Author Joseph Nye on the definition of soft power, why it’s imperative to getting what a country wants, and which presidential candidate is better equipped to use it.
Contrary to the popular notion that strong men, war veterans, or “deciders” make more electable, tougher presidents, a White House inhabited by Barack Obama would be measurably more effective, safer, and better respected around the world than a McCain White House. That’s if Joseph Nye, an admitted Obama supporter, is right. The former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Clinton Administration, Nye’s most sweeping contribution to international affairs may be his simple coinage: soft power. The phrase has been embraced widely by foreign leaders and in the business community, but is little discussed in American campaign discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld first heard the phrase, he said he didn’t know what it meant.
Attraction and persuasion. Those qualities explain why, according to Nye and soft power advocates, American influence is vastly restored the moment President Obama raises his right hand to be sworn in. It has everything to do with America turning a corner, overcoming its history of bitter racial conflicts, and with Obama’s rich heritage and youthful travels abroad. But, identity politics aside, it is also how he contrasts with the United States of the last eight years, how he objectifies an antidote to what turns up in poll after poll of international audiences: an administration seen as arrogant, unilateralist, and militant, whose policies are reflexively opposed. “Facts matter,” Obama has been heard to say on the campaign trail. Nye might echo with “world opinion matters.”
“When it comes to politics,” Nye writes in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, “Americans still tend to talk about power and leadership as though they were synonymous with hard power and command. We rarely speak of the soft power of attraction, of persuasion. Soft power is an analytical term, not a rallying cry, and perhaps that is why it has taken hold in academic and business discussions, and in other parts of the world like Europe, China, and India, but not in the American political debate.”
Soft power was on full display when Obama drew hundreds of thousands to his speech in Berlin and tens of thousands to his speech in Denver, and this ability to attract—in the epistemology of Nye—is intimately linked with hard power. In fact, soft power significantly enhances hard power (think “hearts and minds”) and becomes exponentially more important in the information age. To recognize the stake that others hold in our decisions is a matter of smart leadership, which Nye cites in his latest book The Powers to Lead as a combination of soft and hard power. Backed with the emotional and contextual intelligence to recognize and appeal to the self-interest of others and to know what is called for in a given situation, smart power is tinged too with the self-discipline to know how to keep one’s emotions, and one’s biases, in check.
Nye’s ideas may seem simple, and others, besides Rumsfeld, have puzzled over his work. Writing of Nye’s latest book, The Powers to Lead, Publishers Weekly wrote, “His smart power formula is… more truism than concrete guide to action.” But after eight years of leadership that contrasts so sharply with Nye’s quickly spreading truisms, it’s no wonder that Nye has become an evangelist for both soft and smart power, writing, again in Democracy, “Currently, many official instruments of soft power—public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military-to-military contacts—are scattered around the government and there is no overarching strategy or budget that even tries to integrate them with hard power into an overall national security strategy. We spend about 500 times more on the military than we do on broadcasting and exchanges.”
Tall, thin, rarely seen without a suit or a smart, brightly striped tie, Nye has a handsome face with warm, creased eyes. Balding on top, he wears his hair short on the sides and looks much younger than his sunny seventy-one years. After listening carefully to a question, he speaks in perfectly measured sentences that reveal a mind at peace with its own work, as well as someone accustomed to repeating an idea for new audiences or listeners. Colleagues at Harvard, where he still teaches, have called him “elegant,” “patrician, ” and “wise,” and see a practical and hugely influential application of his work. In 1995, a colleague recounts, tensions were growing between the U.S. and Japan after three U.S. soldiers were charged with kidnapping and raping a Japanese schoolgirl. The incident moved many Japanese to question the presence of the U.S. military in their country and led Nye to write a paper on a new Asia security strategy. “It still stands to this day as the definitive document in that area,” former Secretary of Defense William Perry told the Kennedy School Bulletin. “It was an enormously creative task and amazingly influential. But what is really unusual is how everyone lined up behind the new policy—it was so thoughtful and compelling.”
In book after book,Nye writes with a consistent, plausible optimism for the United States’ role in international affairs. As he wrote in Democracy, “In 1970, during the Vietnam war, America was viewed as unattractive in many parts of the world, but with changed policies and the passage of time, we managed to recover our soft power.” Nye, who was widely seen as a contender for National Security Adviser in a Kerry administration, lives with his wife Molly in a house located on the battle green in Lexington, Massachusetts. He has three grown sons and spends time on a family farm in New Hampshire, where he clears brush and fly fishes. We spoke by phone.
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: What is soft power? And what does it have to do with the notion that the American “image” is suffering outside the U.S.?
Joseph Nye: Well, if power is the ability to get what you want, then you can do it three ways: by threats (which we call “sticks”), by payments (which we call “carrots”), or you can do it by attracting people, to get them to want the same outcomes you want. That’s soft power, the ability to get what you want through attraction, rather than coercion or payment.
Guernica: Attraction as power.
Joseph Nye: Right. Historically, the United States has had a good deal of soft power, which grows out of our culture, our values, and our policies when they’ve been seen as legitimate by other countries. But over the last eight years, measured by public opinion polls around the world, our attractiveness to the rest of the world has declined very dramatically. And that I call a loss of our soft power.
Guernica: Don’t attraction and coercion work together? When a country is seen as manipulative in others’ affairs, isn’t attraction a roundabout way to coerce? Won’t attempts to attract be resisted as propaganda?
Joseph Nye: Soft power isn’t necessarily good, per se. Like any form of power, it can be used for good or for ill. Osama bin Laden had soft power. He didn’t force or pay the people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. They did it because they were attracted to his message. It was, I think, a very bad message. Similarly, the United States can use its soft power properly or improperly. But there is a difference between soft power and coercion. If I’m going to steal your money, and I take out a gun and shoot or threaten you, it doesn’t matter what you think; I get your money. If I try to steal your money by persuading you to hand it over to me because I’m a guru who’s gonna save the world, then it matters very much what you think, and I have to persuade you of that. In the first case, shooting you is coercion. In the second case, it may turn out to be fraudulent and a bad cause. But it’s not coercion.
Guernica: I see the difference, yes. Now, what are some examples of American administrations using soft power effectively?
It struck me that humans are moved by ideas and values, and it may not be tangible or hard, but it’s still a form of power.
Joseph Nye: During the Cold War, we spent a great deal of effort on promoting American culture and values behind the Iron Curtain. President Dwight Eisenhower was a great believer in soft power, although he didn’t use that terminology—it hadn’t been invented at that time. But he often said that if you had a choice between another bomber and another broadcast, he’d prefer the broadcast. In the long run, that worked.
Guernica: You tread lightly over the question of when the phrase “soft power” came about. When did you coin the phrase?
Joseph Nye: In 1989, I wrote a book called Bound to Lead. I was trying to explain why it was that I did not believe—though it was conventional wisdom at the time—that the United States was in decline. After I looked at American military power and American economic power, there was still something missing: our ability to attract others to get what we want. And I called that soft power. So that was where the term came from. But the concept of getting what you want through attraction goes all the way back to Lao-Tze.
Guernica: But if we’re talking about attraction, why the term “soft” versus “hard power”?
Joseph Nye: I noticed that the way we think about power is often related to tangible resources. People would say if you have a lot of tanks, you have power; or if you have a big economy, you have power. It struck me that there was something intangible—ideas, values—and it struck me that humans are moved by ideas and values, and it may not be tangible or hard, but it’s still a form of power, and that led me to the idea of soft power.
Guernica: In fact, to try to force a hard—forgive the word—separation between the two seems beside the point in your work. They are interrelated?
Joseph Nye: They’re both aspects of power. Sometimes very tangible resources or intangible resources can produce both hard and soft power behavior. So, for example, in the tsunami relief efforts of 2004-05, the U.S. Navy helped a lot of people who had been devastated by the tsunami. And there’s a hard power resource that’s usually associated with hard power—fighting—being used for a helpful purpose, which can make the United States attractive. In fact, what we saw was that in the aftermath of tsunami relief, in which the U.S. Navy played a very important role, attraction toward the United States went up quite dramatically. In the year 2000, something like 75 percent of Asians had a positive view of the United States. After the invasion of Iraq, which was clearly a use of hard power for military purposes and war, that attraction to the United States went down to 15 percent. And after the tsunami relief, in which the U.S. Navy was used to help people, opinion of the U.S. went up to about 45 percent. Now that’s interesting in the sense that it shows that a particular resource, in this case the Navy, can be used for hard or soft power behavior. And it’s also interesting in the sense that Indonesia, who received aid, is the largest Muslim country in the world. So it matters.
But in the twenty-first, in which we’re living in an information age, you could argue that whose story wins is almost as important as whose army wins. And bin Laden is a good example of that.
Guernica: I’m also thinking of Burma, after Hurricane Nargis. When the U.S. offered aid on military ships—aid which was finally rejected by the Burmese generals precisely because it came on military ships and the generals, perhaps disingenuously, said they feared a U.S. invasion. Did our notorious hard power (pre-emption and unilateral aggression and all that) undercut our soft power?
Joseph Nye: I think the Burmese junta learned a lesson from the Indonesians, more or less next door, which was that if they allowed the Americans to do something—let’s call it charitable—with their military, it could undercut support for the Burmese junta. So they basically turned down American assistance at a high cost to their population so that they could preserve their own survival.
Guernica: You have written that the relative role of soft to hard power increases in the information age. Hard power becomes less important relative to soft power. Why?
Joseph Nye: In traditional terms, we would think of power as military power. So that when the great historian Paul Kennedy of Yale was writing about Europe in the nineteenth century, the definition of a great power was the ability to prevail in war. But in the twenty-first, in which we’re living in an information age, you could argue that whose story wins is almost as important as whose army wins. And bin Laden is a good example of that. He’s brilliant at using video, television, and the internet to tell his story. Now, it’s a bad story. But it has an appeal. And he has used the new technique of information extremely successfully to present a story which has put the world’s leading country on the run at times. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke once asked, “How can a man in a cave in Afghanistan out-communicate the world’s leading communication society?” Partly that’s because we’ve been so inept at telling our story. But I think the important point is that in an information age, hard power obviously remains important. But soft power, I think, becomes more important than it has been in the past.
Guernica: In your piece on soft power in the Huffington Post in June, you claim that Obama would win an election in Europe in a landslide. I can imagine a certain segment of Americans asking voters to like him less for that. And I suppose we were asked exactly that. He was derided for even going to speak in Europe by certain culture warriors of the right. What does his ability to win a hypothetical election in Europe have to do with American voters and American lives here in the United States, and American power around the world?
Joseph Nye: When Obama gave his speech in Berlin over the summer and attracted 200,000 people, many Republican campaign workers responded by saying that shows that he’s an elitist who appeals to foreigners, but has nothing to do with blue-collar workers in the United States. But the interesting thing is that a recent poll shows that when Americans were asked, “What is the greatest foreign policy challenge for the next President?” something like 83 percent said “restoring America’s image abroad.” Well, the election of Barack Obama, an African-American, would do more to restore America’s image abroad than anything else I can think of. Incidentally, that’s not just a personal (subjective) opinion. There was a poll taken by the BBC a couple of weeks ago that showed that if there were an election in twenty-two countries around the world that they sampled, Obama would win in a landslide. So in that sense, I think the fact that Obama’s story is one that resonates in other countries doesn’t necessarily win him votes in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Idaho, or wherever. But if those people in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Idaho are concerned about America’s standing in the world, then in fact Obama’s election does help them.
Guernica: Do you think it’s merely because he’s half black, or perhaps just the opposite—because he is so much more than any one race, and in that perhaps some see that he is a perfect symbol, a physical embodiment of the American dream?
Joseph Nye: Well, in that sense he does represent the American dream. If someone can come to this country and succeed, in a way you can’t in other countries, that makes America attractive. You know Obama’s father came from Kenya to the United States, and I think many people see that as a source of attraction for the United States. I also think the fact that race has been one of our great problems as a society over the centuries, the idea that we would be close to electing an African-American to the presidency would overcome one of the great liabilities we’ve had. Again, Dwight Eisenhower, a very sensible Republican president, was very worried in the 1950s that racial segregation in the United States was undercutting our attractiveness and influence in the newly independent countries in Africa. So I think [with] Obama, race is a major part of it, but not the only part. He also spent time overseas, in Indonesia—and he has something that I call in my book “powers to lead.” He has extraordinary contextual intelligence. That is the ability to understand situations so that you can combine your soft and hard power skills into an effective strategy. And I think in that sense his experience overseas, even though it’s from the bottom up rather than the top down, gives him a good deal of this contextual intelligence. And it makes him a very effective leader.
Guernica: You know, everything you’re saying that makes him attractive or gives him soft power abroad, again, it sounds like those are the very traits we’re being asked to see as Obama’s liabilities at home. Are some Americans out of step with the world, or are they being manipulated by the right wing?
Joseph Nye: Well, I think there’s a problem in that in American conceptions of leadership we often think of hard power alone. And we think of leaders who are warriors or have the ability to issue commands. The ability to use hard power is important. I’m not denigrating it in the least. But it is ironic to think of somebody who has come up through Chicago politics, which has a reputation for sharp elbows, and also has produced a campaign which many veterans say is one of the best-organized campaigns that they’ve ever seen, it’s odd to think that he doesn’t understand hard power. In my book, I talk about two crucial hard power skills. One is organizational capacity, and the other I call “Machiavellian political skills.” And both McCain and Obama have those. The difference is, if you look at soft power skills, which I argue in the book are the ability to have emotional intelligence to project a vision and communicate it—I think there Obama probably does outscore McCain.
Guernica: I just re-watched McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention and there were these timed audience jeers that sounded worse than canned laughter in a sitcom—I could have sworn it was a Married with Children rerun. He seemed so disconnected from his words, reading—as he was—from the teleprompter. Compared to Obama, McCain certainly sounds disconnected, and, to me, out of touch.
Joseph Nye: Obama is a better orator. And that is a vital skill, but it’s not the only skill that produces soft power. But emotional intelligence rather is the ability to master your emotions and to use them to attract others. Obviously, McCain has some of that or he wouldn’t be the Republican nominee, who prevailed against the field of candidates who tried very hard to defeat him. And I admire John McCain in many ways. He has a traditional vision and is an honorable man. But in terms of projecting a vision about the future, in terms of maintaining control of his own temper, in terms of being able to use communications, including oratorical skills to reach out to others, I think Obama has an edge over McCain.
Rumsfeld said, “I just don’t understand what it means.” And my reaction to that is, it’s part of the problem.
Guernica: Is charisma a part of soft power?
Joseph Nye: Yes, charisma is very definitely an aspect of soft power. The problem is it is very hard to find. I defined it in my book as personal magnetism, the ability of some people to attract others. But the other point to notice is [that] charisma is very much in the eyes of the beholder. John Kennedy is often called charismatic, and he is a good example of a charismatic president. But it’s worth remembering that he only won by slightly less than 50 percent of the vote. For a lot of people, he was charismatic; for a lot, he wasn’t.
Guernica: In Josh Kurlantzick’s Charm Offensive, a book about China’s vast use of soft power, an incident appears in the beginning of the book that I find telling. It’s the 1990s and China has the strategic goal of supplanting American influence in their neighborhood with Chinese influence. The first thing they do is start flexing their muscles and sending out warships to unclaimed reefs in the South China Sea. Well, this has the opposite effect. China’s neighbors actually draw closer to the United States for protection and cover. But analyzing this blunder and others, China got the lesson and started making open trade agreements with their neighbors, renamed their rise the “peaceful rise,” eventually bid for the Olympics, and so on. When the U.S. invaded Iraq with no real international legal framework, the Chinese rightly said, Kurlantzick recounts, something like, “This will be a soft power problem for them.” But American leaders didn’t seem to get it. And I understand you met Donald Rumsfeld, and he told you flat out that he simply didn’t know what soft power means… Why does China get it but not the neoconservatives?
Joseph Nye: Rumsfeld and I each spoke at a conference of the Army that was held in Washington D.C. by the Eisenhower Institute. I was the morning speaker and Rumsfeld was the afternoon speaker, and in the morning I talked about soft power. And some general I guess must have thought it was an interesting idea. So he asked Rumsfeld about it. Rumsfeld said, “I just don’t understand what it means. ” And my reaction to that is, it’s part of the problem.
Guernica: But even if you wanted to achieve the same goals as the Bush administration pursued, wouldn’t it have gone better if they understood this as deeply as China seems to, and balanced their hard power with attraction, persuasion, cooperation, soft power? Why does China grasp this so much better than we do, or so much better than our leaders now?
Joseph Nye: Well, it’s taken the Chinese a while to learn it. Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, said to the Seventeenth Party Congress that China needed to improve its soft power. I think the lesson they learned is that if you’re a country that is increasing in hard power, in the sense of the Chinese economy and military increasing their capabilities, it’s very useful not to frighten your neighbors but to attract them. And therefore, the smart power strategy melds hard and soft power. My point is not that soft power replaces hard power. But that you need to be able to use both in a way that they reinforce each other; and I think that’s the lesson that the Chinese learned.
Guernica: In one of the early Guernica interviews, with William Schulz of Amnesty International, he discussed a concept from one of his books, a concept he’d named the “terror retinue.” These weren’t people who directly committed acts of terror against the United States but were those who maybe expressed their perhaps milder displeasure against U.S. policies by harboring terrorists, hiding them, helping them. It seems like by making American hard power so explicit we’re asking Iraqis, Afghanis to take sides. And when we drop cluster bombs that go astray, many have written, we make it very easy for some of them to say, “I’m with my fellow Muslims,” or “my neighbors,” or “those who are defending us from yet more outside aggression.” Is this related to what you were getting at in your 2004 Foreign Affairs piece, where you describe how important soft power is in the war on terror?
Joseph Nye: Well, if you think of what bin Laden is trying to do, he’s trying to radicalize the Muslim community into believing that there is a clash of civilizations. He wants to polarize views so that people feel that unless they side with his seventh-century view of what their religion is, they’re essentially not faithful. So he needs to have help, including help from us to essentially provide him with recruits. The more that we do things that radicalize or offend mainstream Muslims, the more we help him have a pool of recruits. So it’s true that you can’t convert bin Laden with soft power. He’s unconvertible, and you have to use hard power against him. But it’s also true that you can’t win by hard power alone. Because you have to essentially make sure that, as Rumsfeld himself put it, the numbers that he is recruiting are not larger than the numbers that we are deterring and killing. And I think that means that you have to be able to attract mainstream Muslims so that they’re not recruits for bin Laden. That’s, I think, a good example of how you need soft power as well as hard power, if you’re going to prevail in the struggle against terrorism in the long run.
Guernica: You also write that, “there are areas such as the Middle East where ambivalence about or outright opposition to American culture may limit its power…” That made me think of Dinesh D’Souza, who wrote about how it’s precisely our culture, and our values, and Hollywood, and cultural openness, and feminism and women’s liberation, and so much that we see as qualities that attract others to our lifestyle, it’s those qualities that many, particularly fundamentalist Muslims, might find utterly repellent.
Joseph Nye: Well, a way to put that is that cultural resources such as Hollywood movies or television programs may or may not produce soft power, which is attraction. If you look at conservative Muslim society, the cultural artifact, which is a Hollywood movie, may be repellent and not produce any soft power—say, in Saudi Arabia. But the same cultural artifact may produce soft power in China or Chile. I think the key that D’Souza is pointing out is correct, which is that American culture doesn’t attract everyone. And indeed, you can have the paradox that it’s true not just of countries but sometimes within countries. For example, if you look at Iran, American films repel the Mullahs who run the country, but there is nothing that young Iranians seem to want more than an American DVD to play in the privacy of their homes. So some of our cultural artifacts produce soft power in many places but may undercut soft power in other places or among other groups.
Guernica: You also write: “The countries that are likely to gain soft power are those closest to global norms of liberalism, pluralism, and autonomy; those with the most access to multiple channels of communication; and those whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic and international performance. These dimensions of power give a strong advantage to the United States and Europe.” Which makes me think of the question of universal values. I’m thinking of how, say, India also has an edge, because it’s the world’s most populous democracy, while at the same time arguably the world’s most diverse country, not to mention home to the world’s biggest film industry, nicknamed by many with the name Bollywood. But conversely, I’m wondering if since we have this problem in American culture of spending so much energy looking inward and not outward, perhaps we immune ourselves to other cultures’ soft power by not recognizing their attraction, because we have this habit of remaining ignorant about other cultures by just not noticing them? For instance, the Nobel committee chair criticized American literature last week for being too “insular.”
For example, some people would think that tanks are the way that you get what you want in a land war. It’s true if you’re working in a desert but not if you’re working in a swamp.
Joseph Nye: I think in some ways we do, and in some ways we don’t. I mean, Americans tend to focus on English, and we’re a large country and we tend to focus on the internal market. On the other hand, we attract an awful lot of people. And if you look at the strength of America, it is that ability to not only attract but absorb people from the rest of the world. I read somewhere a figure that something like a third of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were from India and China. That’s a very great source of strength for us that we attract so many people. But I think that the point that you’re getting at, which is that other societies also have soft power… India, with its Bollywood film industry, attracts a lot of people around the world, and it’s interesting to see that some Indian films are beginning to get broader audiences in the United States as well.
Guernica: It’s such a wonderful term, soft power, for an unavoidable aspect of power. In my view, it was long overdue in foreign affairs and power discourse. So conceptually brilliant, apt. But how do we know soft power is real, in that it has a real effect on international affairs? Is it just polls? You’ve cited a number of polls today, and in your work. But beyond polling, if I’m being skeptical, if I’m being Rumsfeld—you know, “stuff happens”—how can I be sure soft power is real, and as important as you say it is?
Joseph Nye: The polls are a surrogate for measuring outcomes. But what we really care about is that we’re able to get the outcomes that we want. And there’s never a perfect relationship between resources and getting what you want. For example, some people would think that tanks are the way that you get what you want in a land war. It’s true if you’re working in a desert but not if you’re working in a swamp. So given a resource, you may or may not produce the outcomes you want, as we found out in Vietnam. The same is true with soft power. A cultural artifact or our values may make people feel attracted to us and more likely to go along with what we want, but not always. What polls do is they say, What about attraction, how are we doing on attraction? But the key question is, to what extent does that lead to our getting the outcomes that we want?
Guernica: Like democratizing other places.
Joseph Nye: And what polls suggest is that we can create an enabling or disabling environment for political leaders. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a poll gives you the outcome you want. At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States wanted to send the Fourth Infantry Division across Turkey to enter Iraq from the north. And the United States had lost so much soft power and had become so unattractive in Turkey that the Turkish Parliament voted to refuse permission. So there’s a case where a loss of soft power made a big difference in terms of our ability to use part of our hard power. The ultimate proof is in the outcomes, whether we get the outcomes we want or don’t.
Guernica: I see, yes. That’s very concrete. And so, for your money, the presidency of Barack Obama, as you have written and as you noted earlier, has more power options than the presidency of John McCain? It gives Americans more power to achieve our aims.
Joseph Nye: I think that’s right. I think that both Obama and McCain will have the ability to threaten or use hard power. But I think Obama will have generated more soft power, and thereby have more opportunities to have an enabling environment.
Guernica: So the United States gains more, we Americans gain more, in your view, from an Obama presidency than a McCain presidency?
Joseph Nye: I believe that, yes. Obama will do more for American soft power and overall power than McCain will.
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