Analysis & Opinions - International Herald Tribune

Propaganda Isn't the Way: Soft Power

| Jan. 10, 2003

All's fair in love and war, but should the American military carry out secret propaganda missions in friendly nations as part of the war on terrorism? Recent disclosure of a proposed Pentagon directive that takes psychological aim at friends is bad news for American soft power.

Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will. Both hard and soft power are important in  the war on terrorism, but attraction is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished.

Attraction depends on credibility, something a Pentagon propaganda campaign would clearly lack. On the contrary, by arousing broad suspicions about the credibility of what the American government says, such a program would squander soft power.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is reported to be deeply frustrated that the U.S. government has no coherent plan for molding public opinion worldwide. He is right to be concerned. Recent polls by the Pew Charitable Trust show that the attractiveness of the United States declined  significantly in the past two years in 19 of 27 countries sampled.

What can the government do? Soft power grows out of both U.S. culture and U.S. policies. From Hollywood to higher education, civil society does far more to present the United States to other peoples than the government does. Hollywood often portrays consumerism, sex and violence, but it also promotes values of individualism, upward mobility and  freedom (including for women). These values make America attractive to many people overseas, but some fundamentalists see them as a threat.

Contrasting views often exist side by side in the same country. For example, Iranian officials excoriate America as a "great satan" while teenagers secretly watch smuggled Hollywood videos.

The U.S. government should not try to control exports of popular culture, but State Department cultural and exchange programs help to remind people of the noncommercial aspects of American values and culture.  Similarly, government broadcasting to other countries that is evenhanded, open and informative helps to enhance American credibility and soft power in a way that propaganda never can. Yet the billion dollars spent on public diplomacy is only one- quarter of 1 percent of what is spent on defense. Congress should support measures like Representative Henry Hyde's proposal to bolster the State Department's public diplomacy and international broadcasting efforts.

The other way the government can make a differenceis in the substance and style of foreign policy. With a military budget larger than those of the next dozen countries combined, the United States looms so large that it engenders negative as well as positive reactions. The biggest kid on the block always provokes a mixture of admiration and resentment.

To the extent that America defines its national interests in ways congruent with others, and consults with them in formulating policies, it will improve the ratio of admiration to resentment. President George W. Bush articulated this well in the 2000 campaign when he said that if America is a humble nation others will respect it, but if it is arrogant they will not.

Unfortunately, his administration has not always followed that advice. The Pentagon and the State Department have engaged in a tug of war over how to work with other countries. Many of America's friends overseas regarded the first eight months of the administration as excessively unilateralist, tempered by more multilateralism after Sept. 11.

They expressed concern about a return to unilateralism in 2002 until Bush's successful speech to the United Nations in September.

The lessons for those in the Pentagon who want to enhance America's soft power is that it will come not from military propaganda campaigns but from greater sensitivity to the opinions of others in the formulation of policies. They should heed Teddy Roosevelt's advice. Now that we Americans have a big stick, we should learn to speak softly.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph.“Propaganda Isn't the Way: Soft Power.” International Herald Tribune, January 10, 2003.