Going My Way

Book cover
Soft Powerby Joseph S. Nye Jr.Public Affairs. 191p $25

The dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, Joseph S. Nye Jr. coined the term “soft power” in the late 1980’s. In Bound to Lead (1990) and The Paradox of American Power (2001) he developed the idea of this “third dimension” of power and how it related to the United States.

Although the concept of soft power has been recognized by many political leaders, academics and journalists, Nye fears some of these individuals have misunderstood, misused or trivialized the idea. He writes that even more frustrating has been the fact that “some policy makers ignore the importance of our soft power and make us all pay the price by unnecessarily squandering it.”


According to Nye, soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others; in other words, getting others to want the same outcomes as you want. “Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from attraction. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to use carrots or sticks to make you do it,” Nye writes. “Whereas leaders in authoritarian countries can use coercion and issue commands, politicians in democracies have to rely more on a combination of inducement and attraction.”

Soft power is not just influence; it is the ability to attract, which then often will lead to acquiescence. Soft power resources are the assets that produce attraction and can be measured by using polls or focus groups.

Nye was told by his friends as well as some critics that if he wanted the idea of soft power to be understood properly and be used in foreign policy, he would have to explore and develop the concept in greater depth. That, in essence, is the purpose of this book.

Using the conflict in Iraq as the context for defining and delving into the importance of soft power, he Nye states, “I have honed the definition, expanded the examples, used new polling data and historical research, and explored the implications and limits of soft power in ways I had not done in either of my earlier works.” Along the way Nye also offers his analysis of the changing context of power in international politics and explains why soft power is even more important today than it was in the past.

After examining the sources of American soft power, he investigates the soft power of other nations and such “nonstate actors” as Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch. Next, Nye discusses the practical problems of wielding soft power through public diplomacy. He then concludes the book by summarizing what all of this means for the United States in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.

Nye believes the soft power of a country rests primarily with three resources: its culture, its political values and its foreign policies. Using examples from around the globe, he shows how these resources can be utilized to create soft power. Ever the realist, Nye also discusses the perceived limits of soft power as well as the interplay between it and hard power.

At the core of the book is an assessment of America’s ability to create and use soft power effectively. Soft power is not a constant; it is in continual flux. It is no secret that the attractiveness of the United States has declined. This is not just because of such decisions as the government’s stance on global warming or the invasion of Iraq. Citing opinion polls and surveys, Nye points out that there have been fluctuations in American attractiveness dating back to the Vietnam War.

This decline has accelerated of late. “In the run-up to the Iraq War, polls showed the United States lost an average of 30 points of support in most European countries,” Nye explains. “After the war, majorities of the people held unfavorable images of the United States in nearly two-thirds of 19 countries surveyed.”

Although he believes the current focus on the threat or use of military power to force other nations to do our will explains some of this deterioration of American appeal, Nye does not lay all the blame on the Bush administration’s doorstep. “In recent years, other countries have increasingly complained about the unilateralism of American foreign policy…. International concerns about unilateralism began well before George W. Bush became president, and involved Congress as well as the executive branch,” Nye writes.

Because many crucial resources are outside the control of governments, Nye admits that soft power is difficult to wield. But at the same time, he asserts that diplomacy aimed at public opinion can be as important as the traditional diplomatic communications between global leaders.

There are three dimensions of this public diplomacy that must be addressed. Daily communications that involve explaining the context of domestic and foreign policy decisions must be established with the foreign press. Second, strategic communication that revolves around a set of simple themes or policy initiatives must be developed. Finally, development with key individuals abroad must be fostered through the use of scholarships, exchanges, seminars, conferences and access to media channels.

Nye’s contention that in the months and years ahead, the United States must pay more attention to creating and utilizing soft power makes sense. To date we have been more successful in the domain of hard power; but in the decades to come, multilateral cooperation among states will determine how well thorny international issues are handled. Whether it be terrorism, the global economy or ecological concerns, the successful wielding of soft power will help determine the resolution of these international problems.

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