Commentary

Both weapons and attraction are the essence of smart power

American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently spoke about the Bush administration's global war on terror. "In this war, some of the most critical battles may not be in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in newsrooms in New York, London, Cairo and elsewhere. Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in the media age, but for the most part we have not."

The good news is that Rumsfeld is beginning to realize that the struggle against terrorism cannot be won by hard military power alone. The bad news is that he still does not understand soft power - the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion. As The Economist commented about Rumsfeld's speech, "until recently he plainly regarded such a focus on 'soft power' as, well, soft - part of 'Old Europe's' appeasement of terrorism."

Now Rumsfeld finally realizes the importance of winning hearts and minds, but, as The Economist put it, "a good part of his speech was focused on how with slicker PR America could win the propaganda war." In other words, in blaming the media for America's problems, Rumsfeld forgot the first rule of marketing: if you have a poor product, not even the best advertising will sell it.

Rumsfeld's mistrust of the European approach contains a grain of truth. Europe has used the attractiveness of its union to obtain outcomes it wants, just as the United States has acted as though its military pre-eminence could solve all problems. But it is a mistake to count too much on hard or soft power alone. The ability to combine them effectively is "smart power."

During the Cold War, the West used hard power to deter Soviet aggression, while it used soft power to erode faith in communism behind the Iron Curtain. That was smart power. To be smart today, Europe should invest more in its hard-power resources, and America should pay more attention to its soft power.

During President George W. Bush's first term, Secretary of State Colin Powell understood and referred to soft power, whereas Rumsfeld, when asked about soft power in 2003, replied "I don't know what it means." A high price was paid for that ignorance. Fortunately, during Bush's second term, with Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes at the State Department and Rumsfeld's reputation dented by failures that in the private sector would have led to his firing or resignation, the president has shown increased interest in U.S. soft power.

Of course, soft power is no panacea. For example, soft power got nowhere in attracting the Taliban government away from its support for Al-Qaeda in the 1990s. It took hard military power to sever that tie. Similarly, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il likes to watch Hollywood movies, but that is unlikely to affect his decision about whether to give up his nuclear weapons program. Such a choice will be determined by hard power, particularly if China agrees to economic sanctions. Nor will soft power be sufficient to stop Iran's nuclear program, though the legitimacy of the Bush administration's current multilateral approach may help to recruit other countries to a coalition that isolates Iran.

But other goals, such as promoting democracy and human rights, are better achieved by soft power. Coercive democratization has its limits, as the U.S. has learned in Iraq.

This does not mean that Rumsfeld's Pentagon is irrelevant to American soft power. Military force is sometimes treated as synonymous with hard power, but the same resource can sometimes contribute to soft power. A well-run military can be a source of attraction, and military cooperation and training programs can establish transnational networks that enhance a country's soft power. The U.S. military's impressive work in providing humanitarian relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 helped restore America's attractiveness, and enhanced its soft power.

But the misuse of military resources can also undercut soft power. The Soviet Union possessed a great deal of soft power in the years after World War II. But the Soviets' attractiveness as liberators was destroyed by the way they later used their hard power against Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Brutality and indifference to "just war" principles of discrimination and proportionality can also destroy legitimacy. The efficiency of the initial American military invasion of Iraq in 2003 created admiration in the eyes of some foreigners. But this soft power was undercut by the inefficiency of the occupation, the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the policy - initiated by Rumsfeld - of detentions without hearings at Guantanamo.

To be sure, no one expects the U.S. to attract people like Mohammed Atta or Osama bin Laden. Hard power is needed to deal with such cases. But today's terrorist threat is not Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations. It is a civil war within Islam between a majority of normal people and a small minority who want to coerce others into a accepting a highly ideological and politicized version of their religion. We cannot win unless the moderates win. We cannot win unless the number of people the extremists recruit is lower than the number we kill and deter.

Rumsfeld may understand this calculus in principle, but his words and actions show that he does not know how to balance the equation in practice. Doing so - and thus being in a position to win the war - is impossible without soft power.

Joseph S. Nye is distinguished service professor at Harvard University and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics." THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).

 

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