joseph nye

March 11, 2014

More than 130,000 people are said to have died in Syria’s civil war. United Nations reports of atrocities, Internet images of attacks on civilians, and accounts of suffering refugees rend our hearts. But what is to be done – and by whom?

“Soft power” is an important element of foreign policy, emphasizing attraction rather than coercion. The concept, popularized by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, provides counterbalance to the infatuation with hard power, especially military force, which has been driven by the accelerated development of “smart” weaponry. Drones, for example, are appealing to their users because their “pilots” may be thousands of miles away, wholly out of danger while people on the ground are dying. It is war without cost for one side.

As the year comes to an end, it is only natural to ask what might lie ahead. But, instead of asking what may lie ahead in 2014, let us jump to mid-century. What will governance look like in 2050? That is what the World Economic Forum (WEF) asked at a recent meeting in Abu Dhabi that focused on the future of governance under three potential scenarios arising from the ongoing information revolution. With that revolution already marginalizing some countries and communities – and creating new opportunities for others – the question could hardly be more timely.

Some commentators have criticized China's State-led efforts to strengthen the country's "soft power." Joseph Nye, to whom the soft power concept is credited, observed that the China just "doesn't get soft power." Big state-funded initiatives, such as the global roll-out of Confucius Institutes and investments in CCTV and Xinhua, have headlined China's culture-heavy public relations drive.

The U.S. culture of openness and innovation will keep this country central in an information age in which networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power. The United States is well positioned to benefit from such networks and alliances if our leaders follow smart strategies. In structural terms, it matters that the two entities with per-capita income and sophisticated economies similar to that of the United States — Europe and Japan — are both allied with the United States.

The U.S. will certainly face a rise in the power of many others—both states and nonstate actors. Presidents will increasingly need to exert power with others as much as over others; our leaders’ capacity to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of our hard and soft power.

The recent nose-thumbing at Russia and China by Professor Joseph Nye in Foreign Policy magazine over the inability of those countries to marshal soft power is flawed in a number of ways that go beyond the methodological weaknesses of his scholarly writings that I have described at length elsewhere.

China has been trying to integrate with the world through a modest and self-disciplining approach rather than be disregardful and aggressive. Concepts such as equal communication and putting aside minor differences so as to seek common ground, which are lacking in US soft power theories, are exactly the allure of China's soft power.