Joseph S. Nye Jr. teaches at Harvard and is author of The Powers to Lead. He is also co-author, with Richard Armitage, of A Smarter, More Secure America, the report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on smart power.
Cambridge, Mass.—In her confirmation hearings to become secretary of state, Hillary Clinton said: "America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America....We must use what has been called 'smart power,' the full range of tools at our disposal."
Smart power is the combination of hard and soft power. Soft power is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion or payments. Public opinion polls show a serious decline in American attractiveness in Europe, Latin America and, most dramatically, across the entire Muslim world.
The resources that produce soft power for a country include its culture (where it is attractive to others), its values (where they are attractive and not undercut by inconsistent practices) and policies (where they are seen as inclusive and legitimate in the eyes of others).
When poll respondents are asked why they report a decline in American soft power, they cite American policies more than American culture or values. Since it is easier for a country to change its policies than its culture, this implies that President Barack Obama will be able to choose policies that could help to recover some of America's soft power.
Of course, soft power is not the solution to all problems. Even though North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il likes to watch Hollywood movies, that is unlikely to affect his nuclear weapons program. And soft power got nowhere in attracting the Taliban government away from its support for al-Qaida in the 1990s. It took hard military power in 2001 to end that. But other goals—such as the promotion of democracy and human rights—are better achieved by soft power.
A little more than a year ago, a bipartisan Smart Power Commission concluded that America's image and influence had declined in recent years, and that the United States had to move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.
The Smart Power Commission was not alone in this conclusion. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for the US government to commit more money and effort to soft power tools, including diplomacy, economic assistance and communications, because the military alone cannot defend America's interests around the world. He pointed out that military spending totals nearly a half-trillion dollars annually compared with a State Department budget of $36 billion. In his words, "I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power."
The Pentagon is the best-trained and best-resourced arm of the government, but there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Promoting democracy, human rights and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of a gun. It is true that the American military has an impressive operational capacity, but the practice of turning to the Pentagon because it can get things done leads to an image of an over-militarized foreign policy.
The effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks threw America off course. Terrorism is a real threat and likely to be with us for decades, but over-responding to the provocations of extremists does us more damage than the terrorists ever could. Success in the struggle against terrorism means finding a new central premise for American foreign policy to replace the current theme of a "war on terror." A commitment to providing for the global good can provide that premise.
The US can become a smart power by once again investing in global public goods—providing things people and governments in all quarters of the world want but cannot attain in the absence of leadership by the strongest country. Development, public health and coping with climate change are good examples. By complementing American military and economic might with greater investments in soft power, and focusing on global public goods, the US can rebuild the framework that it needs to tackle tough global challenges.
Style also matters, even when public goods are the substance of policy. In 2001, the columnist Charles Krauthammer argued for what he called "a new unilateralism" that recognized that the US was the only superpower and was so strong that it could decide what was right and expect others to follow because they had little choice.
But this style turned out to be counterproductive for achieving American goals. For example, when a Bush administration official told the 2007 UN conference on climate change at Bali, "The US will lead, and we will continue to lead, but leadership requires others to fall into line and follow," that statement became a sore point to other delegations and set back our diplomatic efforts. It illustrates how insensitivity to style and the perception of others can undercut the soft power efforts of an administration even when they are directed at producing global public good.
The Obama administration will have to generate soft power and relate it to hard power in smart strategies. The bad news is that Obama and Clinton face a difficult international environment. The good news is that previous presidents have managed to employ hard, soft and smart power in equally difficult contexts, and Clinton showed in her testimony that she understands this.
In 1970, during the Vietnam War, America was viewed as unattractive in many parts of the world, but with changed policies and the passage of time, we managed to recover our soft power. If it has happened before, it can happen again.