The Trump administration’s proposal to build up the military with an additional $54 billion while making commensurate cuts across much of the rest of the discretionary federal budget would reshape the way the United States conducts its foreign policy. Calling for 29 percent reduction in funding to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), described the proposal as “a hard-power budget.”
Mulvaney’s framing “shows a profound misunderstanding” of how “soft power” works, says Harvard Kennedy School’s Joseph S. Nye, who coined the term in 1990. In his formulation, soft power—how to reach desired outcomes without force or economic coercion—helps countries save on the resources they expend in pursuit of their objectives abroad. In that way, Nye says, cuts to exchange programs or humanitarian aid that bring the United States some savings now will carry greater costs down the road.
What was your response when Mulvaney characterized the Trump administration’s proposed budget as a “hard-power budget” from a “strong-power administration”?
It shows a profound misunderstanding of smart-power strategy. The question is not either/or, hard power versus soft power, but how to combine the two so that they reinforce each other, to better help you achieve your objectives. In that sense, cutting aid, public diplomacy, or other such things, which are not large, takes away attractiveness, which is a force multiplier for hard power. Nobody has expressed that in simpler, more effective terms than Secretary of Defense [Jim] Mattis. He said [in 2013 Senate testimony], “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
The term “soft power” is often divorced from how you conceived of it. How does it work as a “force multiplier”?
Soft power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want without coercion or payment. It’s rare that soft power is sufficient to achieve objectives, but if you use hard power without attraction, you’re going to have to spend more on carrots and sticks.
How do programs now on the chopping block boost U.S. attractiveness?
The soft power of a country comes not just from government programs but from its civil society. A great deal of America’s soft power comes from universities, foundations, popular culture, and so forth. Those are not much affected by these budgetary decisions. But in addition to that, you can get soft power through your generosity or kindness. We’re going to have a lot fewer foreign students visiting the U.S., fewer young foreign leaders on exchange programs. Humanitarian assistance and assistance programs add a sense of benign intent. They cost little, but get our ideas across. Item after item is going to be diminished, and that reduces the impact that we have.
“If you use hard power without attraction, you’re going to have to spend more on carrots and sticks.”
American success in the Cold War came from a combination of hard and soft power. The Berlin Wall didn’t go down under a barrage of artillery. It went down under hammers and bulldozers wielded by people whose minds had been affected by American ideas, partly through Hollywood and universities, but partly through public diplomacy and exchange programs.
A lot of the effects of soft power are not experienced immediately. It takes time for them to work their way through. [For example,] Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s right-hand man, had been an exchange student at Columbia University, where he studied pluralism. He advised Gorbachev on perestroika, having brought back American ideas.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke with modern protocol by traveling to Asia without a press corps. Does that squander U.S. soft power?
You get additional leverage through the presence of the press. We’re no longer living in a world of nineteenth-century cabinet diplomacy, in which foreign ministers communicated with each other in secret. Governments communicate not just to other governments, but also to the publics in other countries, in part through the press. To forgo that advantage strikes me as a mistake.
[Secretaries of state] would travel accompanied by a large and vibrant press corps that asked questions that illustrate our values. That promotes American soft power.
How does an “America First” policy square with a soft power approach?
If you have the slogan “America First,” it means everybody else comes second. Telling others that they’re second is not the best way to go about attraction. Nobody’s going to say that a president shouldn’t promote the national interest. It’s a question of whether and how he defines and expresses that national interest. You can define national interest in a far-sighted way so that it is in the interest of others as well.
The classic case is the Marshall Plan, after World War II. The United States gave aid to Europe because it wanted to prevent Europe from becoming communist and tipping the balance of power toward the Soviet Union. But it also created enormous amounts of goodwill among Western Europeans who grew up seeing the benefits of a friendship with a country that defined its self-interest in a farsighted way. It was good for us and good for its beneficiaries.
The administration has indicated it’s far less interested in human rights or democracy promotion than past administrations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to present the State Department’s human rights report, unlike his predecessors.
The United States stands for values that do tend to attract others. It’s also true that if you define human rights in our terms, that may not be attractive in parts of Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, for example. Sometimes we can seem somewhat imperious and overbearing. But if we think in terms of being what Ronald Reagan called the “shining city upon a hill,” practicing and preaching [values] without forcing them on others, that contributes to our soft power.
Do policies like the travel ban harm the United States’ ability to leverage soft power?
“Terrorist fish swim in a broader sea, and we can affect the temperature of that sea.”
You’re not going to solve any problems with the hard core of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State by soft power. We can preach all we want, but that’s not going to change their minds. On the other hand, they require support from people around them; terrorist fish swim in a broader sea, and we can affect the temperature of that sea. Similarly, to wield hard power against the hard-core terrorists we need good intelligence, and you get most of it from other Muslims. If you have a ban or attack Muslims, you’re alienating the sources of intelligence that you need to exercise your hard power.
As there seems to be growing discontent within liberal democracies, do you see illiberal democracies or other regime types exerting a competing type of soft power?
No, I don’t see that. There are a few countries, like [President Viktor] Orban’s Hungary, where authoritarianism may seem attractive, but you don’t see a broad attraction to Putinism in Europe or Latin America or North America. [European populists] have deep indigenous roots. They grow out of a resistance to immigration and cultural change. They existed before Putin came on the scene. He plays on it, but he didn’t cause it.
Other countries attract, but it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. China is spending a good deal on soft power—not that successfully—but if it becomes more attractive because it improves its condition on climate change, for example, that could be good for us as well as for China.
Though the Trump proposal is severe, the imbalance between State Department and Defense Department funding is hardly a new phenomenon.
It is, in one sense, consistent with the long run. The Defense Department is like an elephant and the State Department a mouse. The defense budget is more than ten times that of all foreign affairs, including State, USAID, and public diplomacy.
“The Defense Department is like an elephant and the State Department a mouse.”
There are more people playing instruments in military bands than there are Foreign Service officers; that long antedates the Trump administration. We don’t have a good balance, and what’s more, Congress often doesn’t do enough to restore the balance. It’s much easier to get appropriations for the Defense Department than for the State Department; the money tends to be spent in your own congressional district and it’s easier to appear tough.
We sometimes misphrase this when we say “guns versus butter,” or hard power versus soft power. You don’t have to take the money out of the State Department to fund defense; we could tax a bit more and afford both. During the Cold War, our defense and foreign policy expenditures were about 10 percent of gross domestic product. Today they’re under 4 percent.
The interesting question is what will happen when this budget goes before Congress. It’s one thing for Mulvaney to drop this little bombshell out of OMB; it’s another to get it passed through the Senate and House appropriations process. Some defense hawks in the Senate—I would give you the example of Lindsey Graham—want more money for the State Department. A number of sensible and balanced people on the Hill will want to see changes to this budget.
This interview has been edited and condensed.