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September 8, 2006

Joseph Nye on Soft Power

Introduction 1:
for those who wonder what I'm really studying

This is it. Well, it's not everything, obviously, but this text, adapted from Joseph Nye's speech and answers to questions at the Oslo Handelsgym yesterday, touches on so many of the things that I'm studying: realism vs. liberalism, neo-liberalism, balance of power, the clash of civilizations, global public goods, hegemonic theory, unipolarity etc. (If you understood most of that, skip to "Introduction 2".)

Joseph Nye is a legend for students of International Relations. He coined the phrase "soft power", and wrote many very influential books and articles, including Power and Interdependance: World Politics in Transition with Robert Keohane and Soft Power: The Means to Success in Global Politics You can read more about him here. I also recommend this article, which makes many of the same points as yesterday's speech, but which also clarifies the term "Wilsonian" and provides more detail on Nye's thoughts about US policy.

Students of political science memorize three definitions of power:

1. A has power over B when A can get B to do something that
a) B would not do if it were not for A
b) makes A better off.
2. A has power over B when A decides what A and B view as being important issues (the power of setting the agenda or "dagsordenmakt" in Norwegian).
3. A has power over B when A can get B to want to do something that
a) B would not want to do if it were not for A
b) makes A better off.

This last kind of power is soft power, and the first is the kind most commonly associated with hard power. Joseph Nye sees power as being military, economic or soft. The basic idea is that people's attraction toward the US is important for American power: it matters that students want to study in the US and that everyone has heard of Coca-Cola and McDonalds.

Introduction 2:
for fellow Inter-students

I was in the same room as Joseph Nye!!!

Soft Power and the Struggle Against Terrorism

It used to be that the better army won the battle, but today the better story wins.

Power is the ability to influence. You can influence people in three ways: You can force them with sticks, or pay them with carrots, but if you can make someone want to do what you want, you can save a lot of sticks and carrots. Soft power is having the ability to make people want to do what you want them to do.

There are three sources of soft power: culture, values and policy. President Roosevelt’s four freedoms for example, were a source of soft power for the US. When students protesting in Tiananmen Square formed the shape of the Statue of Liberty, this was proof of American soft power. Even in Iran today, people want to own Hollywood videos.

What is American culture? Everything from Hollywood in the west to Harvard in the east. This may be attractive to people, or it may be repulsive. Take Hollywood films for example: to conservative Muslims, Hollywood films portraying women wearing bikinis and getting divorced are repulsive. But to many others the same Hollywood movies are attractive because they show women making their own choices. When aspects of American culture are attractive, they are a source of soft power for the US.

What are American values? Liberty, openness, opportunity, a dynamic society where anybody can do anything, where it is possible to reinvent yourself. Losing that openness would a great loss.

When I wrote Soft Power I used Norway as an example. Norway is a small country that is taken more seriously because of its policies, policies like supporting overseas development and being a peacemaker.

During the Cold War there were exchange programs for students between the two superpowers. Americans were afraid that the Soviet students would be spies and steal American technological secrets, but there were nevertheless 50 Soviet students in the US and 50 American students in the USSR in the year 1958. After being influenced by what he called “American pluralism”, one of the Soviet students became a right-hand man for Gorbachev and was important in developing the policies of glasnost and perestroika. Another student, who really was a KGB spy sent to steal secrets, later became a general and wrote in his memoirs that “the greatest Trojan horse” that ended the USSR was the exchange students who had studied in the US.

Are exchange programs still important? Studying abroad was important to me. I made a friend from Ghana, which led me to live in Ghana for a few years, and those years influenced what I wrote on US policies. But is soft power still relevant today? Some people believe that it isn’t anymore, even if it mattered during the Cold War. During the Cold War, these people point out, both sides had common cultural traditions. Even communism began in European culture. Today’s terrorist threat is the result of a clash between civilizations.

I do not agree with the “clash of civilizations” theory. Terrorism is not the effect of a clash of civilizations, but a civil war within Islamic civilization, between extremists and the mainstream. We will not win the war on terror unless we appeal to the mainstream within this civilization. So the question is: are we getting our story across? Unfortunately, our soft power is declining.

Terror is a form of theater that depends on “Jujitsu politics”. In Jujitsu, a smaller player can win by using a larger player’s strength to the smaller player’s advantage. Terrorists can’t defeat a larger player, but can they get a larger player to defeat itself?

Immediately after 9/11, when the US not only removed Taliban, but also disrupted Al-Qaida, it was an appropriate use of hard power. But invading Iraq in 2003 was a tactical mistake. Iraq has become a recruiting ground for terrorists. How do you know if you’re winning a war against terrorists? Whether you’re winning or not, depends on which number is higher: the number of terrorists you are killing or deterring, or the number of new terrorists being recruited or trained. When the US is trying to win this war, the way the US is viewed in moderate countries matters. We can’t fall into a Jujitsu trap by thinking that hard power is enough.

The recent war between Lebanon and Israel is an example of how it shouldn’t be done. Israel was essentially right in using hard power, but they used it disproportionately. After a week of dead Libanese children on TV screens around the world, the net result was negative for Israel’s soft power. The leader of Hizbollah is now a hero in the Arab world. Israel’s army may have won, but Hisbollah’s story won.

Will the American story lose? Abu Graib for example, undercuts soft power. In 2001 there was increased sympathy for the US. Hizbollah condemned the 9/11 attacks. Today, all that is forgotten. The US has focused too much on hard power. Our defense budget is 500 million dollars, and we spend about 1 million on soft power (through various ways of broadcasting our culture, values and policies, including diplomacy). Now, we shouldn’t spend equal amounts on hard and soft power, but 500 to 1 is too extreme.

Soft power cannot solve all problems. First of all, it’s slow. The soft power generated by the Soviet exchange students in the US took two decades to show results. Many politicians may think: “Well, I’m not likely to be here in two decades.” American politicians have to think about reelection constantly because of the system worked out by the founding fathers: the Representatives in the House of Representatives are elected every two years, Senators every six years and the President every four years. This creates an inefficient government, where one election will not change policy overnight, but it divides power and focuses on liberty.

Secondly, soft power is not just produced by governments. Many sources of soft power are outside of the government’s control, and these may have a better impact than those controlled by the government. When the US created an Arabic-language TV channel, this was seen as being government propaganda. A more subtle strategy, like an open channel showing different aspects of American life, would have been better.

There are two things I want you to remember:

The first thing is a quote from Machiavelli: “It’s better for a prince to be feared than to be loved, but worst of all is for a prince to be hated.”

The second thing is that during the Vietnam War, when the US was very unpopular and people were marching to protest against the US government, the song they were singing in those marches was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “We Shall Overcome”. They were appealing to another aspect of American culture. I believe our soft power is likely to prevail because of the attractive deeper value of the US. When asked why they don’t “like” the US, people rarely talk about our culture or values, but they often mention our policies.

The good news is that policies can change, even if many politicians think in short-term. Some do look further, and to be fair, President Bush does. His theory – and he really believes this – is that the absence of democracy in the Middle East caused the 9/11 attacks. His problem is not his sense of time, but his misdiagnosis of the situation. The terrorists who attacked in London, grew up in democratic Britain, and even if democracy is the answer, democracy under coercion has unfortunate side effects. President Bush is a very Wilsonian president (his father was more like Roosevelt). Like Wilson, Bush is an evangelizing idealist who wishes to export values and “make the world safe for democracy”. I believe a better approach would be to be a “shining city on the hill” that doesn’t “go abroad in search of dragons to destroy” (in the words of John Quincy Adams). As president Kennedy said: we must “make the world safe for diversity”.

What would happen if the US weren’t a superpower, or if the US went home right after the Iraq war? I think the rest of the world would want us to come back. As a superpower, the US can produce global public goods, much like Great Britain did during the Pax Britannica. The US hasn’t focused enough on this in the past few years.

To balance hard and soft power is to be a smart power. I remain optimistic that we will again be a smart power.

When asked about Europe specifically, Nye answers:

Europe has powerful soft power. I would urge Europe to focus more on hard power. In his second term, president Bush has been more interested in Europe. Ever since Condoleeza Rice’s trip through Europe, US policies toward Europe have been better. I believe it is important to realize that Europe and the US have more in common with each other than any other two parts of the world. It is time to repair the house, because we really do live in the same house.

Posted by Julie at September 8, 2006 5:33 PM

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Posted by: Annamor at September 12, 2006 1:53 PM