Liberal academic urges use of ‘soft power’ to pursue America’s global interests

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Rajab 09, 1423 2002-09-16

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 14, Rajab, 1423)

The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone by Joseph S. Nye Jr. Pub: Oxford University Press, New York, USA, 2002. Pp: 222. Hbk: $26.00.

The spirit of Machiavelli is alive and well and operating out of places like the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Far more profoundly so, indeed, than is indicated by the common contemporary use of the adjective "Machiavellian", which tends to mean little more than cunning and devious. Niccolo Machiavelli was a sixteenth-century Florentine statesman and intellectual, best known for his small book Del Principe (‘The Prince’), a handbook for rulers in which morality and principles played no part, the emphasis being entirely on expediency and pragmatism. For Machiavelli, the Prince’s main object had to be to maximise his power. At times that could best be achieved by governing well, being just, and serving the needs and interests of his subjects, but such things were incidental; they had no intrinsic value of their own. For Machiavelli, the definition of good government was that which maximised the power of his hypothetical Prince, and minimised opposition to him. Nothing else mattered.

This book by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., dean of the Kennedy School of Government, and a former foreign policy adviser to US president Bill Clinton, is written in precisely that spirit, albeit with a veneer of the idealistic democratic rhetoric necessary in this day and age, when (unlike in Machiavelli’s time) image and presentation are as important as substance. The Paradox of American Power is, above all, a call for the US to engage constructively with the international institutional order and work through it in pursuit of America’s national interest, rather than working unilaterally. It also calls for Washington to take more heed of global public opinion, to be seen to be serving global interests rather than only its own, and to cultivate support among the people of developing countries, instead of regarding them as irrelevant. It was written before September 11, 2001, in the early months of George W. Bush’s presidency, and has been only superficially updated for its publication early this year. But the Republicans were already known for an minimalist approach to foreign relations, routinely attacking the UN and preferring that the US act unilaterally when it needed to act all. This has also been the dominant attitude of much of the US’s response to September 11, and the debate about how far it should "go it alone" and to what extent it should work through bodies such as the UN has become particularly relevant. In this context, Nye’s book has been seized on by Western "liberals" as a voice of reason that America would do well to heed.

Nye’s study is based on a theoretical analysis of international politics which is as notable for what it leaves out as it is for what it includes. In Nye’s view, contemporary international politics can be likened to a complex chess game played at three distinct levels, each of which is an arena in which power can be exercised. Power he defines as "the ability to affect desired outcomes and — if necessary — change the behaviour of others to make this happen."

The first level is that of military power, pure and simple. At this level, the US’s dominance is unquestionable. Even before Bush’s 14 percent ($14 billion) increase in "defence" expenditure after September 11, the US had forces, aircraft and ships posted all over the globe; soon it will have a bigger defence budget that the next nine largest states combined. There is therefore no possibility of America being challenged directly and defeated militarily in the foreseeable future. The second level Nye identifies is that of economics — the sphere of hard currency, trade, market domination, technological advancement and dependency. The third level of international political activity that Nye identifies is that of the "multifarious and proliferating non-governmental activities" that shape our contemporary world. These include migration, corporate activity, NGO activity, international bodies, cultural exchanges, the electronic media and the internet.

What Nye chooses not to mention at this stage of his argument is the international political and institutional order: the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and other institutions that purport to make up an "international community" of equal sovereign nation-states, but are in fact wholly dominated by the West and its allies in every significant way. The senior Western states’ permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and their power of veto over any decision or action the UN might think of taking, are the most obvious examples; but these institutions also provide the West with far more subtle opportunities for the exercise of coercive power. All developing countries know that opposing the US on key issues in the UN and other bodies is liable to result in punitive action against them. International economic aid to Yemen, for example, was stopped after it refused to support the US’s attack on Iraq in 1990.

The probable reason for this omission becomes clear when Nye discusses the types of power that the US can exercise. The difference between hard power and soft power is well established in political science. Hard power is basically coercive: the power to force others to do what one wants. Nye takes this to include the US’s clear military dominance, as well as its less clear economic dominance, and argues — writing before the events of September 11 last year and their consequences — that there is a disturbing trend among American officials and intellectuals towards thinking almost entirely in these terms. Events since the attacks on New York and Washington both confirm this analysis, and have hardened American thinking on these issues.

There is, however, another form of power: "soft power", by which Nye means the "cultural, ideological and institutional forces" through which America can make other people want the same things as America wants. "A country," he tells us, "may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries want to follow it, admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness." In other words, instead of coercion, soft power is about influence, persuasion, enticement and attraction. Central to soft power, Nye argues, are the "beliefs and values that set the agenda and determine the framework of debate." Thus: "The values of democracy, personal freedom, upward mobility and openness expressed in its culture, higher education and foreign policy materially contribute to the achievement of the US’s global political objectives." A key part of soft power is that it appeals to people more than to governments, but can be brought to bear on governments through the desires and actions of people. The question Nye sets out to answer is: "How can the US most effectively use and maintain its soft power attributes in its foreign policy efforts to protect our people, promote our values and lead toward a better world over the next few decades?"

This approach is not new, of course; on the contrary, it is a very well established American liberal doctrine. Nye himself quotes US president Teddy Roosevelt as having said in the 1930s that "America’s security depends on its ability to speak to and win the support of peoples in other countries". Commentators have routinely noted that the massive expansion and assertion of US military power through the world in the 1990s has been a result of its failure to "win hearts and minds" in the developing world, particularly the Muslim world; a reality that has been amply demonstrated in popular reactions to the September 11 attacks. The main object of The Paradox of American Power is to persuade Americans to return to this approach, arguing that its results are more reliable, although the hard approach may seem easier in the short term.

Nye thus argues for America accepting the reality of an international society of sovereign nation-states, instead of the increasingly imperialist talk of a "world government" led by the US. "Rather than thinking of a hierarchical world government, we should think of networks of governance crisscrossing and coexisting with a world divided formally into sovereign states." He is scathing of the US’s record in refusing to accept international regulation and agreements on issues, and its well-established attitude that it is above any sort of international law. He also discusses the importance of America countering its negative image in the world by being seen as a champion for the poorest, most deprived peoples of the world.

Interestingly, however, all this talk of values, equality and justice is for purely pragmatic purposes: because the talk can be useful for the pursuit of American interests, not because the values themselves have any importance. "Values policies," Nye tells us, "must not undermine the nation’s more essential interests in its security, alliances and economic interests." The US "has to be judicious and opportunistic in its implementation of values policy." His argument is not that the world’s sole superpower should not go it alone, but that it cannot afford to go it alone. This is an argument that is Machiavellian in its fullest sense. Unfortunately for Nye and others in America, their counsel seems unlikely to be heeded with a cowboy like George Bush Jr. in the White House.

And even if it were, the hearts and minds of ordinary people around the world are now so alienated from America, and from everything it stands for, that no sudden switch to "values policies" is likely to pull the wool over their eyes.

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