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The Force of Friendly Persuasion

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
April 6, 2004
Wall Street Journal

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Political scientists and policy wonks often to try invent new words or expressions that they hope will enter the lexicon. Joseph Nye is one of the few who has succeeded. His phrase "soft power" has become so widely used since he coined it more than a decade ago that his desire to take a victory lap is perfectly understandable. The first six pages of "Soft Power" (PublicAffairs, 191 pages, $25) -- the title seems inevitable -- contain no fewer than three variations of a sentence beginning: "I first developed the concept of 'soft power'..."

For those who haven't been paying attention, Mr. Nye provides a handy definition: "It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideas and policies." He spends the rest of this book expounding on the concept and applying it to the various foreign-policy challenges the U.S. faces today.

In the process, Mr. Nye develops what might be called the "soft" critique of the Bush administration. The hard critique is the one laid out by Noam Chomsky, Howard Dean and George Soros, all of whom seem to think that Mr. Bush is a neo-Nazi and a far bigger threat to America than Osama bin Laden. Mr. Nye, a Democratic centrist who is dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, takes a much more measured view.

He believes that U.S. primacy is inevitable, that pre-emption is sometimes necessary, and that the United Nations should not always be the final arbiter of U.S. actions. Moreover, he acknowledges that the Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on pre-emptive action, is a legitimate response to a real threat: the "privatization of war," which allows transnational terrorists to gain access to weapons of mass destruction. But while sympathetic to Mr. Bush's goals -- stopping terrorists and weapons proliferators -- Mr. Nye wishes the president would do a better job of persuading other nations to join our cause. "We will benefit if we are able to attract others into institutional alliances," he writes.

Mr. Nye notes that the U.S. won the Cold War in large part through its soft power -- spread not only by government institutions like Radio Free Europe but also by Hollywood movies, pop music and even ads for jeans and soft drinks. "Soviet audiences watching films with apolitical themes nonetheless learned," he writes, "that people in the West did not have to stand in long lines to purchase food, did not have to live in communal apartments, and owned their own cars."

Today, Mr. Nye believes, we must emphasize such soft power to confront the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. He concedes that our culture is not always a plus in the Muslim world: Britney Spears and "Baywatch" symbolize everything that al Qaeda hates about America. Still, we must make a bigger effort to reach out to Muslims through cultural exchanges, broadcasts, book publishing and other means. In one of his most compelling passages, he points out that the U.S. spends only $1.1 billion a year on such "public diplomacy" -- about the same as Britain and France and just 0.29% of the defense budget. Not nearly enough, in Mr. Nye's view.

The bulk of this short book is composed of such sensible observations, which few foreign-policy experts of either party would dispute. If Mr. Nye's arguments were to serve as the basis of John Kerry's foreign policy (and they might), there would be little to fear from a Democratic administration: It would be Bush Lite, or the Bush Doctrine with a smiley face. But what happens if it's not possible to fight terrorists and win approbation at the same time? What if sometimes you have to choose between "hard power" and "soft power"?

We know what choice Bill Clinton made: As former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke recounts, Mr. Clinton did not retaliate forcefully to terrorist attacks in part because he didn't want to mess up the Middle East "peace process" and create a backlash against the U.S. He also waited until 1995 to stop the killing in Bosnia because of a failure to reach consensus with European countries in the preceding years.

It's possible, perhaps even probable, that John Kerry would follow a different path. No post-9/11 president can afford to look soft on terrorism, a Democrat least of all. And yet Mr. Kerry, in his often strident attacks on Mr. Bush's "completely wrongheaded" response to terrorism, sometimes gives the impression that he would revert to the pre-9/11 model, which was to treat terrorism as a law-enforcement problem, not a war.

Mr. Nye is careful to say that we still need brute military force in a dangerous world. But there is still reason to fret that a future Democratic administration would treat soft power as a substitute, not a supplement, for hard power. Maybe that's why in one recent poll George Bush leads John Kerry by 24 points on the question of which candidate would do a better job of defending the country from terrorism.


Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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