"America Must Learn the Hard Facts of Soft Power"
Op-Ed, The South China Morning Post
March 18, 2008
Author: Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
The American presidential race commands attention around the world. The fact that the final three contenders include a woman, an African American, and an older man who often challenged his own party suggests that the United States, after a decline in popularity during the Bush years, retains a capacity to reinvent itself. But the next president must recognise that the nature of leadership is also changing.
The information revolution is transforming politics and organisations. People today have become less deferential to authority in organisations and in politics. Soft power — the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment — is becoming more important.
Even the military faces these changes. The Pentagon reports that American army drillmasters do "less shouting at everyone", because today's generation responds better to instructors who play "a more counselling-type role".
Of course, the hard power of command remains important. Hard and soft power are related, because they are both approaches to achieving one's objectives by affecting the behaviour of others.
Hard and soft power can reinforce or undermine each other. In response to al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on the US, Vice-President Dick Cheney argued that strong military action would deter further attacks. But the indiscriminate use of hard power — illustrated by the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison photos, and detentions without trial — served to increase the number of terrorist recruits. The absence of an effective soft power component undercut the strategic response to terrorism.
Almost every leader needs a certain degree of soft power. Even tyrants and despots need some soft power, at least within their inner circle. At the same time, except for some religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, soft power is rarely sufficient. But leaders who throw their weight around without regard to the effects on their soft power may find others placing obstacles in the way of their hard power.
Indeed, psychologists have found that too much assertiveness by a leader worsens relationships, just as too little limits achievement.
Machiavelli famously said that it is more important for a prince to be feared than to be loved. But we sometimes forget that the opposite of love is not fear, but hatred. And Machiavelli made it clear that hatred is something a prince should carefully avoid. When hard power undercuts soft power, leadership becomes more difficult — as US President George W. Bush found out after the invasion of Iraq.
Soft power is not good per se, and it is not always better than hard power. Nobody likes to feel manipulated, even by soft power. But soft power allows followers more choice and leeway.
Hard power has not become irrelevant, but leaders must develop the contextual intelligence to combine hard and soft power resources into a "smart power" strategy. The next US president will need to learn that lesson.
Joseph Nyeis a professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead.
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