategy that serves U.S. national security, economic, and humanitarian interests. It supports people who will be friends and partners of the United States for a lifetime, not because they have somehow been coerced, but because of shared goals: a vibrant, prosperous, and just African continent governed by the rule of law. (Disclosure: My organization, the global education and development NGO IREX, is the lead partner to the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in implementing the Mandela Fellows program.)

To be effective, public engagement must be sustained. Though taxpayers may grow weary of funding international broadcasting, educational, and professional exchanges, teacher and journalist training, and mentoring of independent media outlets, such activities are high-yielding investments with costs that pale in comparison to what is spent on defense. Bringing high talent individuals to study in U.S. universities not only enriches the country’s campuses and gives future leaders real skills they can use to build their own societies, it creates a network of people around the world who understand cherished American values and often work — on their own accord — to promote them. And supporting independent, professional media sectors not only helps other nations build their own young democracies, such media outlets are better poised than governments to counter politically motivated propaganda and often do, on their own initiative.

The resources behind many of these soft power projects need to be much, much larger than they are now, however, if the programs are to deliver results. A common but unfortunate characteristic of many civilian efforts at public education is what I call the drop-in-the-bucket problem. Some effort is made to engage key audiences, but the engagement is treated as a discrete project rather than a sustained campaign scaled to the size of the problem. A program to counter violent extremism in a country undergoing a traumatic political transition or an anti-corruption campaign in a graft-plagued country like Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, must be locally driven, multi-faceted, and sustained over time if it is to have any effect at all. But all too often, public engagement efforts go forward with insufficient resources — with the full knowledge of diplomats or aid workers — because doing something is seen as better than doing nothing. If the American people and their elected representatives in Congress want demonstrated results (which they have every right to expect), there need to be rigorously developed and better-resourced civilian strategies, just as there are in military affairs and, increasingly, in international development.

Take the example of nonviolent methods of preventing and resolving conflict, also known as peacebuilding, which entail substantial public engagement and also suffer from a sort of liquidity trap. Investments are often too minimal to achieve significant results, which means that peacebuilders struggle to demonstrate the sort of rigorously measured results they need to justify greater funding. This may change if donors properly fund and then insist on evidence-based peacebuilding strategies, the way the Gates Foundation and others have done in development. Such rigor is rarely applied in peacebuilding, and efforts to truly achieve scale are rarer still. During a recent trip to view peacebuilding projects conducted by the NGO Search for Common Ground (SCG) in the North Kivu province of Congo, I saw glimmers of what might be possible if peacebuilding could be conducted at scale. The evidence was most clear in the changing attitudes of the military and the measurable reduction in incidents of sexual violence. But such efforts are truly exceptional, and SCG’s efforts in Congo dwarf its initiatives in other countries, despite intense needs to reduce violence.

To be clear, investing in soft power does not negate the need for military force or investments in hard power. Indeed, some applications of soft power must be backed by hard power, the way bank loans must be backed by underlying financial solvency, and there are objectives (defeating the Islamic State comes to mind) that are nearly impossible to achieve without at least some use of force. However, hard power is not appropriate to every mission, and in some cases, it may even be counterproductive, generating a backlash that multiplies the severity of the threat. Countering violent extremism is a case in point: Force has a role, but its overuse can draw more recruits to the cause. Meanwhile, undercutting the appeal of extremist ideologies can be accomplished most effectively through non-military means.

Most military leaders would agree, and I find them, as a general rule, to be among the strongest backers of soft power. It was not so long ago that a U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, proved one of the most persuasive voices appealing, alongside then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for more resources for diplomacy and development. Ret. Gen. James Mattis put it even more bluntly in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department [foreign operations] fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Is a reinvigorated soft power strategy possible at a time of fiscal pressure and extreme partisan division? I think the answer is yes. Though conventional wisdom suggests that a Republican-dominated Congress will slash funding, my experience suggests otherwise. Party leaders with deep expertise in foreign policy — Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Kay Granger (R-TX) in the House, to give just a few examples — are thoughtful and committed internationalists who understand soft power. And many fiscal conservatives grasp that nonmilitary strategies can be cost-effective ways of promoting U.S. national security objectives and obviating the need to deploy ground forces, even as they demand proof that such strategies deliver a return on investment.

A focus on soft power is well matched to the national security challenges of our time, which will require the United States and its allies to counter rapidly evolving ideological challenges and build coalitions of like-minded partners. Whether the threat is countering violent extremism or reversing the trend of rising authoritarianism, such efforts require moral purpose, a strong sense of shared values, and broad networks of relationships that span sectors and issue areas — all of which should be the United States’ strong suits. But they will require the United States to strengthen its soft power arsenal with the same diligence applied to hard power. It will require the United States to protect its moral authority.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kristin Lord is president and CEO of IREX, an international education and development nongovernmental organization, and co-chair of the Alliance for International Youth Development. The views expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter at @kristin_lord.