When I was in college, I had the fortune of sitting in on a talk by Joseph Nye, a famous Harvard professor who helped popularize the concept of “soft power” in foreign policy. The idea in a nutshell is that traditional conceptions of power in foreign policy (or “hard power”) around force, coercion, and payment fail to capture all the dimensions of power that are at work on the international stage. According to Nye, it’s not just about who has the biggest army or richest bank account, it was also about who had the “softer” skills in place to motivate other countries to act without coercion through the appeal of their ideals, culture, and institutions.
While Nye was a very engaging speaker, I have to admit that, at the time, I didn’t really grasp what he was talking about. Back then, I felt that “soft power” was a a luxury by-product of “hard power.” Of course, countries like and respect you — you’re rich and powerful! It was the viewpoint of a college student who believed in objective measures of success and power, and who was not a fan of the importance of “softer” influences.
It wasn’t until later in my college career that I developed a better appreciation for Nye’s idea. What I hadn’t understood was that soft power wasn’t about getting other nations to like or respect you through strength and wealth. It wasn’t even about winning the Miss Congeniality award in international circles (as some liberals I know have seemed to interpret it). It was far more subtle (and one could even argue, insidious). Rather than compelling China to open up a new trade corridor by threatening them with economic sanctions or military attack, soft power aims to achieve that trade corridor by creating a demand from the Chinese people for US products or by encouraging the elite in China to want to see their country more open to contact with the US or even by encouraging the international community to view trade with the US as a sign of economic progress. In other words, the soft power approach is a psychological one where the appeal of one’s culture and image act as the motivating force
An article in this past week’s Economist on the rise of sushi as a cuisine in Syria highlights an example of this sort of soft power influence:
For a country with no particular predilection for fish, sushi is slowly but surely conquering Syria’s capital, Damascus. Ever more foreign-food restaurants have been popping up, from Indian to Italian. But sushi, now deemed the height of sophistication, is becoming de rigueur for the capital’s middle class.
Proud and nationalistic, modern Syria has not been known for welcoming outside influences, be they political, economic or culinary. A decade or two ago Damascus offered just a handful of restaurants serving typical Syrian cuisine. But that is changing as Syria opens up to the world. The sushi boom is partly a product of economic liberalisation, which has most visibly led to a proliferation of luxury services targeting the better-off.
But as more Syrian expatriates return, they are pushing new trends and demanding the services and cuisine they have been used to outside … “The mindset is changing,” says a beady sushi restaurateur. The Syrian outlook is expanding. Flatbread and hummus may no longer do. And is Baathist socialism still tasty?
Now, obviously, this is a long shot from true economic and political liberalization or even friendly relations between Syria and Japan, but with the rise of China and the Middle East, soft power influence like this will become increasingly important tools in the foreign policy arena for the soon-to-be-questioned dominance of the US.
This isn’t to say that the US should stop investing in economic and military might — not only does the rise of a potentially hostile China and Russia suggest otherwise, but the perception of American weakening could also be a big blow to its “soft power” credibility — but it requires the US to pay greater attention to things which continue to give it a moral and cultural upper-hand:
- Allow more foreign students/scientists to study in the US. The US has one thing where it has an undeniable lead: its schools. That most of the world’s major politicians, scientists, and businesspeople have spent at least some time in the US being educated is a testament to that. It also represents a great channel with which future world leaders and businesspeople can be influenced by American values and and culture. Why the US government doesn’t promote this further is beyond me.
- Make it easier for skilled foreigners to get visas. This is another no-brainer to me. If there are foreign workers who would like to come to the US to voluntarily learn about US culture and ideals, get a taste for US products and services, and make US friends and, along the way, contribute to American enterprise, then why don’t we encourage them?
- Remove barriers to cross-border collaboration. There are many foreign companies and organizations who’d love to team up with and learn from their American counterparts. This represents not only a chance to earn goodwill with foreigners, but creates productive relationships which could make it less likely that a foreign government will move in a way to jeopardize those relationships.
- Enhance the impact of NGOs that perform humanitarian work overseas. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) like those funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are capable of doing a lot of good in foreign countries and thus generating a lot of goodwill towards the US, provided they are run effectively and can overcome bureaucratic hurdles. If the US government can find ways to lower these hurdles and encourage greater impact and effectiveness, they not only help NGOs do better humanitarian work, but also help create more goodwill for the US.
- Encourage trade. The vast majority of foreigners will neither work in, nor be educated in, nor be touched by cross-border collaboration or humanitarian efforts, but they can still be touched by US soft power through trade. Being encouraged to tailor their products/services to American desires helps educate foreigners about American ideals and culture (not to mention helps to give consumers more choices and lower prices), and buying high-quality American products and brands helps create a greater desire for further contact and trade with the US. After all, one does not have to meet an American to associate the US with wealth and high quality brands.
None of these is the “silver bullet” which guarantees the US will always get what it wants in the foreign policy arena, but collectively, they help maintain the US’s strong cultural standing and influence in the world as its “hard power” relative to rising giants like China and the Middle East diminishes.