"Soft Power -The Means to Success in World Politics"
Tysha Bohorquez reviews Joseph Nye Jr.'s book on the importance of soft power
Published: Thursday, December 01, 2005
When Joseph Nye, Jr. first introduced the concept of soft power in Bound to Lead in 1990, he pointed out that the U.S. was not only the strongest nation in military and economic terms, but also in what he called soft power. Nye defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.” He also noted that soft power “could be developed through relations with allies, economic assistance, and cultural exchanges.” He argued that this would result in “a more favorable public opinion and credibility abroad.” Soft power has become increasingly important since September 11 because the U.S. is not able to fight terrorism on its own. Nye argues that it cannot create global stability without the help of other states. In order to create such stability, the U.S. needs the cooperation of international institutions and other states.
What is Soft Power?
The most widely held definition of power as the capacity to do things and to affect the behavior of others to make those things happen. A distinguished foreign policy scholar, Joseph Nye has expanded this definition of power. Nye states that power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to accomplish the outcomes one wants. Nye is currently the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. When Nye first coined the term “soft power” in Bound to Lead (1990), he pointed out that the U.S. was the strongest nation not only in military and economic terms, but also in its capacity to influence other nations to identify U.S. interests as their own.
Soft power is contrasted with hard power, which is the use of military and economic might to make others change their position. Hard power can rest on inducements or threats, otherwise known as “carrots and sticks.” Hard Power is not always the necessary or desirable strategy for achieving an aim. Sometimes a nation can achieve its goals without tangible threats or payoffs; it does not rely on hard but soft power. Nye defines “soft power” as a country's ability to influence events through persuasion and attraction, rather than military or financial coercion.
Types of Soft Power
A country has more soft power if its culture, values and institutions incite admiration and respect in other parts of the world. Diplomacy and a nation’s standing in international bodies enable it to build alliances. Crucial to understanding Nye’s concept of soft power is the importance of U.S. popular culture worldwide. From McDonald's to Hollywood movies, to the heavy U.S. flavor of the Internet, US culture has influence worldwide. Also relevant to the concept of “soft power” is the lure of the U.S. style of government, widely esteemed for its freedoms and for the opportunity it offers immigrants. From these examples, Nye argues that, in both political and cultural terms, the U.S. has a great deal of soft power.
Although the U.S. is too powerful to be challenged by others militarily, it is not powerful enough to achieve its goals by going it alone. One can look at the difficulties the U.S. is facing in Iraq today as an example or look at what is necessary to enforce trade sanctions or a boycott. If one nation refuses to participate, this can undermine the boycott. One needs only to look at the cases of Iran and Cuba to understand this.
In the case of Iran, neither economic bans nor political attacks have achieved U.S. aims. In fact, economic embargoes and political criticism have helped Iran become more self-reliant. Iran is actually doing better than many countries that have depended on U.S. assistance. The country has upheld the oil production quota set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC); it remains financially sound; and it continues to maintain trade and investment with the rest of the world. In fact, Iran’s economy is healthier than it was in the early1990s, with high surpluses, record high currency reserves, and making foreign debt payments on time.
In the case of Cuba, the international community has been critical of the United States especially since the passage of the Helms-Burton Act. The Helms-Burton Act formalizes U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Its provisions include the right to deny U.S. visas to executives, majority shareholders and their families of companies that have invested in property that had belonged to US companies prior to the Communist revolution. This has already been used against the Canadian mining company Sherritt International. Canada, Mexico, France and Britain are major investors in Cuba and are particularly angered by the legislation. These key U.S. allies have accused the laws as an extraterritorial attempt to bully sovereign nations into assuming a particular foreign policy position. Canada and Mexico claim that the U.S. is in violation of both NAFTA and the European Union. Both countries had “threatened to bring the case before the World Trade Organization before reaching a tenuous last-minute understanding." The European Union vows to fight Helms-Burton at the World Trade Organization. This is another case where the U.S. has acted unilaterally, damaging international relations.
The type of unilateralism demonstrated in the Helms-Burton Act emerges from the U.S. position of hegemon in the post-Cold War era. However, the feasibility of U.S. unipolarity and hegemony can be misleading because, in fact, for the world's power structure is complex and multilayered. The United States has unprecedented military power, but economic power is widely shared with Europe and East Asia. Within the realm of a booming world of transnational relations, much lies outside Washington's control. When the United States pursues a heavy-handed, unilateral foreign policy, it hastens the demise of its preponderance and destroys its ability to shape the global playing field.
One way that the US has been heavy handed is by refusing to sign multilateral treaties. Bush’s refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, for example, was widely criticized. The failure of the US to participate in the International Court of Justice is another example of abstention from multilateral cooperation.
By binding itself to the outside world through multilateral treaties and agreements, Nye points out, the United States may lose some freedom of action. Nevertheless, the U.S. gains far more by securing other countries as predictable and cooperative partners. These states are more likely to accept rather than to balance against American power when that power is exercised within a framework of multilateral rules, however loose that framework might be.
How Terrorism has increased the Relevance of Soft Power
In addition to examining political economy, Nye’s theory of soft power is helpful in addressing questions that arise in the debates surrounding the war on terror. For instance, a central question is to what extent can the U.S. go it alone against its enemies, brushing aside reluctant allies to get the job done. In the wake of the September 11 attack there was cooperation from countries that had had strained diplomatic relations with the U.S. Syria for instance, provided intelligence to the U.S. in 2001, however, in 2005, Washington’s relations to Damascus is dramatically different. Nye argues that rather than being less dependent on countries like Syria, America will become increasingly dependent on other nations to defeat terrorism. While the U.S. is unrivaled militarily, it cannot monitor every corner on the globe. Appealing to a mutuality of interests, creating an attraction of shared values, and a willingness to consult others can seem difficult to achieve, however, it might be necessary in order for other nations to seek outcomes shared by the US.
Argument Against Soft Power
Nye’s view is, of course, not held by all. His critiques include David Frum, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Frum co-authors An End Evil to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror with Richard Perle . They consider themselves “realists” and fully reject Nye’s concept of soft power. While some argue that the U.S. government has overstepped its boundaries in the international arena, Perle and Frum claim that overthrowing the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq was not enough. Perle and Frum support the use of military action against North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. To them, soft power is irrelevant for a country without military rivals.
However, this rejection of soft power is not limited to Perle and Frum. Bush’s recent appointment of Bolton as the U.S. ambassador to the UN surprised many because he had been criticized for stating that, "there is no such thing as the United Nations. . . If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.” These are not the remarks of someone convinced of the importance of soft power.
Frum and Perle’s vision of the world is too black and white, defined by an “us against them” mentality. In their book, An Evil to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, both authors state that, "there is no middle way for Americans. It is either victory of holocaust." There is no room negotiation within a framework that is so rigid. This philosophy disregards the possibility of the co-existence of hard and soft power, where states not only rely on military force but also negotiate collaboration with allies, however difficult that may be.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is another skeptic of soft power, in fact, he admits to not even understanding the term, claiming that popularity is ephemeral and should not guide U.S. foreign policy. Rumsfeld asserts that America is strong enough to do as it wishes with or without the world's approval and should simply accept that others will envy and resent it. According to him, the world's only superpower does not need permanent allies; the issues should determine the coalitions, not vice-versa.
Rumsfeld and Nye appear to present dramatically divergent approaches to international relations. Nye claims that soft power is necessary, thus, providing a balanced approach. Nye, however, does not view hard and soft power as mutually exclusive. He recognizes that there is a need for hard power but that it has limitations. Perle and Frum on the other hand, miss diplomacy’s nuanced approach and the importance of building consensus among allies. Nye’s analysis, conversely, is useful in that it provides a framework for understanding the nuances necessary to achieve this consensus.
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