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Introduction to the Definition of and Uses for "Soft" Power
on 2 July 2004
We all know what "hard" power is: You can make someone do whatever you want them to do . . . either by coercion or by intimidation backed up by the potential for coercion. What is "soft" power? That's the subject that Kennedy School dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr. explores in this interesting book.
Dean Nye originally coined the term "soft power" so he's a good person to develop the concept. He sees government power coming from three sources: Military power; economic power; and soft power. Military power is all bout coercion, deterrence and protection through threats and force. Government pursues this path through war, coercive diplomacy, and alliances. Economic power is the carrot and the stick enforced through payments and sanctions. Payments take the form of aid and bribes, and sanctions can be anything from boycotts to interdictions.
Soft power looks at the other hand from the gloved fist: Attraction and agenda setting. Countries use their values, culture, policies and institutions to make inroads as applied through various forms of diplomacy.
These themes are explored in the context of the Cold War, the policies of the Clinton and two Bush administrations, and the war on terror. In making his arguments, Dean Nye addresses philosophical arguments made by conservative and neo-conservative thinkers who favor the fist in all situations (including unilateral action), and provides examples of what has and has not worked.
Dean Nye's basic point is that a country should use both its hard and its soft power to obtain the best results. He analyzes what this means for the major countries in the world in specifics (the choices for Finland are a lot different than for the United States or Japan).
Of particular relevance for the current moment is the data he provides on the costly erosion in soft power that the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq have created for the United States. People still like the United States outside of the U.S. but most of them don't trust us any more . . . and they like us a lot less than they did two years ago. They often don't feel that we ever consider their interests. The problem is most severe in the Muslim world. Dean Nye points out that these problems are as bad as they were at the worst of the Vietnam quagmire, but that we can recover. He argues persuasively for reinstating more people-to-people contacts, operating from democratic principles in dealing with all other countries, developing alliances and consensus before taking military and economic action, and sharing all parts of our culture with the citizens of other countries through "open" exchanges.
Those who are appalled by the Iraq war will be very attracted by this book. It provides concrete suggestions to the alternative of just working with the United Nations when problems arise and hoping that all will be well. Those who think we did the right thing with our invasion will hate this book a lot.
Regardless of your stance on Iraq, I hope that both presidential candidates will heed the lessons of this book. We've gotten away from what helped us be successful in the Cold War. Those lessons need to be reapplied today to meet the new global challenges.