The Smart Diplomat

The former assistant secretary of defense and dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Joseph Nye, offers sharp insights into the way nations take and cede power.

From the window of his living room, Joseph Nye looks out on the battle green in Lexington, Massachusetts. There, just before dawn on April 19, 1775, American minutemen and British regulars squared off, firing the first shots of the American Revolution.

It’s a perfect locale for Nye, whose ideas about how power struggles shape the lives of nations are required reading for diplomats worldwide. Nye has done much writing on how the age-old methodologies of hard power (military force and economic might) and soft power (persuasion and attraction) have fused into smart power (the ability to fuse hard and soft power into a cogent and usable diplomacy). It’s the subject of his newest book, The Future of Power in the 21st Century, which provides a pragmatic road map for a foreign policy to deal with the challenges of a global information age. “The United States has to change from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope,” he says.

A century ago, US President Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” a phrase that summed up his foreign policy. Does that approach still work?
Roosevelt’s ideas were actually a very good blend of soft power and hard power; what I call smart power. And that’s simply the ability to create strategies that blend both hard and soft power to lead those whom you deal with to your preferred outcomes.

Why is smart power important?
Essentially, it increases the ability to have others do what you’d like them to do. You can basically try to influence others in three ways. You can do it though threats and payments; that’s hard power. You can do it by persuasion and attraction; that’s soft power. Or you can combine the two; that’s smart power.

Is the human animal too aggressive a species to understand, intrinsically, the benefits of smart power? Are you going against our biological makeup?
Not really. I wrote a book in 2008 called The Powers to Lead, which looked at different types of leadership. In it, I look at what we share in our genomes with chimpanzees. We certainly have some things in common, like aggression, but we humans are also able to use persuasion and attraction to our advantage.

It’s Grandma’s old idea—that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
That’s right. The fact that this adage has been around for so long indicates that humans have understood the benefits of soft power for a very long time.

Why should we care about developing soft power abroad?
If we want to have influence on events in the world because they affect our own safety and prosperity, then we need instruments, and one of the instruments in our toolbox is smart power. If you’re a complete isolationist and say, “We don’t need to care about this world and we don’t need a foreign policy,” then you don’t need much in your toolbox.

Does soft power lead to the increase of hard power?
It can, if you attract others into an alliance—like the US did with Europe after World War II. That led to an increase in American hard power. But sometimes hard power and soft power can conflict. For example, in the Iraq war, America’s use of hard power undercut our soft power. The phrase “smart power,” therefore, is designed to show how hard power and soft power interact with and sometimes countervail each other.

What countries are most skilled at soft power?
Historically, Americans have been very good at it. After all, we won the Cold War by a combination of military strength, which deterred Soviet aggression, and our ideas and culture, which penetrated behind the Iron Curtain and eroded the Soviets’ faith in their system. So when the Berlin Wall came down, it was done by hammers and bulldozers and people whose ideas had been changed—not by artillery. That’s a good example of smart power.

China, which has an attractive traditional culture, has recently talked about its need to increase its soft power skill. While its culture is attractive, many of its policies—particularly in the areas of human rights—undercut its effort to increase its soft power.

Remember, though, soft power isn’t good per se. Osama bin Laden has soft power in the eyes of his followers. He didn’t threaten people to get them to fly into the World Trade Center. He didn’t pay them. He attracted them to his cause. It depends very much on the audience, and how you’re perceived tints the eyes of the beholders. Today, success is ultimately about whose story wins. A good narrative is an important source of soft power.

Is there a new relevance to smart power when the biggest security threats are asymmetrical and come from non-state actors like terrorist groups?
Yes, and in two ways. First, it’s hard to apply major military force to non-state actors, as you suggest. But in the information age it’s the story that counts, and the power of the narrative becomes increasingly important. So, a non-state actor like al-Qaida can use a very compelling narrative to try to attract mainstream Muslims to their view. But the story alone is not enough. It’s like in advertising. You can have great advertising, but it won’t sell if you have a lousy product.

James Daly is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist. He is the former editor-in-chief of Business 2.0 and a former features editor at Wired.

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