Soft Power

Joseph Nye has long been an advocate of “soft power,” the use of moral suasion to achieve foreign policy goals. Of course, so has everyone else, but they didn’t coin a cool term to describe an obvious concept.

After the war in Iraq, I spoke about soft power to a conference co-sponsored by the Army. One of the speakers was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. When someone in the audience asked Rumsfeld for his opinion on soft power, he replied, “I don’t know what it means.” That is part of our problem. Some of our leaders don’t understand the importance of soft power in our post-Sept. 11 world.

I’m afraid Rumsfeld’s dry wit is lost on Nye. Of course he knows what soft power is. Hell, even if he had never heard the term before, he’d have been briefed on it if he was going to be on a panel with Nye.

Soft power is the ability to get what we want by attracting others rather than by threatening or paying them. It is based on our culture, our political ideals and our policies. Historically, Americans have been good at wielding soft power. Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in Europe at the end of World War II; of young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music and news on Radio Free Europe; of Chinese students symbolizing their protests in Tiananmen Square with a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many of our values, such as democracy, human rights and individual opportunity, are deeply seductive. But attraction can turn to repulsion when we are arrogant and destroy the real message of our deeper values.


As we wend our way deeper into the struggle with terrorism, we are discovering that there are many things beyond U.S. control. The United States alone cannot hunt down every suspected al Qaeda leader hiding in remote regions of the globe. Nor can we launch a war whenever we wish without alienating other countries and losing the cooperation we need to win the peace.

The war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations — Islam vs. the West — but rather a civil war within Islamic civilization between extremists who use violence to enforce their vision and a moderate majority who want such things as jobs, education, health care and dignity as they practice their faith. We will not win unless the moderates win. Our soft power will never attract Osama bin Laden and the extremists. We need hard power to deal with them. But soft power will play a crucial role in our ability to attract the moderates and deny the extremists new recruits.

I would argue that the Clinton Administration relied quite heavily on soft power, with mixed results. Certainly, our relationship with Western Europe was more cordial as a result. But it was also the case that Clinton’s agenda–and, indeed that of any Democratic president–was simply more in line with the preferences of the social democrats in Europe. Nor did the heavier reliance on soft power policy during the Clinton Administration seem to do much to improve the terrorist problem in the Middle East. Again, this isn’t a criticism of Clinton on the issue–hard power hasn’t gotten it done either–but of the notion that we’ve somehow abandoned soft power over the last decade plus:

With the end of the Cold War, Americans became more interested in budget savings than in investing in our soft power. Even after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a bipartisan advisory group reported that the United States spent a paltry $150 million on public diplomacy in Muslim countries in 2002. The combined cost of the State Department’s public diplomacy programs and all our international broadcasting that year was just over a billion dollars — about the same amount spent by Britain or France, countries one-fifth our size. It is also equal to one-quarter of 1 percent of the military budget. No one would suggest that we spend as much to launch ideas as to launch bombs, but it does seem odd that we spend 400 times as much on hard power as on soft power. If we spent just 1 percent of the military budget, it would mean quadrupling our spending on soft power.

If the United States is going to win the struggle against terrorism, our leaders are going to have to learn to better combine soft and hard power into “smart power,” as we did in the Cold War. We have done it before; we can do it again.

Nye served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Clinton Administration. Presumably, he was a reasonably influential fellow. And while one can certainly argue for more spending on humanitarian aid and the like, there’s not much evidence that it would solve the problems Nye describes. Indeed, the vast majority of aid money seems to go down a rat hole, contributing to the lifestyles of the elites without doing much to change the lifestyles, let alone attitudes, of the common people.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Christine says:

    It may be presumptuous of me to cry foul to the Dean of the Harvard School of Government but lumping the entire military budget as “hard power” meant only for “launching bombs and not ideas” is a specious argument. The many special operations missions that are taking place, to include PSYOP, Civil Affairs, and Special Forces, are based upon his very definition of “soft power”. Whether it’s mine awareness, anti-narcotrafficking, or humanitarian operations, they all have the underlying mission of creating a favorable opinion of the US and its policies. Terrorist organizations make for strange bedfellows and undermining their influence in their host countries also undermines the influence and control that any other terrorist organization can exert. I would agree that the State Department could focus more of their efforts on Islamic countries but to categorically ignore the long reaching and proactive efforts of the military’s “soft power” campaigns is quite narrow-minded.

  2. bryan says:

    Soft and Hard power sounds more like characters from a porn movie, but … the concepts sound a lot like the positional authority and relational authority concepts used in business management books and in communication.