Enhancing and Applying Soft Power

Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University created the term "soft power," which he described as "the ability to shape the preferences of others" and "getting others to want the outcomes you want." Although the phrase was coined in 1990, the concept behind soft power has been evolving for some time.

Government leaders in the U.S. have, for some time, reached a general consensus that there are limits on the efficacy of military force alone in meeting current and future asymmetrical threats. The collective and coordinated strengths of a broad range of government institutions, the private sector and the influence of American culture are needed to effectively meet increasingly asymmetrical challenges and threats.

The current foreign policy dialogue is focusing on soft power. The concept has an important role to play in an integrated national security strategy. While Congress has initiated steps to strengthen the soft power capabilities of federal government departments and agencies, more is needed if the U.S. is to move forward in creating a meaningful and practical security framework in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

During the Cold War era, the U.S. actively used a rich portfolio of soft power tools and established organizations to promote democratic values and ideals. Examples included cultural tours of foreign capitals, Voice of America and the Peace Corps. When the Cold War ended, the need for these tools seemed to diminish. Many of these soft power initiatives were reduced or eliminated.

In the 1990s a new war of ideas emerged, along with a new set of security threats. These threats came from sources with varying capabilities and agendas that could not be easily deterred solely through hard power (military) means. In the meantime, the U.S. had not done enough to communicate and extend the ideals that promote peaceful and stable societies. American influence was in decline worldwide, and international opinion (exacerbated by internally directed media criticism) of the U.S. steadily decreased, even in allied nations.

It is now clear that the U.S. must invest significant intellectual and financial capital in programs to reverse these trends. We find ourselves at a "strategic inflection point" where the U.S. must reassess our institutions, processes and resources to defeat violent, extremist threats and to promote freedom, development and social justice around the world.

Existing soft power initiatives and agencies, particularly those engaged in development and strategic communications, must be reinvigorated through increased funding, human resources and prioritization. Concurrently, the U.S. government must establish goals, objectives and metrics for soft power initiatives.

The U.S. government, recognizing this need, has taken steps to address these issues. However, to be most effective, the government's renovation of soft power must be part of a broader-scoped national security model. We must coordinate, integrate and synchronize soft power responsibilities and resources among government agencies; centralize operational authority; and streamline the operational chain of command in providing national direction on diplomacy, development and defense.

The next generation of public diplomacy will be engaging in the most important ideological challenge of modern times. To proactively promote abroad the values of democracy, and to revitalize America's international image and prestige, the U.S. government must engage in a variety of soft power initiatives. These initiatives must focus on improving individual welfare and civil society, enhancing the rule of law and order, and developing economic opportunities around the world. These efforts must also be carried out in cooperation with academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international institutions (governmental and non-governmental) and the private sector.

There are several key areas in which the U.S. can effectively improve its soft power initiatives.

  • By providing improved medical care, international health diplomacy can improve international opinion of the U.S., regain trust and moral authority, and even deny terrorists and extremists safe harbor, while engendering some of the best American values.
  • A reinvigorated and proactive strategic communications program is needed to better disseminate the democratic and cultural values of liberty and individual freedoms. Organizations with these responsibilities need to be modernized and empowered, and must take advantage of leading technologies to be successful.
  • By helping other nations establish a robust and dynamic legal framework, initiatives aimed at promoting the rule of law can promote better governance, foster economic development and enable dispute resolution, thereby preserving stability.
  • U.S. businesses have made an indelible mark around the world, from the global and around-the-clock presence of the American media to the worldwide demand for American brands. Their role in American soft power has been extensive. The federal government should continue to promote an integrated and strong U.S. international commercial presence.
  • Furthermore, the U.S. government can better maximize the effectiveness of soft power instruments and efforts through increased partnerships with NGOs. By providing humanitarian and development assistance in areas typically inaccessible to government agencies, NGOs are often able to access potential extremist areas before the government can establish or strengthen diplomatic, developmental or military presence, including intelligence.
  • The U.S. must work with foreign governments and international institutions to strengthen existing partnerships or build new ones that enhance U.S. capabilities to combat and contain the forces of global extremism, terrorist violence and other similar hostile asymmetric threats.