Commentary Magazine


The Soft-Power Fallacy

In May, Barack Obama delivered the commencement address to West Point’s 2010 graduating class and offered high praise for the accomplishments of the American military—including the most unabashed appreciation of the achievement of U.S. forces in Iraq he has ever put forth. “This is what success looks like,” he said, “an Iraq that provides no safe-haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.” But before an audience of some 1,000 men and women in uniform, the commander in chief chose to focus on the nonmilitary dimension of advancing America’s interests.

“We cannot leave it to those in uniform to defend this country,” he said. “We have to make sure that America is building on its strengths.” Foremost, this will require “steps we take at home.” Such steps include a concentration on child education, developing clean energy, and unlocking the mysteries of science. Abroad, a vigorous engagement effort will keep us from “stepping out of the currents of cooperation.”

As the New York Times’s Peter Baker saw it, Obama’s speech “essentially repudiated his predecessor’s emphasis on unilateral American power and the right to wage pre-emptive war.” And when the administration released its first national-security strategy a few days later, it was little more than a fleshed-out version of the West Point Speech. While the national-security strategy reflected some continuity with the presidency of George W. Bush and other previous administrations, its lengthy suggestions on the kind of nonmilitary tools Obama discussed at West Point placed an unprecedented emphasis on the doctrine of “soft power.”

“The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone—indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power,” Obama writes in the introduction. Obama’s way forward, outlined over the course of 52 pages, centers on increasing cooperation with international institutions, setting a positive American example for the world to follow, reducing our deficit, and engaging with foreign governments across the globe. Though the strategy acknowledges the accomplishments of our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it describes an approach to the world that looks beyond America’s disengagement from the wars that began before Obama was elected president. As that disengagement proceeds, the strategy makes plain, soft power will fill the space left by a retraction of military strength.

Indeed, in the year and a half since Obama became president, it has already started to do so. The results of this emphasis on soft power have not been encouraging.

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The concept of soft power was first described at length by the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. According to Nye, soft power is exercised “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants.” This is to be achieved through “intangible forms of power,” such as the setting of a good example, the export of positive popular culture, and a redoubled willingness to approach problems through international bodies and coalitions. All this is opposed to “the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” Barack Obama has accepted this contrast with little reservation. “All too often,” he said in his first interview as president, “the United States starts by dictating.” He has since frequently elaborated on what he sees as the aims of the “international community.”

The similarities to Nye are more than casual. Nye wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War:

Increasingly, the issues today do not pit one state against another; instead, they are issues in which all states try to control nonstate transnational actors. The solutions to many current issues of transnational interdependence will require collective action and international cooperation.

In September 2009, Obama said before the United Nations General Assembly:

In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War.

Nye asserted that if a nation “can establish international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to change.” Obama’s national security strategy refers to the “strengthening,” “respect[ing],” and “enforcing” of “international norms” no fewer than 14 times.

The supposed advantage of the soft-power approach lies in Nye’s contention that “the great powers of today are less able to use their traditional power resources to achieve their purposes than in the past.” For great powers, the use of force has simply become too costly. Additionally, the world has seen—or had seen, when Nye was writing in 1990—a “diffusion of power” due to economic interdependence, transnational actors, increased nationalism in weak states, widespread technology, and “changing political issues.”

For example, the Japanese of the 1980s, who loomed large in Nye’s original calculation about the world power nexus, chose not to build up their military force because “the political cost both at home and in the reaction of other countries would be considerable. Militarization might then reduce rather than increase Japan’s ability to achieve its ends.” This was, for Nye, a model to be taken seriously. Twenty years later, in his national-security strategy, Obama warns, “When we overuse our military might, or fail to invest in or deploy complementary tools, or act without partners, then our military is overstretched, Americans bear a greater burden, and our leadership around the world is too narrowly identified with military force.”

The repeated references to a rising Japan are but one of many tip-offs that Nye’s book amounted to a piece of earnest, post–Cold War wishful thinking, a means by which to redeem the much-discussed “peace dividend” bequeathed to America by the Soviet collapse through the ramping down of American military commitments.

Like Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History,” soft-power theory was a creative and appealing attempt to make sense of America’s global purpose. Unlike Fukuyama’s theory, however, which the new global order seemed to support for nearly a decade, Nye’s was basically refuted by world events in its very first year. In the summer of 1990, a massive contingent of Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait and effectively annexed it as a province of Iraq. Although months earlier Nye had asserted that “geography, population, and raw materials are becoming somewhat less important,” the fact is that Saddam invaded Kuwait because of its geographic proximity, insubstantial military, and plentiful oil reserves. Despite Nye’s claim that “the definition of power is losing its emphasis on military force,” months of concerted international pressure, including the passage of a UN resolution, failed to persuade Saddam to withdraw. In the end, only overwhelming American military power succeeded in liberating Kuwait. The American show of force also succeeded in establishing the U.S. as the single, unrivaled post–Cold War superpower.

Following the First Gulf War, the 1990s saw brutal acts of aggression in the Balkans: the Bosnian War in 1992 and the Kosovo conflicts beginning in 1998. These raged on despite international negotiations and were quelled only after America took the lead in military actions. It is also worth noting that attempts to internationalize these efforts made them more costly in time, effectiveness, and manpower than if the U.S. had acted unilaterally.

Additionally, the 1990s left little mystery as to how cataclysmic events unfold when the U.S. declines to apply traditional tools of power overseas. In April 1994, Hutu rebels began the indiscriminate killing of Tutsis in Rwanda. As the violence escalated, the United Nations’s peacekeeping forces stood down so as not to violate a UN mandate prohibiting intervention in a country’s internal politics. Washington followed suit, refusing even to consider deploying forces to East-Central Africa. By the time the killing was done, in July of the same year, Hutus had slaughtered between half a million and 1 million Tutsis.

And in the 1990s, Japan’s economy went into its long stall, making the Japanese model of a scaled down military seem rather less relevant.

All this is to say that during the presidency of Bill Clinton, Nye’s “intangible forms of power” proved to hold little sway in matters of statecraft, while modes of traditional power remained as critical as ever in coercing other nations and affirming America’s role as chief protector of the global order.

If the Clinton years posed a challenge for the efficacy of soft power, the post-9/11 age has exposed Nye’s explication of the theory as something akin to academic eccentricity. In his book, Nye mentioned “current issues of transnational interdependence” requiring “collective action and international cooperation.” Among these were “ecological changes (acid rain and global warming), health epidemics such as AIDS, illicit trade in drugs, and terrorism.” Surely a paradigm that places terrorism last on a list of national threats starting with acid rain is due for revision.

For what stronger negation of the soft-power thesis could one imagine than a strike against America largely inspired by what Nye considered a great “soft power resource”: namely, “American values of democracy and human rights”? Yet Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, had in fact weighed in unequivocally on the matter of Western democracy: “Whoever claims to be a ‘democratic-Muslim,’ or a Muslim who calls for democracy, is like one who says about himself ‘I am a Jewish Muslim,’ or ‘I am a Christian Muslim’—the one worse than the other. He is an apostate infidel.”

With a detestable kind of clarity, Zawahiri’s pronouncement revealed the hollowness at the heart of the soft-power theory. Soft power is a fine policy complement in dealing with parties that approve of American ideals and American dominion. But applied to those that do not, soft power’s attributes become their opposites. For enemies of the United States, the export of American culture is a provocation, not an invitation; self-conscious “example-setting” in areas like nonproliferation is an indication of weakness, not leadership; deference to international bodies is a path to exercising a veto over American action, not a means of forging multilateral cooperation.

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It is instructive to recall that when professional diplomacy was created in the Italian city-states of the early Renaissance, both diplomats and the lands they represented belonged to a relatively straightforward order. Not only did these city-states share the same swath of the planet, but cooperating diplomats also shared something more important. As Harold Nicolson put it, “These officials representing their governments in foreign capitals possessed similar standards of education, similar experience and a similar aim. They desired the same sort of world.”

That kind of privileged diplomacy, taking place among the like-minded, continues to yield results. Soft power is and always has been an organic aspect of America’s relationships with regimes that already “desire the same sort of world.” Washington may quibble over the details of energy or trade policy with other democracies, but a mutually beneficial deal can usually be reached because all parties have gone into negotiations with some type of mutually beneficial outcome in mind. For example, in March, India and the United States secured an agreement whereby the U.S. will commit to selling nuclear material to India and India will commit to firewalling its civil and military reactors under international supervision. Such bilateral comity comes as a result of India’s wanting to be a freer, more prosperous, and pluralistic democracy. America’s use of soft power, in this context, is a given.

Alternately, the limits of soft power can be seen in the Obama administration’s dealings with regimes that reject the American model. The most immediate examples are Iran and Russia. Consider the Obama administration’s attempt to employ soft power and strike a uranium enrichment deal with Iran. On March 19, 2009, during the Iranian celebration of the Persian New Year, President Obama released a much-viewed video message directed at Iran and specifically its leadership. He transparently laid out, for Tehran, his vision of diplomatic rebirth:

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

This opening soft-power gesture was soon followed by summitry. Despite the telling absence of an American embassy in Tehran, an ambitious diplomatic effort to halt Iran’s nuclear-weapons development was soon underway. Having set aside any threats, Obama nevertheless proposed a year-end deadline for Iran to show its willingness to resolve the nuclear issue via engagement. “The important thing is to make sure there is a clear timetable, at which point we say these talks don’t seem to be making any clear progress,” the president said. American officials began shuttling to overseas meetings with Iranian representatives. But the Iranian leadership shot down this proposal, along with all others.

As for the threat-free cutoff date, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an audience last December in the Iranian city of Shiraz, “The West can give Iran as many deadlines as they want, we don’t care.” The reliance on soft power as sufficient grounds for summitry translates into a downgrading of traditional diplomatic tools, such as credible threat and dependable alliances.

Contrary to President Obama’s hopes, since his inauguration Iran has undertaken a massive expansion of its nuclear program. Coupling revelations about new enrichment facilities with declarations of God’s will or renewed threats to destroy Israel, Iran’s behavior is as far from what could be called diplomatic as could be imagined.

Iran is impervious to American soft power because the Iranian regime is built on a defining opposition to America’s ideals and aims. The Khomeinist revolution is predicated on a doctrinal hatred of America. For either Ahmadinejad or Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to “want what [America] wants” would constitute a refounding of the Islamic republic.

Yet in its effort to soft-power Tehran into a deal, the Obama administration missed an opportunity with Iranians who desire that very thing: Iran’s democratic protesters. On June 12, 2009, an election, widely believed to have been rigged, returned Ahmadinejad to the presidency. For weeks, thousands of Iranian protesters took to the streets. The regime responded to the Green movement, as the protesters came to be called, with mass arrests, abuse, torture, imprisonment, and murder. Protesters’ demands for democracy were coupled with explicit entreaties to Washington. “Are you with us or with the regime?” they asked President Obama.

The White House was slow to condemn the human-rights abuses in any meaningful way, opting instead to “bear witness,” in Obama’s words, lest American condemnation be used as a “political football” inside Iran. The characterization is telling. American condemnation is not, after all, an insensate “football” dependent on its handlers for meaning. American opinion is shaped by American ideals and carries a trademarked moral dimension. It was no oversight that Iran’s democrats did not call directly on China’s President Hu Jintao or Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to condemn Ahmadinejad. To the extent that American soft power works, it does so because of the democratic character of sympathetic parties such as Iran’s Green movement. The administration bartered that away for a chance to persuade a dictatorial, theocratic regime that America is now less faithful to upholding American principles. The Green movement has since been all but silenced by Ahmadinejad.

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A similarly failed soft-power approach toward Russia has led the administration to checkmate itself and burnmore democratic allies. It is well known that George W. Bush allowed his personal and sympathetic misreading of then Russian President Vladimir Putin to cloud America’s dealings with Moscow. But as decent as he might have thought the former KGB man to be, Bush never catered to Putin’s wish that the U.S. scrap planned missile-defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic. On September 17, President Obama did just that.

This was part of the administration’s Russia “reset” policy, a milestone in the soft-power approach. In March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a toy “reset” button (incorrectly translated) to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two held up the prop in a series of publicity photographs and Secretary Clinton, Vice President Joseph Biden, and President Obama all went on to speak passionately about the need to work with Moscow on areas of mutual interest.

But despite the soft-power circus and Washington’s missile-defense concession, Moscow is now no closer to joining a “biting” sanctions regime against Iran. Meanwhile, America’s relationship with steadfast allies had been shredded. The fallout in the Czech Republic, for example, was extensive. The deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau said that his nation’s “strategic alliance with Washington” was “de facto” lost. Czech lawmaker Jan Vidim sounded the most ominous note, saying, “If the administration approaches us in the future with any request, I would be strongly against it.”

The doctrine of soft power finds its greatest refutation in the person of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s strongman. He is a hard-power nationalist who is increasing Russia’s regional influence in the very way Nye had described as being of diminishing importance—through military expansion and geographic exploitation. In the summer of 2008, Russian troops undertook an illegal occupation of Georgia, and Moscow just secured a deal guaranteeing Russian control of Ukraine’s Crimean Naval Base for the next 30 years. If Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev is more pliant and positively disposed toward the West than Putin is, the world has seen scant evidence of it.

Moscow, although to a less dramatic degree than Tehran, does not want “the same sort of world” the U.S. does. American soft power reaches the shores of the Black Sea in a craft that could be dubbed the USS Acquiescence. The Kremlin embodies a centuries-old national psychology that places Russian “greatness” over the untested reality of democratic reform. Moscow will not abandon what it perceives as its “traditional sphere of influence” in order to engender better relations with the West.

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In addition to limning the failings of Nye’s “intangible means of power,” it is important to note that despite Nye’s insistence, American military power has grown increasingly flexible and cost-effective. Nye said that rising expenses would make the maintenance and use of such power untenable in the long run. Yet the U.S. has now been in two ongoing overseas wars for nearly a decade, while military spending as a percentage of GDP is lower than it was when Nye coined the term soft power. Additionally, forces have suffered fewer casualties than in any previous extended American war.

In some sense, what has come to be called soft power is so intimate a part of the American experiment that it barely qualifies for classification as a foreign-policy tool. America is not only a nation; it is an idea, an example of what can be done when people are allowed to exercise the right of self-government. Even if our nation’s worst critics are correct and America simply somehow bombed its way to superpower status, they would still have to account for the United States’s being both the world’s No. 1 destination for immigrants and the most emulated political model since the birth of the nation-state.

The fundamental strength of the American idea, therefore, has not merely enabled the United States to become a superpower. It has made its freedoms more widely available to a richer variety of democratic participants both in foreign lands and at home.

Surely in the election of Barack Obama to the office of president, the world witnessed potent evidence of this democratic dissemination. At this point in history, only America can boast of electing a black man into the most powerful office in the world. Perhaps Barack Obama has built his foreign policy around soft power because he is so convinced that he, in his own person, conveys all the messages the world needs to hear about America. In late 2007, he told the New York Times, “I think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country.”

Obama got it wrong then, and he has it wrong now. The global appeal of America does not lie in the geographic dispersal of its leaders’ relatives. America’s power—soft and hard—is derived from its exceptional promise of opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion, or station. This promise is kept with declarations and sanctions, but also with guns.

The American idea has allowed the American people to build a nation of unparalleled military might and served as a beacon for those in far-off lands who “want what we want.” For those who want something else, the idea is anathema. They will not be converted by soft power. Instead, they will take advantage of its softness for their own malignant ends.

About the Author

Abe Greenwald is associate editor of COMMENTARY.




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