Joe Nye on the Obama Administration: “Combining hard and soft power and projecting a sense of vision and a sense of hope.”
(The following are excerpts from an interview between Trudy Rubin, Worldview columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Joseph Nye, Jr. Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, which took place in February 2009.)
Trudy Rubin: Professor Nye, let’s start with a definition; what is soft power?
Joseph Nye: Power is the ability to affect others to get what you want. There are three ways you can do it: you can threaten people with coercion (sticks), you can pay them, induce them with carrots, or you can get them to want what you want, and that ability to attract people to get what you want through attraction is soft power. And the extent to which you can use soft power, you can save a lot on carrots and sticks.
TR: In the Bush administration, there was a lot of disdain toward the very concept of soft power. I think Donald Rumsfeld once said he didn’t know what it meant. And during that same period America’s image abroad went down according to all the poles. So, was Rumsfeld right? Does it really matter?
JN: I think that it does matter, if you think of what the Bush administration tried to do with their hard power, including invading Iraq. We have become so unpopular in Turkey that the Turkish Parliament wouldn’t allow the 4th Infantry Division to go across Turkey and enter Iraq from the north. So the loss of our soft power in Turkey, actually interfered with our hard power, and that is a clear case where Rumsfeld’s not understanding of soft power was expensive.
TR: So when my readers write me, and they say, “why should we care about public opinion abroad?” they’re missing something?
JN: They’re missing something because public opinion abroad creates either an enabling or disabling environment. If being pro-American is a kiss of death for a foreign leader because public opinion is angry at the United States, their leader is less able to give the Americans what he or she wants, so it does cost.
TR: Is there a new relevance to soft power in an age where our biggest security threats are asymmetrical, and come from non-state actors like Islamist terrorist groups?
JN: Very much so. If you think of the threats that we face, many of them are ones that you cannot deal with directly with military force. Take transnational terrorism. Yes, force is part of the answer. You have somebody like Osama Bin Laden, you are never going to attract him, and you have to kill or capture him. But the key question is the mainstream Muslims. Is Bin Laden going to be able to recruit them or are they going to restrain themselves and not fall into his trap, and that is where soft power comes in. You cannot prevail against transnational terrorism if you are taking positions which make it easy for the Bin Ladens of this world to recruit from the mainstream.
TR: I want to come back to that point of whether it’s image or policy positions. But before we get there, I just want to talk a little bit about Barack Obama and soft power. You wrote that, “It’s difficult to think of any single act that would do more to restore America’s soft power than the election of Obama to the Presidency.” Now that he is president do you see signs of a change as he is beginning to do things that shift our image, change the symbols, and is there more you are waiting to see?
JN: As a top British politician told me right after the election, the United States is a unique country. That is, in a sense by electing an African American President, we changed our image in the minds of billions of people. And that did a lot to restore the American’s dream and make us attractive again. But Obama is going to have to follow that symbolism with policy. And if the policies are unattractive, the election alone won’t be sufficient.
TR: But you point to something, which is the shift in America’s image, and obviously the election of an African American affects that…I just came back from the Davos World Economic Forum where United States was the symbol of what not to do, and our competency was in doubt. Has the economic crisis really affected our image and our ability to project a presence that other people want to imitate?
JN: It clearly has been costly to us, not just economically but also in terms of our soft power. The Wall Street Model, which was the envy of everybody in the economic area, has collapsed; there are no more investment banks for example. But I think what the long-run costs will look like depend on how well we both recover in terms of not only the real economy, but also what sort of frame we set up for regulations of the financial institutions. If in, say, 3-5 years we’ve done that well, I think we can recover from the losses that we’ve suffered in the last year.
TR: When you look at those aspects of America that people used to want to emulate– economy, culture, democracy–how does that stand now? For example, democracy. President Bush pushed democratization and famously in Iraq tried to impose it through invasion. Is our democracy, besides our economy, still an object that other people want to imitate?
JN: I think many people had their doubts during the Bush administration. They felt that the way we were treating civil liberties in response to terrorism, the presence of Guantanamo, these things called in question our democracy. I think the fact that we had an election in 2008, which led to such a surprise, the fact that an African American with a strange sounding name could rise from nowhere and become President. I think that restored a lot of faith in American democracy. But the key questions are going to be whether we follow up on that election with other policies. I think President Bush spoke a lot about democracy, I’m sure he believed in it, but there’s a big gap between a vision which is high in sounding but impractical, and a vision which is something you can implement. I think President Bush and his effort to impose democracy coercively were a failure, and that had a cost for us. To the extent that we support democracy and support civil society and groups in other countries, who move in that direction, I think that’s more natural and more likely to improve our soft power.
TR: Do you think that Obama’s announcement that he intends to close Guantanamo and that he will not countenance torture will have an impact– has had an impact?
JN: I think that definitely has an impact. Now there are still some hard questions left. What do you do with some of these people who are out to kill us? You can’t just let them go, it’s not clear you can put them through the normal court system. Some people say you can, others say not, but the one thing you can make clear is that there should be a situation where they have an independent judicial review. That the executive branch shouldn’t be judge, jury, and executioner. And that in our tradition of separation of powers, having a framework after Guantanamo, where people have some degree of judicial review, is important for the values we stand for. The same is true with the present statement on torture, we torture the word “torture” in the way we applied it in the Bush administration, and now we’ve got a pretty clear statement that, for example, water boarding is torture.
TR: And can you see signs that this is already improving or changing the way those abroad are looking at us as opposed to the way they did during the Bush years?
JN: There are some public opinion poll results that suggest positive reactions to this, but I think we’re going to wait to see. Public opinion goes up and down, it’s volatile, and on the other hand it does trend in, you can take averages over time and see whether the trends that are short, or trends that are continuous, or whether they are flips.
TR: Let’s talk about how soft power can be used in practical terms and how it meshes with hard power, which is a combination that you called “smart power.” Let me just ask you to give an example, say how would soft power be relevant to Obama policy on Iran?
JN: Iran is not going to be solved by soft power alone. Actually many things are not solved by soft power alone, North Korea being another example. But to the extent that you attract others and get support, you may contribute to the solution. So if American soft power is strong in Europe, in the Middle East, and other areas; we’re more likely get support for the kinds of sanctions that may be necessary to try to push Iran in the direction of making compromises on its nuclear program. And to some extent the ability of the Americans to attract a younger generation inside Iran may help in Iran in the elections, to produce Khatami instead of Ahmadinejad, the current President. So soft power isn’t the sole solution, but it can contribute.
TR: And again, say on the question of reaching out to the Muslim world, on the one hand we have the images of Gaza, which is linked to United States by Israeli policy, on the other hand we have President Obama making a speech, or giving an interview right away to an Arab television station, and promising soon, if not in his first hundred days, to visit a Muslim capital. Again, do you think soft power well used in this instance can make a difference?
JN: I think it can make some difference. Our support for Israel is definitely going to be unpopular in many Arab countries, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to change that support. On the other hand there are things we can do such the President has done with the interview Al Arabiya, his statement about a visit and so forth, which can at least counter balance some of the unpopularity of our view of supporting Israel.
TR: One thing that has interested me a lot is the speeches that Secretary Gates has been giving about the need to complement hard power with soft power. You don’t usually expect this from a Secretary of Defense, and he has been very adamant that there has to be a civilian complement to the military aspect of our power. He said recently on his speech that he wanted “a dramatic increase in the civilian instruments of national security” among which he included diplomacy, foreign aid, civic action, reconstruction, and development. He also talked about strategic communications; I guess he means public diplomacy. Now the Bush administration made a big priority of public diplomacy, but it didn’t seem to win many heart and minds especially in the Middle East. How can we do better, what did they do wrong, and what should we be doing differently?
JN: Bob Gates’ speech in Kansas in 2007, it was really quite a remarkable statement. He said we have to invest in our soft power, and this may be odd for the Secretary of Defense to plead for resources in the state department, but that’s what we need. And I think he is right, the trouble with public diplomacy I think in much of the Bush administration was that they saw it as a spin or selling, and people become suspicious of that. If something looks like propaganda people don’t trust it, it loses credibility. You think of public diplomacy, it runs on a spectrum between telling and listening, and some of the most effective dimensions of public diplomacy are in the middle, where you have exchanges, where people are both listening and saying. And I think what Bob Gates is getting at, is that there are whole series of instruments, and that just spin or propaganda isn’t the most effective or another way of putting it. The best propaganda is not propaganda.
TR: This certainly comes to mind when you think of the way that we’ve been reaching out to the Arab world in terms of communications. For example Alhurra, the TV station that we set up to reach out doesn’t seem to have much of an impact at all.
JN: It seems to have some listener shift in Iraq; it tends to preach to the converted. But on my visits to the Middle East when I’ve asked people who were basically pro-American, do they listen to Alhurra, and they tell me “no,” they just regard it as American propaganda.
TR: Should American officials be appearing more in Al Jazeera or certainly on Al Arabiya, the station to which President Obama gave that interview?
JN: Yes, all of the above, including Alhurra as well, but you can’t restrict yourself just to our own wholly owned subsidiary. We should be getting out our message on many different forms of communication, including the stations you’ve mentioned and also using the Internet more effectively.
TR: I was going to ask you about that, obviously that’s the medium that the young people of the world are using, and Jihadi website certainly have a huge audience. Do we do enough to reach out via the Internet to those audiences? Young Muslims?
JN: I don’t think we have done nearly enough. It’s generational; I mean the large majority of the populations in Muslims countries aren’t going to be using the Internet everyday. But among the younger generation who are the ones who are most vulnerable to recruitment, many of them do. And we have to be using the Internet much more effectively to communicate there. Our enemies do, we’ve got to do better.
TR: What’s the problem that is so obvious? Is it that we don’t hire enough young people, or do we perhaps need a new agency dedicated to this? Should we bring back the U.S. Information Agency, which many people think was a disastrous mistake to disband with those wonderful Libraries, and city centers around the world, and staff it with only under 35s?
JN: In principle that might not be a bad idea, but in practice it’s going to take too much political capital. I think it was a mistake to abolish the U.S. Information Agency, but you spend an awful lot of political capital on reorganizing things. I think more effective is to make sure we include a group of younger people who are attuned to the use of the Internet in our public diplomacy efforts. If you go back to my metaphor about listening and telling being on a spectrum, the Internet fits very much in the middle of particularly chat rooms and blogs, and so forth. These are two ways and we need a group of young, public diplomacy officers who are adept to that.
TR: One of the areas where people admired us the most and wanted to imitate the most was simply in coming to the United States, to study here, to go on exchanges here or perhaps to immigrate here, or even to visit here. And as you know, one of the awful aspects of post 9/11 has been this clamp down on foreign Visas, which have angered many genuinely, fine people who want to visit here and have been treated terribly. The anti-immigration sentiment that has flourished, although not necessarily in the White House, President Bush tried, but he failed to get a better immigration bill, and a sort of pinch approach to exchanges. Are all of the above the things that we really need to look seriously at, even though we’re at an economic crunch time?
JN: There is a trade-off between security and openness, but we’ve aired I think on too much on the security end. After 9/11, it’s natural that we would’ve tried to close down on Visas. They noticed that the people who were here were not foreign students; they had another agenda. There are about 600, 000 foreign students who come to the United States. The vast majority of them go home with much more positive views of the United States and can serve as people who can explain the United States. They’re more credible when they explain the United States than we are when we do it through propaganda. So closing down on Visas so that young people don’t come here is shooting ourselves in the foot. And while we need to be careful about the security side of this trade off we sort of let the pendulum swing too much in that direction. This is something that both Colin Powell and Condi Rice did something about. I mean it got really bad after 9/11, through their efforts it improved somewhat, and we’ve now recovered to the level that we were in terms of student Visas from before 911. But let’s face it, a lot of people when they arrive to the United States, the first people they see are border-controlled people, and if they’re treated rudely or badly, it leaves a very poor impression.
TR: Just on this question of student exchanges, have you had cases with graduate students as I’ve heard so often from China or from the Middle East, who went home for a vacation and couldn’t come back again, and got delayed, had to cancel their program?
JN: Yes we had several cases particularly and immediately after 9/11 in the year or two after. I’ve heard less of that recently, so there’s been some improvement.
TR: I know that in Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki has approved different programs to send 10,000 Iraqi to study here or elsewhere in the west. And I’m hoping those Visas will be available. Do you think that this is the time when that could happen?
JN: I certainly hope so. I mean if we’re going to be serious about having an Iraq which is stable and understands the United States, having young Iraqi who spent time here and go back is very much in our interest.
TR: I’m wondering about also the aspect of smart power that you testified about last April before Senate Foreign Relations. The whole question of using diplomacy more effectively is talked about a lot. But what does it really mean?
JN: One thing it means is more diplomats, more resources. I mean this number that’s been bandied about, but is true, that there are more military musicians than there are foreign service officers, that’s quite a statement. If you look at the military, it’s able to take its best young people, and give them a year of training, often in higher education. State department can’t do that, there’s no float, it’s stretched thin. We need more Foreign Service officers, and we need them to be able to handle not just political reporting, but also public diplomacy, science, and technology cooperation. We need officers who can work on aid reconstruction. So first and foremost I think is more resources.
TR: There has been talk of trying to staff a civilian response corps to have civilians who are ready to go out in post-conflict areas, and do all kinds of jobs that are now being done by the military by default. I’ve seen this a lot in Iraq where the military’s doing all kinds of development work, agricultural work; you have reserve units who come from agricultural states and are working with Iraqi farmers. They’re very effective, but the question is, is this the right job for the military and should civilians be doing more? What’s your feeling about it?
JN: I think civilians clearly need to do more, and this is I think what Secretary Defense Gates was talking about when he said, “Please put more resources into these other civilian agencies”. The Guard in Reserve do have capacity to do some of this work, but the main job in the military is to provide security, to provide order, and basically they need to have more of this job of deploying soft power; the development, building clinics, schools, so forth, done by AID, state officials, agricultural officials and so forth.
TR: Are civilians really capable though of doing these jobs? I have been in Iraq, I’ve been out to visit PRTs, so-called provincial reconstruction teams, which are made up of civilians but basically have to be guarded by military when they go out when the situation is still dangerous. And I’m wondering, can you get civilian officials, whether it’s State Department, or Commerce, or Agriculture Department, to take on such dangerous positions? Are we in a period in history where more diplomacy on the ground by default has to be done by the military?
JN: In some situations yes. You can’t build a school or clinic if people are shooting at you. So there’s some situations where the military has to be in control and where if there is any development work, it would be done by military units. But the theory of counter insurgency is that you provide security for the populations, that you just don’t go in and hit and run and then leave it and come back, but that you create enough military presence to provide stability and security, and within that framework then the civilian workers can be effective.
TR: So if we are looking at Afghanistan for example, where there are all kinds of policy reviews going on, and there’s actually a big debate over whether we should really be trying to improve institutions there, solidify democracy, do agricultural development, or whether we should be focused just on trying to prevent the return of Al Qaeda and tamped down the Taliban. And the same debate is going on about what we should do in Pakistan. Do you see a role for soft power in those instances, or whether that soft power is exercised by U.S. diplomats or by U.S. aid workers?
JN: In Pakistan where you have an effective military, the Pakistani military, they can provide the security in which you can have more aid going into development that produces soft power. Afghanistan is harder, because there the security situation is much worse, and while there’s been a development of an Afghan army, it’s still far too small to be able to provide that security. That’s why President Obama has talked about adding additional troops to stabilize the security situation, so that you can have a framework where you can attract the hearts and minds of the population. I don’t think you can turn Afghanistan into an American democracy through aid programs. You can, however, perhaps make the situation more stable by making the ordinary citizens see the American presesnce as more attractive at the time that you’re trying to train up a larger Afghan army to manage the security situation.
TR: One of the proposal that I’ve found the most interesting, and we’ve touch on it briefly, is the idea of a civilian response corps, and there’s a group of former senior diplomats as you know who has put together their idea of a new foreign aid budget, which would include a core group at State of about 250, I believe. But then there would be another couple of thousand who would be on stand by from other departments such as Agricultural or Commerce, to help with small business training agriculture. If you had such a standing emergency response corps on the civilian side of our government, can you imagine their being called on? For example, we’re going to be sending more troops to Afghanistan, can you imagine their being called on to go to,say, the safer parts of Afghanistan with teams of diplomats agricultural workers, what have you, is this something that would be an important exercise of soft power?
JN: I think it would be but it can with the proviso that there has to be enough stability provided by the military that they could do their work. I think having a civilian corps of this sort is an important capacity. We have to think not only Afghanistan, but who knows when the next East Timor or some such situation will arise in the capacity to not only stabilize through the military, but to create a civilian response team that can help develop a broader source of support, is an important capacity.
TR: When you were talking about smart power using hard and soft together wisely in your testimony at Senate Foreign Relations, you were also talking about foreign per se, and as you know well the foreign aid bureaucracy in the United States was sharply cut in the last couple of decades, and some described what we have now as capable only of issuing contracts to big American beltway bandits, and of course we saw that in Iraq where mainly what the foreign aid personnel were doing, U.S. personnel was signing huge contracts with the names we know so well, whether its KBR or what have you. Should we, can we, start reconstituting our foreign aid apparatus, and what would be the effective soft power or smart power way to use it in the future?
JN: I think that you’re correct that basically aid has shrunk to being just a simple contracting agency, that’s a little bit exaggerated, but it’s been decimated in terms of the personnel. I think we need to have a greater capacity in aid, and I think that building that up maybe something that the new Administration will want to look at. In terms of how effective can they be, it will vary with situations, the aid has some places where it’s been quite effective, other places less so. But it’s also worth noticing that over the last decade or so more and more of our aid has gone through the military, not through civilian agencies partly because of the shrinkage that you’ve mentioned. So I think of numbers I remember roughly where about 14 or 15 percent of aid went through the military a decade ago, now it’s about 24 percent and that leads to militarization of foreign policy. And I think that when people look at American aid it’s better if there’s more of a civilian face on it. I mean some military aid is a good thing, but I think in general we don’t want to have it simply as a military program.
TR: It’s interesting, isn’t it, though it seems like often the places where aid is most needed are the places where it is hard for civilians to go?
JN: That’s exactly right, that’s why you are often going to have to have closer coordination between the military, which is providing the security and may provide the first security, and may provide the first segment, if you want, of reconstruction. But then wants they get on with the rest of the jobs elsewhere than that’s when the civilian aid people will have to pick up the role.
TR: You talked also in your testimony about the advisability of the U.S. to try to strengthen multilateral organizations. And certainly the Obama Administration, Obama himself, and the campaign talked about wanting to do this. And yet when you look at the situation with multilateral organizations today, it’s hard to figure out exactly how the U.S. is going to play that leadership role. For example, in economics, again at Davos people were all now talking about the G-20 or maybe a G-30 instead of the G-7 industrial nations plus Russia, which had come to be seen as the organizing principle for the international economy. The IMF is overwhelmed; it doesn’t have enough money to help out in this international crisis, the World Bank is trying to find its footing. And so in the old days the United States, which was the most powerful player in those organizations, would have been called upon, but now the U.S. is being called upon to cede power. And perhaps to help in redesigning these organizations, but not necessarily to act as even the first among equals. So how does the U.S. go about using smart power on the economics scene, when on the one hand everyone talks about the need for a new Bretton Woods and new institutions, on the other hand everyone seems to want economic revamping by committee, which as we know is not an effective way of getting things done?
JN: For one thing you have to realize that there will be a wide spectrum of institutions. Some will be useful for some purposes, others useful for others. I think that G-20 is useful for some things and G-7 still will be useful for others. On environment, for example ,some people suggested what they called an E-8 — you can get at 80 percent of the CO2 emitters by essentially having eight countries, if you treat the U as one entity. So we’re going to need a spectrum of institutions, not just one. But in that spectrum we are going to need to do more to bolster the World Bank and the IMF. The Europeans are going to have to give up some of their quotas in the IMF. We’re going to need to get more resources for the World Bank. This is not necessarily the U.S. giving up power, if other countries and other economies become more powerful, that can be good for us. It can be win, win.
TR: But what’s the U.S. role in all of this, because these institutions are not going to automatically redesign themselves and as we’ve seen in this economic crisis, for example the European can’t even agree within their economic union on cooperation between banks. So what’s the U.S. role in helping in this transition to new international economic institutions, which include players, who haven’t been included before like China and India? Do we take the lead, are we the power behind the scenes, how do we exercise smart power when we’re now a big part, or the biggest of the problem; people are looking at us askance, but on the other hand, it’s not clear who else is going to take the lead.
JN: I think the U.S. has to take the lead. There’s a proposition in economics about public goods, which are things for which all can benefit. Which is that if the largest player doesn’t provide the public goods, they’re not going to be provided because the others will be free riders. And the United States is going to remain the largest player for quite some time, I would say decades. And that means it’s very important that we take the lead. Now, taking the lead doesn’t mean telling others what to do, bossing them around, it means that you say, we’re prepare to cooperate, we’ll listen to your views, but the United States is going to push this forward. And so I think the U.S. leadership remains as important as ever.
TR: And that includes on climate change?
JN: It very much includes climate change, in fact if the U.S. doesn’t help take the lead on climate change it’s not going to get done. China has now surpassed us, it is the largest, but we’re very close behind China. And I think in that sense the last eight years our failure to lead in this area has meant that there hasn’t been adequate progress.
TR: And what about on the issue of free trade? Where one can seek protectionist impulses arising everywhere, including in the U.S. Congress?
JN: It’s very tempting at a period of unemployment in any democracy including this one to say take care of me first. But the trouble that we know from history is that when you succumb to that protection, others retaliate and when they retaliate there’s a downward spiral and everybody’s worse off. There’s a study done by the Fred Bergsten Institute for International Economics, which said that the number of jobs that would be saved by, say, a “Buy America” clause in the stimulus package would be 7 or 8,000. And the numbers of jobs lost when other countries retaliated by passing their own “Buy Europe” or “Buy China” clauses would be even greater. And so avoiding that beggar-thy-neighbor approach is going to be essential. Not easy for a politician to explain that to his constituents, but very important.
TR: when you’re looking at the role that you would like to see President Obama play in terms of utilizing soft power, and/or smart power, I was struck by something that Richard Armitage said at the hearings, and you’ve quoted him which is that “after 911 we started exporting fear,” (I’m paraphrasing) and he would like to see us start “exporting optimism and hope”. That was the role of the United States after World War II, when you had a weary and broken Europe and the United States exported hope and also money, economic aid, and good economic ideas, cooperation. How do you see the U.S Can we export hope when we are ourselves are at a doubtful and self-doubting period in our history? Is that something that Obama has the experience and gravitas to do, and how important is it?
JN: I think if you look at his campaign, he was quite good at telling the American people, we have serious problems. We’ve got to give up childish things, were the words he used in the Inaugural Address, but there is hope if we pull together, there is hope. And that position of the United States as what Ronald Reagan called “the shining city on the hill” that’s a very important source of our soft power. We’ve got real problems, we’re going to have to buckle down and deal with them, but optimism is an important asset. And I think as a leader Obama has been pretty good at that. He’s warned people it’s going to be tough, but he’s also said we buckle down, we’re going to be able to handle this. I think that’s an essential part of leadership. I’ve just published a book called “The Powers to Lead” that looks at how you use hard and soft power by individual leaders, and Obama is very good at that. I mean I’ve been struck at how he’s good at combining hard and soft power and projecting a sense of vision and a sense of hope.
TR: In a way we’ve entered a new period in the last four months or so that I’m curious whether it shifts any of your thinking on all your writing about soft power because so much of what I’ve seen, read, your testimony, your articles, came at a period when we were still an object of imitation, even during the Bush Administration for our economic prowess, for our competence, for our ability to organize. Now those are under question because of the economic crisis and at the same time Obama is trying to re-coup from policies that also led us to be criticized abroad. So are we still a country that others want to imitate. Are we still a place where people dream of immigrating to? How would you describe the United States now in terms of those qualities that still attract the world–and are the essence of what you laid out as our soft power?
JN: I think the United States still is the country which stands for openness, for opportunity; the American dream is that you can be something better than you were or than your parents were. I think that still remains possible, it’s worth putting this in a little of a historical perspective. In 1989 when I wrote the book “Bound to Lead” in which I coined the term soft power, there was a widespread belief that United States was in declined. People were very pessimistic about the American future.
TR: Japan and Europe.
JN: Yes. And when I looked at American military power and economic power, I said, you know after I looked at that there’s still something missing! Which is even though American in public opinion polls thinks they are in decline, heck most of the world thinks we’re not. They still see us as a beacon of hope. Then 2001 we went to the opposite extreme, we went to triumphalism. You had things like Krauthammer’s statement that we need a new unilateralism, we’re so strong that we can do whatever we want and others had no choice but to follow, and that got us into deep trouble. Now the pendulum is swinging back from declinism to triumphalism, back to loss of confidence in declinism. We’ve got to get over this. I mean the United States is just much stronger, has much greater capabilities than this, and we still can be a beacon of hope. It is interesting for example that a lot of people said, well after the financial crisis that’s the end of the dollar, it’s going to tank. In fact the dollar’s gone up. People want their dollars here because they think this is the most stable economy in the long run.
TR: So, at Davos when somebody like the historian Neil Ferguson, who is at Harvard this year, compares the United States with post-World War II Britain, and says the excess of debt and the low growth rate are what did in a tired Britain, and the U.S. is facing an enormous excess of debt and low growth rates. Do you think that’s surmountable and that others perhaps are hoping the U.S. will make it?
JN: I think so. I think others realize that a strong and vibrant U.S. is in their interest as well, and I think that the analogy to Britain after World War II is an imperfect analogy. America has much greater strength, much greater capacity than Britain did at the end of World War II.
TR: Right. Just one other thing that has fascinated me, the term soft power has begun to be used very frequently in regard to China. But China’s soft power is being used in a way that’s very different from what you’ve described in your writings about the United States. People admire the United States for openness, for economic prowess, transparency, and all the qualities you’ve listed. But in China, its soft power is exercised giving aid and helping with construction. In countries that violates human rights immensely, places like Sudan, and they would like, in Iran, human rights, the type of government involved is irrelevant to the Chinese and they are winning friends and influencing people, by sending out these construction teams, giving out this aid, sending tens of thousands of students abroad, so they’re trying a different model of soft power. Can we compete with this model? Do you think that there’s a new object of emulation, which is a state-directed system that is indifferent to democracy and human rights, but is seen to get things done?
JN: It’s interesting that China has picked up the idea of soft power, and President Hu Jintao in fact told the 17th party of Congress that China had to invest more in soft power. And they have done a number of things in addition to the aid programs you’ve mentioned. They’ve started Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture overseas, and done more broadcasting, and brought more foreign students to China and so forth. And all these things have helped Chinese soft power. And sometimes people say, well the new development model is the Beijing consensus, sort of an authoritarian growth instead of the Washington consensus of free market growth. There are parts of the world where that works, you know, the many parts of Africa where you have autocratic regimes, Sudan being a case in point. But it doesn’t work to make China more attractive in, let’s say Japan, or Europe, or Latin America, or the United States. So China is limited in how far it can go with its soft power program by the close nature of its society and political system. And I gave a speech at Beijing University last year to a group of 500 students, and they asked me this question, “How can we increase Chinese soft power?” I said, “Open up your system”. There are as many talented Chinese filmmakers as there are Indian filmmakers, but the world is swamp with Bollywood movies, and not with Chinese movies, and the reason is that you control your artists. So I think Chinese soft power increases sometimes, increases most in the authoriaran situations, but if it’s really going to be global soft power, the Chinese are going to have to change the repressive nature of their political structure.
TR: Just the last point, if you were advising Obama, say on the five key things you think he needs to do soon rather than later to effectively exercise U.S. soft power; what would you tell him?
JN: He’s already done some. I’ve written even before the election announcing the closure of Guantanamo, announcing that there would be no more torture, talking to Arab countries and Muslims countries about listening and not just lecturing. I think these are things he’s already started. I would add to that, trying to restructure our governmental institutions–Defense and State–so that we can do more in turn of aid and also restructure our public diplomacy, so that we’re not just at the spin end of that spectrum, but are on the listening and exchange part of the spectrum. Those would be the main things I think that he needs to do.
TR: It would be interesting to watch, thank you very much. Professor Nye.
JN: Thank you.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.
AnnalsLink: “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power” [pdf]