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Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | April 2011
Power is one of the more contestable concepts in political theory, but it is conventional and convenient to define it as “the ability to effect the outcomes you want and, if necessary, to change the behavior of others to make this happen.” (Joseph S. Nye, Jr.) In recent decades, scholars and commentators have chosen to distinguish between two kinds of power, “hard” and “soft.” The former, hard power, is achieved through military threat or use, and by means of economic menace or reward. The latter, soft power, is the ability to have influence by co-opting others to share some of one’s values and, as a consequence, to share some key elements on one’s agenda for international order and security. Whereas hard power obliges its addressees to consider their interests in terms mainly of calculable costs and benefits, principally the former, soft power works through the persuasive potency of ideas that foreigners find attractive. The nominal promise in this logic is obvious. Plainly, it is highly desirable if much of the world external to America wants, or can be brought to want, a great deal of what America happens to favor also. Coalitions of the genuinely willing have to be vastly superior to the alternatives.
Unfortunately, although the concept of American soft power is true gold in theory, in practice it is not so valuable. Ironically, the empirical truth behind the attractive concept is just sufficient to mislead policymakers and grand strategists. Not only do Americans want to believe that the soft power of their civilization and culture is truly potent, we are all but programmed by our enculturation to assume that the American story and its values do and should have what amounts to missionary merit that ought to be universal. American culture is so powerful a programmer that it can be difficult for Americans to empathize with, or even understand, the somewhat different values and their implications held deeply abroad. The idea is popular, even possibly authoritative, among Americans that ours is not just an “ordinary country,” but instead is a country both exceptionally blessed (by divine intent) and, as a consequence, exceptionally obliged to lead Mankind. When national exceptionalism is not merely a proposition, but is more akin to an iconic item of faith, it is difficult for usually balanced American minds to consider the potential of their soft power without rose-tinted spectacles. And the problem is that they are somewhat correct. American values, broadly speaking “the American way,” to hazard a large project in reductionism, are indeed attractive beyond America’s frontiers and have some utility for U.S. policy. But there are serious limitations to the worth of the concept of soft power, especially as it might be thought of as an instrument of policy. To date, the idea of soft power has not been subjected to a sufficiently critical forensic examination. In particular, the relation of the soft power of attraction and persuasion to the hard power of coercion urgently requires more rigorous examination than it has received thus far.
When considered closely, the subject of soft power and its implications for the hard power of military force reveals a number of plausible working propositions that have noteworthy meaning for U.S. policy and strategy.
From all the factors above, it follows that military force will long remain an essential instrument of policy. That said, popular enthusiasm in Western societies for the placing of serious restraints on the use of force can threaten the policy utility of the military. The ill consequences of America’s much-manifested difficulty in thinking and behaving strategically are augmented perilously when unwarranted faith is placed upon soft power that inherently is resistant to strategic direction. Although it is highly appropriate to be skeptical of the policy utility of soft power, such skepticism must not be interpreted as implicit advice to threaten or resort to military force with scant reference to moral standards. Not only is it right in an absolute sense, it is also expedient to seek, seize, and hold the moral high ground. There can be significant strategic advantage in moral advantage—to risk sounding cynical. Finally, it is essential to recognize that soft power tends to work well when America scarcely has need of it, but the more challenging contexts for national security require the mailed fist, even if it is cushioned, but not concealed, by a glove of political and ethical restraint.