Politics in an information age is not only about whose military wins but whose story wins.
July 2, 2012
With Responses From
We must combine soft power with hard power.
Stephen Walt is one of the most thoughtful and balanced practitioners of the realist school of international politics. He was a prescient and powerful critic of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. Would that his advice had prevailed. Here he offers a sensible and moderate design for a mature foreign policy. Again, his advice beats the current alternative, but his realist paradigm limits his attention to some issues.
Before commenting on what is missing, I might quibble a bit with some of what is there. Walt argues that there are three grand strategies that the United States could follow to preserve its primacy. It could seek global hegemony, engage selectively, or be an “offshore balancer.” Why only three options? Even in the debate among neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and Frank Fukuyama, they mention four, and there are surely others. And what exactly is the difference between selective engagement and offshore balancing? Since Walt wants to stay engaged through multilateral institutions and allies, would sometimes intervene for humanitarian reasons, and would keep significant troops in Asia, the difference seems a minor matter of degree. Yes, fewer troops are needed in post–Cold War Europe, but the administration agrees with that. Perhaps is just boils down to a (sensible) return to the more subtle “over the horizon” presence in the Persian Gulf. And is it really true that no foreign government is going to risk transferring nuclear weapons? What about the published reports that Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan transferred nuclear-weapons blueprints to countries such as Iran and Libya?
Walt acknowledges that American power is most effective when it is seen as legitimate, and that American efforts at public diplomacy remain weak and ineffective, but he tends to focus on hard rather than soft power, and his conclusions have little to say about public diplomacy. In part, this may be because realists often use a shorthand that defines power only in terms of tangible resources rather than behavior.
Power is the ability to influence others to get what you want, and there are ultimately three main ways for a nation to achieve power: by using or threatening force; by inducing compliance with rewards; or by using “soft power”—attracting followers and co-opting them. There is no reason for realists to neglect soft power. It is simply a form of power, and nations (and non-state actors) struggle to deprive others of their soft power and to balance in that domain even if they cannot balance in the military domain—witness the coalition of France, Germany, China, and Russia depriving the United States of the legitimizing strength of a second Security Council resolution in 2003. When a country can induce others to follow by employing soft power, it saves a lot of carrots and sticks. This is a lesson the United States seems to have forgotten in the past few years.
Soft power is based on culture, political ideals, and policies. Historically, Americans have been good at wielding soft power. Think of young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music and news on Radio Free Europe, or of Chinese students symbolizing their protests in Tiananmen Square with a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Many American values, such as democracy, human rights, and individual opportunity, have proved deeply attractive when backed by sound foreign policies.
American soft power has diminished in recent years, particularly in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. Polls showed dramatic declines in the popularity of the United States, even in countries such as Britain, Italy, and Spain, whose governments had supported the United States. America’s standing plummeted in Islamic countries around the world. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation, three quarters of the public said they had a favorable opinion of the United States in 2000, but within three years that fraction had shrunk to 15 percent. Yet the cooperation of these countries is essential if the United States and its allies are to succeed in a long-term struggle against terrorism.
Some anti-Americanism is an inevitable reaction to America’s size. The United States is the big kid on the block, and its disproportionate military power is bound to engender a mixture of admiration, envy, and resentment. But as Walt properly notes, it matters if the big kid on the block is seen by the others as a friend or as a bully.
In the world of traditional realism, politics was typically about whose military wins. But politics in an information age is equally about whose story wins. This is particularly true in the struggle against transnational terrorism. And there the news is not good. The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board recently reported that the United States is being outflanked in that “war of information.”
American efforts since September 11 have fallen significantly short. Last year a bipartisan advisory group reported that the United States spent a paltry $150 million on public diplomacy in Muslim countries in 2002. The combined cost of the State Department’s public-diplomacy programs including international broadcasting that year was just over a billion dollars—about the same amount spent by Britain or France, countries one fifth the size. It is also equal to one quarter of one percent of the military budget. The United States currently spends 450 times as much on hard power as on soft power. If we spent just one percent of the military budget, it would mean quadrupling the spending on soft power.
If the United States is going to win the struggle against terrorism, it will need learn again to combine soft power with hard power. Stephen Walt recognizes this, but he does not dwell on it, perhaps because his realist paradigm does not stress soft power. But better an intelligent, moderate, and mature realism than a truncated neoconservative Wilsonianism that stresses ideas but loses touch with reality.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.