On the Rise and Fall of American Soft Power
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard, where he was dean of the Kennedy School of Government until last year. He is author most recently of The Power Game: A Washington Novel and The Paradox of American Power. During the Clinton administration, Nye was chairman of the National Intelligence Council and an assistant secretary of defense. Professor Nye offered this response to the NPQ issue The Rise and Fall of America’s Soft Power.
Oxford—Nathan Gardels is right in his essay in NPQ on the rise and fall of America’s soft power. The past few years have been difficult ones for American soft power. Recent polls show even Australia losing confidence in the United States, not to mention front-line states in the "war on terrorism" such as Pakistan and Jordan. We cannot win that struggle by bombs and bullets alone. Unless we attract the hearts and minds of the moderates, we cannot isolate the hardcore radicals who wish us harm.
But there are a few straws in the wind that suggest George W. Bush’s administration may have learned some lessons from its neglect of soft power in its first term. As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said when she recently visited Paris: "I use the word ’power’ broadly, because even more important than military and, indeed, economic power is the power of ideas, the power of compassion and the power of hope." And Bush not only chose to visit Brussels, the capital of the European Union, but he has stated that "All that we hope to achieve together requires that America and Europe remain close partners."
Will Bush’s new approach succeed? Clearly words have to be matched by deeds before people are convinced. One place to look to see if deeds are on their way is in the budget that Bush sent to Congress.
The president’s overall budget cuts discretionary spending (other than defense and homeland security) by nearly 1 percent and cuts back on as many as 150 domestic programs. Yet in this climate of budgetary stringency, he calls for increased contributions to international organizations, the Millennium Challenge Account to provide assistance to countries with a commitment to make progress in poverty reduction, and the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative. These are investments in soft power.
Bush’s new budget also includes an increase in funding for public diplomacy. The State Department’s educational and cultural exchange programs, including overseas research centers, libraries and visitor programs, are increased by nearly 25 percent.
In the words of Bush’s budget request to Congress, "Rarely has the need for a sustained effort to ensure foreign understanding for our country and society been so clearly evident." This comes after a first term in which public diplomacy was a stepchild in the administration and a Pentagon advisory panel referred to the US’ poor image as a "crisis" in public diplomacy.
Even with these increases, there would still be a long way to go in this domain. A recent non-partisan report of the Public Diplomacy Council called for a new Agency for Public Diplomacy within the State Department, 24-hours-per-day English-language broadcasts by the Voice of America, and a fourfold budget increase for public diplomacy programs over the next five years. The administration still has much to do in promoting ideas, but again the early indications suggest a change from the neglect of Bush’s first term.
Alas, public diplomacy is not enough. Even the best advertising cannot sell a bad product. A country’s attractiveness or soft power stems partly from its culture and values, but also it grows out of a country’s policies when they are seen as legitimate, consultative and inclusive of the interests of others.
It will not be enough for Bush to offer grand rhetoric about values and increased investment in public diplomacy. Unless the policies fit with the values, the discrepancy will give rise to charges of hypocrisy, which will undercut soft power. At a minimum, Bush will need to pursue policies that seek a political solution in Iraq, progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a more consultative style.
Here, too, the early signs are encouraging. The 60 percent turnout in the Iraq elections and the scenes of Iraqis risking their lives to vote have led to hopes that a political settlement may eventually become possible. The elections are only a first step; the insurgency continues, and even a civil war could become possible. Nonetheless, the early signs are that the elections softened some of the sense of illegitimacy that clouded Bush’s Iraq policy last year.
Similarly, with regard to the Middle East peace process, the replacement of Yasser Arafat by Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian elections and the meetings between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggest the possibility of progress.
And on difficult nuclear issues for the future, such as those pertaining to North Korea and Iran, Bush has pursued multilateral consultation and coordination with other powers.
This still leaves difficult issues like the International Criminal Court and global climate change. There is little prospect that Bush will reverse his rejection of the Kyoto Treaty, but it will be interesting to see how far he is willing to accommodate British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s efforts to make climate change a priority during Britain’s period as chair of the Group of Eight major countries.
It is certainly much too early for a verdict on Bush’s policies in his second term. As he looks ahead to the history books, however, he seems to realize that hard power alone will not consolidate his position. At the same time, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he plans a broader approach that incorporates soft power, incidents and accidents can drive the best-made plans off course. But if he can succeed in combining hard with soft power, America can return to being a smart power.