Analysis & Opinions

Joseph Nye on Smart Power

  • Doug Gavel
| July 3, 2008

Harvard Kennedy School Insight Interview

A video interview with Joseph Nye on this topic is available here.

The days of American hegemony on the world stage appear to be waning. The rise of other global powers, the diffusion of economic and human capital, and the increasingly powerful influences being exerted by non-state actors — including terrorists — have ushered in a new era in geopolitics. Joseph Nye is university distinguished service professor and Sultan of Oman professor of international relations. He is the author of many books and articles on international relations, including his most recent book, “The Powers to Lead.”

Q: Your latest research focuses on modern day approaches to leadership and how they relate to power. Please discuss some of your most compelling findings.

Nye: I am interested in “soft power,” the ability to get what you what through attraction rather than coercion and payment. I had originally applied that idea to international relations, but in my new book I try to apply the concept of soft power to individual leaders. What I’ve found is the way we talk about leadership is quite inaccurate. We have in our minds a sort of a leader as the person who gives orders, the king of the mountain, and the orders sort of cascade down to below. And that fits with hard power, payment, or coercion. But if you think about a networked world, that we have in the information age, then you realize that a leader isn’t the king of the mountain. The leader is in the center of the circle and he or she has to be able to attract people to them and that requires soft power, the power to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion. So as we think about leadership there’s a great danger that we say — as President Bush has said — the leader is the “decider.” More important is how do we pick the goals? How do we decide who decides? How do we decide the timing of deciding? What I’ve discovered is the leader has to have these soft power skills to attract people, not just give orders.

There are three skills that are most crucial in the exercise of soft power — the first is emotional intelligence, the ability to control your own emotions and use them to reach out to others; second, the idea of composing a vision of the future that attracts others; and third, communication skills including both rhetorical skills and also the ability to use non-verbal communication tools. Those three crucial soft power skills have to be combined with hard power skills in organizations, in politics, and so forth. When we restrain our definition of leadership to only top-down, king of the mountain, we miss the crucial role of soft power in effective leadership.

Q: When we discuss leadership we must also discuss the ability to persuade and to bring about the changes that you as a leader wish to affect. Can you expound on that topic?

Nye: An effective leader uses soft power to bring others to share his or her vision of where we should go. Now, that vision of where we should go may be partly developed by the leader in consultation with others. It may also be a vision which the leader has developed from his or her background, but the ability to persuade others that this is where they want to go is absolutely crucial.

One way to examine leadership is through a model in which most people lead from the middle. A leader in the middle has to think in terms of a compass. There’s a boss above them, sort of to the north, and they have no hard power with the boss; they have to persuade him or her. There are collaborators to the east and the west, who are the different agencies, organizations, or groups over whom they have no authority, and they have to attract them to get cooperation. Then they have followers or subordinates over whom they can use their hard power to get what they want. But, frankly, they must also be able to get those subordinates to buy into their vision, which is very difficult to do by coercion alone.

So persuasion as an aspect of soft power becomes particularly important. Most of us are really leaders from the middle. Very few of us have no boss above us and very few fail to require cooperation from people on either side of us.

Q: Much of your research over the years has focused on the use of “soft power” on the world stage. More recently you have written on the concept of “smart power.” How do they differ, and how can “smart power” be exercised most effectively in these times?

Nye: Effective strategies in the real world are a mix of hard and soft power, and that combination of hard and soft power in effective ways is what I call “smart power.” Far too often people think that hard power alone is sufficient. Some people equate soft power with winning over the “hearts and minds” of others, but to be effective you need to use a combination of both hard and soft power. Take, for example, terrorism. We could not use soft power effectively to persuade the Taliban government to give up the sites they used for Al Qaeda and we had to use force, hard power, against the Taliban government.

But when it comes to the broader question of winning over the hearts and minds of the main stream Muslims so that the hardliners cannot recruit them, the situation requires soft power. When we used our hard power in Iraq, we essentially made ourselves look like a bully and an occupier which undercut our soft power. So you find a tremendous drop in the attractiveness of the United States around the world, particularly in the Muslim world, and particularly among mainstream Muslims. We need to recover the ability to combine our soft power with our hard power if we’re going to build the capacity to use smart power.

Q: The United States has strained relations with some very powerful and influential governments. What foreign policy strategies would most help the next president to repair those relationships so that U.S. interests are best served?

Nye: The next President, whether it is John McCain or Barack Obama, has to make America represent the export of hope, rather than fear. We have to appeal to others in a way that gets them to want to follow us.

Richard Armitage, who was Deputy Secretary of State in the first term of the Bush administration, and I recently co-chaired a bipartisan commission for the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington which was called the “Soft Power Commission.” What we argued in that report was that we have to change a number of policies: we have to drop the term “Global War on Terror”; we have to close Guantanamo; and we have to create a set of symbols that show we stand for hope rather than fear. However, we also need to combine those changes with a set of policies that are not only in our interest but also in the interest of others.

For example, the United States promotes the development of international institutions. If we stand for helping to promote international development and take a lead in meeting the aspirations of the global public on international climate change issues, we demonstrate our ability to lead with soft power. This is an example of where we can promote policies which are good for us and good for others at the same time and that’s what our “Smart Power Commission” recommended to our next President, whichever party they belong to.

Q: Recent public opinion polls show declining respect for America abroad. In what ways can and should the U.S. work to enhance its international reputation and re-engage global goodwill?

Nye: The United States is showing very low ratings in international public opinion polls, particularly in Europe and Latin America, but most of all in the Muslim World. What we can do is re-learn the lesson that we learned in Vietnam. In the 1970s the United States was also extremely unpopular and unattractive but yet we were able to recover our soft power within a decade. We did that in part by changing our policies. We changed our policies in the Vietnam War. We also developed new foreign policies under President Carter with human rights, and President Regan stressed the freedom of other countries. These helped to restore a good deal of American soft power.

The next American president, whether it be Senator Obama or Senator McCain, will need to think in analogous terms — what policies should we change? what symbols should we promote? — so that we again stand for a hopeful picture of the future. Many of the recommendations made in the Soft Power Commission report would advance this ideal by suggesting a series of policies which would help us to become a more attractive member of a better world.

Q: Your ideas are discussed around the globe, tapping into a hope, perhaps, that governments can make smarter choices around the use of power and in that way reduce the suffering that comes from war and conflict. Are there recent examples where soft power really works?

Nye: There are governments that have understood these concepts for some time. Take Norway for example, which has based its foreign policy on being a peacemaker in the Oslo peace process and in efforts to mediate the conflict in Sri Lanka. This makes Norwegians attractive to others. The Canadians have understood the concept of soft power, as well.

Perhaps the most intriguing case in my mind has been the way in which China has begun exercising soft power. The Chinese president told the 17th Party Congress that it was important to increase China’s soft power. If you look at the way China was treating its neighbors in South East Asia and the islands in the South China Sea a decade ago, the Chinese were pretty tough, using primarily hard power. In recent years the Chinese have moved to a more soft power approach, being willing to discuss and mediate over a number of these issues. So I think it’s interesting that China has been making major efforts to not only talk about, but also to back its policies with soft power.

Interviewed on June 12, 2008, by Doug Gavel.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Gavel, Doug.“Joseph Nye on Smart Power.” , July 3, 2008.

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