02 July 2004

Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XL

America and Europe: what is the role of soft power?

Delivered by:

The Honorable Joseph Nye, Dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard 1995-2004

Thank you John Major for that very kind introduction.  I must say, we at the Kennedy School remember well the splendid address you gave us a few years ago.

It is a great honour to deliver the Annual Ditchley Lecture, and to be able to do it at the time of transition from Nigel Broomfield to Jeremy Greenstock, is a particular honour.  I trust that Ditchley will maintain the splendid legacy of David Wills, in which it has provided so many opportunities to me and to others for learning and evolving much broader horizons.  In fact, I should say that I have had so many pleasant moments at Ditchley, that my forthcoming novel, The Power Game, has a scene set at Ditchley. But that is not the subject for the evening.  Our subject is the difficult times that are now occurring in trans-Atlantic relations and ask about the role of soft power.

At first glance it might seem that things are improving.   After all, the Bush administration has made a number of multi-lateral overtures in recent months, and French and German leaders have softened some of the rhetoric.  But I think that deep divisions remain beneath the public camaraderie and improved dialogue.

The Broader Middle East and North African Initiative of the G8 summit fell short of being a strategy for co-operation and, although the US managed to secure a unanimous Security Council resolution on Iraq, the   meeting of NATO at Istanbul did not create the significant new role which some hoped it might.  Even if the Bush administration has turned a diplomatic corner, I think European perceptions of American unilateralism are not likely to disappear any time soon.

The griping about American power began well before George W Bush and even before 9/11.  The Bush administration had become strongly identified with the new unilateralism, to  use  a phrase coined in 2001 by the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.  The new unilateralists advocated an assertive approach to promoting American values and policies.  They criticised the Clinton administration's reluctance to take advantage of our dominant position.  In their eyes, American intentions are good, American hegemony benevolent and that should end the discussion. They deny there is a problem of American arrogance.

Unfortunately their approach did appear arrogant in the eyes of others, and American attractiveness in Europe diminished over the past few years.  Indeed polls show quite a striking change.  A recent Pew Poll found that majorities in Britain, Germany and France supported a more independent approach to diplomatic and security affairs than in the past.  Last fall a majority of Europeans ranked the US as a threat to world peace comparable to North Korea or Iran.  And, in a dramatic turn-about from the Cold War, strong majorities in Europe now see US unilateralism as an important international threat to Europe for the next ten years.  These are quite striking changes.

Machiavelli once said that it is better to be feared than loved, but the message perhaps, is not quite what we would have hoped, because the US is now more feared and less loved than it was, and clearly the effort to elevate the new unilateralism from an occasional tactic to a full fledged strategy in recent years, has been costly to America's soft power.

Now what is soft power?   It is the ability to get what you want through attraction, rather than coercion or payments.  When you think of power, it is the ability to influence others to get the outcomes you want.  There are basically three ways you can do that.  You can threaten others  with coercion (sticks), you can induce others with payments (carrots) or you can attract others and co-opt them so that they want what you want.  If you can get others to be attracted to your agenda, to your values so that they want what you want, you can spend a lot less on carrots and sticks.  If  you want some concrete examples, think of the role of American soft power in the past.  Examples include Roosevelt's four freedoms during World War II, or young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music and news on Radio Free Europe, or Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 creating a replica of the Statue of Liberty.  Those are very concrete examples of soft power.  Soft power is often ignored or treated as irrelevant, because it doesn’t have that hard concrete nature of military or economic power.  But that is a mistake.  Seduction is often much more effective than coercion and many values like democracy, human rights and individual opportunities are deeply seductive. But attraction can turn to repulsion if we appear arrogant or hypocritical.

Hard power, which is the ability to coerce, grows out of a country's military and economic might and soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, its political beliefs and its policies.  Hard power remains absolutely essential  in a world of states trying to guard their independence and of non-state groups, such as terrorist organisations, willing to turn to violence.  We have to realise that soft power will never solve problems of  terrorism by converting Osama Bin Laden or Al Quaeda to our values.  Nor would it have changed the position of the Talaban government in Afghanistan in providing a haven for these terrorists.  The Afghan War had to be fought and it was completely correct. But in another sense you cannot prevail in a struggle against terrorism by hard power alone.  Indeed, I think those who see the current problem of terrorism as a clash of civilisations are mistaken in that perception.  I see what we are experiencing in the world now less as a clash of civilisation than as a civil war within Islamic civilisation.  It is etween a small minority who want to use force to impose upon others their extreme or, as they see it, pure version of their religion, and a larger majority who want many of the same things we want:  better opportunities in life, better education, more dignity – things to which we can appeal.  Indeed, if we look at the question of how would you know whether we are doing well in the so-called war on terrorism, Donald Rumsfeld, who is not a great devotee of soft power, has suggested that the metric for measuring it is whether the number of terrorists we are killing and deterring is greater than the number of new terrorists that the madrassas are producing and Al Quaeda is recruiting.  My way of putting that is:  is our hard power creating or destroying more terrorists than Al Quaeda is able to produce and recruit? Al Quaeda in that sense is using its own soft power, and their recruitment is easier when our soft power declines.

Another way of looking at this is, that if you are going to succeed in a situation like the one that we face now in the struggle against terrorism, we won’t win unless that moderate majority wins.  Which means that we have to be able to appeal to that moderate majority, and that’s where soft power comes in.  Mis-use of our hard power can undercut our soft power, and our ability to appeal to that moderate majority.  If we look at the current public opinion polls, that indeed, seems to be the situation: on Rumsfeld's metric, we are losing, not winning the struggle.  If you look at certain polls which I think are well founded – and  Robert Worcester is in the audience, so I will be very careful what I say, but if you look at Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world, in the year 2000, three quarters of Indonesians had a favourable view of the United States.  By  May 2003, that was down to 15%. If you ask how the United States looks in Jordan or Pakistan, which are often described as friendly Islamic countries, and countries which are on the front line of the war on terrorism, recent polls this spring showed that more people in both those countries had a favourable view of Osama Bin Laden than of George W Bush.  That would strike me as an example of not doing well in the war on terrorism by Rumsfeld's own metric.  Indeed, I think one of the things that has hurt us is the way we went about the war in Iraq.  Whatever the justification for the war, the way we went about it hurt us. We were in a hurry and did not take the time to develop a broad coalition such as George H. W. Bush did a decade earlier. After the initial military victory, this cost us very much in terms of hard power.  In other words, inattentiveness to our soft power and legitimacy in the eyes of others led us to spend blood and treasure, elements of hard power, that we need not have spent in the reconstruction of Iraq.  That’s an illustration of the significance of soft power and why it is relevant, but Iraq is not my focus tonight.  I do have a new book called "Soft Power - the Means to Success in World Politics" which goes into considerable detail about the role of soft power  in the Middle East and on terrorism, but at Ditchley I think we want to talk about the relation across the Atlantic and the role of soft power between the United States and Europe.

In looking at the American side of that subject, it is clear to me that the soft power of the United States in Europe  declined quite sharply.  In the run up to the Iraq War, polls showed that the United States lost an average of thirty points of support in most European countries, including those that supported us in the War.  After the War, majorities of the people held unfavourable images of the United States in nearly two thirds of the nineteen countries surveyed.  The Iraq War wasn’t the first time that the United States has had controversial security policies that have reduced its attractiveness.  There have been, at least, four prior periods in United States/European relations which come to mind - after the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, the Ban the Bomb movements of the early 50s and early 60s, during the Vietnam War period in the late 60s and early 70s and during the deployment of the intermediate range nuclear weapons in the early 80s.  In a 1983 Newsweek poll, around 40% of the people polled in France, Britain and Germany disapproved of American policies.  At the same time, majorities in all those countries approved of the American people.

American attractiveness to others is a composite of many different ideas and attitudes.  As I said earlier, it depends, in part on culture, in part on domestic policies and  values, and in part on the substance, style and tactics of foreign policies.  All three are important, but it is worth noticing that of the three sources of soft power, the most volatile and the most susceptible to government control is  foreign policy –both the substance and style of it.  All countries pursue their national interest in foreign policy, but they face choices about how broadly or narrowly to define the national interest, as well as about the means by which to pursue it.  Policies that are based on broadly inclusive and far-sighted definitions of national interest are easier to make attractive and legitimate in the eyes of others than policies that take a narrow and myopic perspective.  Policies that express important values are also more likely to be attractive when those values are more widely shared.

The Norwegian author Geir Lundestad has referred to American success in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century as "empire by invitation".  “On the value side federalism, democracy and open markets represented core American values.   This is what America exported and, because of far sighted policies like the Marshall Plan, Europeans were happy to accept the exports.”  The resulting soft power depended, in part, on a considerable overlap of culture and values.  Admiration for American values does not mean, of course, that others want to imitate all the ways Americans implement them. Despite admiration for American practices of freedom of speech for example, countries like Germany have histories which make them wish to prohibit hateful speech that could not be prohibited under the American First Amendment.  While many Europeans admire America's devotion to freedom, they prefer policies at home that temper the liberal economic principles of individualism with greater concerns for a welfare state.  It is interesting in light of all the rhetoric about old and new Europe, that at the end of the Cold War, polls showed that two-thirds of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians and Bulgarians felt the United States was a good influence on their respective countries, but fewer than a quarter of each country wanted to import American economic models.

As I mentioned earlier, another source of soft power behaviour is cultural attractiveness. The political effects of popular cultural are not  new.  The Dutch historian Rob Kroes points out that in the 19th century, steamship companies would put up posters to attract immigration societies to go to the American west and these images of American west, with its wide open space, had powerful impacts as symbols in Europe. He also argues that in the 1940s, commercial advertising that referred to and expanded upon Franklin Roosevelt's four freedoms had the same effects as civics lessons.  In his words "Generation upon generation of youngsters growing up in a variety of European settings, west and east of the Iron Curtain, have vicariously enjoyed the pleasures of cultural alternatives."  Simple items like blue jeans, coca cola or a cigarette brand acquired an added value that helped these younger generations to give expressions to an identity of their own.

These popular cultural attractions helped produce soft power in the sense of obtaining favourable outcomes in at least two of the most important American objectives after 1945.  One was the democratic reconstruction of Europe after World War II, and the other, of course, was victory in the Cold War.  After World War II the Marshall Plan and NATO were clearly crucial instruments of economic and military power, but popular culture also contributed important dimensions of soft power that reinforced their effect.  An Austrian historian, Rienhold Wagnleitner argues that "The fast adaptation of American popular culture by many Europeans after the Second World War rejuvenated and revitalised European post-war cultures with its elementary connotations of freedom, casualness, vitality, liberality, barbarity and youthfulness."  The dollars invested by the Marshall Plan were important in achieving American objectives in the reconstruction of Europe, but so also were the ideas transmitted by American popular culture.

Today, if you look at the median measure of ten European countries that were polled in 2002, about 2/3 of the people polled admired America for its popular culture and progress in science and technology but only 1/3 thought it a good idea that American customs spread in their country. This ambivalence is not entirely new.  In the 1980's public opinion in four major European countries rated the United States as performing well in economic opportunities, rule of law, religious freedom and artistic diversity, but fewer than half of British, Germans and Spanish respondents felt that the United States was a desirable model for other countries.

How America behaves at home can enhance its image and its perceived legitimacy.  We don’t have to make others look like little Americans, but we have to live up to the  core values of America if we are going to be able to have soft power.  That is why the examples of Abu Grahib and Guantanamo have been so costly to the United States.  Its is also why a free press which reports these problems, congressional hearings which investigate them and a recent set of Supreme Court decisions are also so important.  Democracy does matter.  America has imperfections, but so long as it lives up to the  core values of liberal democracy, it can overcome those imperfections, and thus be able to regain its soft power.  America was extraordinarily unpopular at the time of the Vietnam War, yet it recovered its soft power within a decade, and it is interesting to go back and ask why.  Part of the answer may be that when students were marching in the streets of Europe protesting against America's policy on Vietnam, they did not sing the Internationale; they sang Martin Luther Kings's "We shall overcome". Those democratic values are going to be the secret of success if America is to regain its soft power in Europe.

Now some would say this is too fuzzy an explanation of how changes occur and that the real problem between Europe and the United States is structural.  Only the structure of hard power  matters.  With the demise of the Soviet Union the bi-polar balance of power vanished and America became the world's only super power.  That meant the United States was the big kid on the block and the big kid on the block always engenders a certain amount of resentment as well as envy.  Therefore, one should expect a difficult time in United States/European relations. At the beginning of the last century, the British author W T Stead, was already warning about the Americanisation of the world. Similarly, in the mid 1970s majorities across Western Europe told pollsters they preferred an equal distribution of power between the United States and the USSR rather than American dominance.  For some Europeans today, particularly in France, restoring military multi-polarity is an important goal for the European Union.  These are the groups that Timothy Garton-Ash has called the Euro-Gaullists.  But unless European societies change in a manner that would support significant increases in military expenditures, (which I doubt),  and unless European politics changes in a way that accepts significantly more supranational integration, (which I doubt), military multi-polarity is an unlikely goal.  A more likely goal would be for Europe to try to balance America's economic and soft power and to use such power to encourage more multi-lateralism.  Multi-polarity may be a chimera, but  multi-lateralism is not.

Some of the new unilateralists in the United States dismiss the recent rise of anti-Americanism as simply the inevitable result of disparities in size and military power .  If European resentment is thus inevitable, then the only proper response is to shrug it off. I believe these people are mistaken in thinking that nothing could be done about structure or the effects of size.   After all, the United States was just as disproportionately large in the 1990s, but much more popular.  As Teddy Roosevelt noted a century ago, if you have a big stick, it is wise to speak softly.  Otherwise you undercut your soft power.  In short, it is true that America's size creates a necessity to lead, and it makes us a target for resentment as well as admiration.  Both the substance and style of our foreign policy can make a difference to our image of legitimacy and thus, to our soft power.

Some American sceptics  say a softer style will not work.  They say soft power is about attraction and popularity;  but popularity is ephemeral and should never be a guide to foreign policy.  The United States, in their view, can act without the world's applause.  We are the world's only super power and that fact is bound to engender envy and resentment.  Foreigners may grumble, but they have little choice but to follow.  Moreover, the United States has been unpopular in the past, yet managed to recover.  We don’t need permanent allies and institutions, we can always pick up a coalition of the willing when we need to.  As Donald Rumsfeld is wont to say "The issue should determine the coalition, not the coalition determine the issues."

But it is a mistake I believe, to dismiss the recent decline in our attractiveness so lightly.  It is true the United States has recovered from unpopular policies in the past, but that was against the backdrop of the Cold War in which European countries still feared the Soviet Union as a greater evil.  Moreover while America's size and association with disruptive tactics is real and unavoidable, wise policies can soften the sharp edges of that reality and that’s why the United States, after World War II, was able to use soft power resources and co-opt others into a set of alliances and institutions that lasted some sixty years.  When we think back on the model of the Cold War, the important thing to realise is that we won the Cold War through strategy of containment;  but containment was a combination of our hard military power's deterrent, and also our soft power, which ate away the confidence and belief of the Soviets and the East Europeans from behind the Iron Curtain.

I think the Bush administration's emphasis today on democracy in the Middle East has an insight that there is something of soft power in the promotion of democracy.  But unfortunately, the administration doesn’t want to be held back by institutional restraints and in that sense it advocates soft power that focuses only on the substance and not enough on the process.  The only way to achieve the type of transformation that the administration seeks is by working with others and avoiding the backlash that arises when we appear to be a unilateral, imperial power.  Democracy cannot be imposed in any reasonable time  by the use of force alone. It takes considerable time to root, and I think the administration's impatience with institutions and allies undercut its own objectives.  And that’s ironic because the United States is the country that has built some of the longest lasting alliances and institutions that the modern world has seen, and these were central to American power for more than half a century.

Let me turn now from American soft power in this United States/European coalition and look at European soft power, the other side of the coin.

Europe is the closest competitor to the United States in terms of soft power.  European art, music, literature, fashion, food, design are great cultural magnets for the world.  European languages are half of the world's most widely spoken languages.  Spanish and Portuguese link Iberia to Latin America, English is the language of the far flung commonwealth and there are nearly fifty Francophone countries that are held together by the French language.

No single European state, of course, can hope to compete with the United States in size, but Europe as a whole has an equivalent size and a somewhat larger population. The symbol of a uniting Europe itself carries a good deal of soft power.  The idea that war is now unthinkable among countries that fought bitterly for centuries, and that Europe has become an island of peace, paints a positive image in much of the rest of the world.  A measure of the EU's emerging soft power is the view that it is a positive force for solving global problems.  When you look at public opinion polls in the wake of the Iraq War, Central Europeans and Turks gave the EU higher marks than the United States for playing a positive role, not just on Iraq, but on a variety of issues ranging from fighting terrorism to reducing poverty to protecting the environment.  Despite the fact that many Central European leaders supported the United States led war, their publics felt that the EU plays a more positive role than the United States in a variety of trans-national issues.  Of course, Europe still faces a number of problems.  It is united on trade, increasingly on human rights and criminal laws, but foreign and defence policies are clearly separate as we saw in the divisions over Iraq.  In a sense, money and guns, the traditional high cards of hard state power, remain primarily with the member states.  Moreover, Europe has problems of bureaucratic obstacles and rigid labour markets and underlying demographic trends which may be unfavourable.  If nothing else changes by 2050, the median age in Europe will be 52 where it will be 35 in the United States.  That’s a problem which probably can’t be solved unless there is an acceptance of many more immigrants which itself raises a number of political problems.

On economic policies, however, Europe has a number of aspects which may be attractive to others.  The American economy is always a model for all.  Europe spends about half of its gross domestic product on various social and governmental purposes, while America spends about a third.  Social safety nets and unions are stronger here.  Many Europeans object to the price of inequality and insecurity that accompanies America's greater reliance on market forces.

Europe also derives soft power from its common policies.  Of course, not all such common policies are far sighted - I would think of the Common Agricultural Policy as a case in point – but on issues like global climate change, international law and human rights treaties, Europeans do appear to gain a good deal of soft power. In addition, the fact that they spend 70% of overseas development assistance, which is four times that of the United States, also helps.  Europeans are also more comfortable and adept than Americans in recent years at using multi-lateral institutions.  In part this reflects their experiences in the development of the European Union.   In part it also reflects self interest in seeking multi-lateral constraints on the world's only super power.  Whatever the reasons, in a world where unilateralism is heavily criticised, European propensity towards multi-lateralism makes their policies attractive to countries in other parts of the world.

Europeans use multi-lateral institutions to limit American soft power by depriving the United States of the legitimising effects of such support.  This was clearly the case when France and Germany deprived the United States of a second security council resolution before the Iraq War.  As a result the United States had to pay a higher price than necessary for the war both in soft power and in hard power in the policing and reconstruction of Iraq.  Europeans also invest more in public diplomacy.  Europeans have a longer tradition and spend more. Britain, for example,  spends about a billion dollars a year on exchanges and broadcasting - that’s about the same amount as the United States, though the United States is five times larger.  European soft power can be used as a counter to American soft power. Conversely, it can also be a source of assistance and reinforcement for American soft power in the struggle against terrorism.  It can increase the likelihood of America achieving its objectives.  Soft power is not something where one's gain is necessarily the other's loss.  It can be shared and used in co-operative fashion.  European promotion of democracy and human rights helps to advance shared values that are consistent with American objectives.  It is hard, indeed, to see success in the struggle against terrorism unless the United States and Europe work together in the Middle East.  Most, if not all, Europeans realise that multi-lateral diplomacy is possible even without a multi-polar military balance and would be willing to share their soft power with the United States if the United States would adopt a more co-operative approach in its own foreign policy.  In that sense, in part, the United States faces choices. European soft power could  help or hurt the United States, but it will depend in part on how the United States behaves.

Having looked at American soft power and European soft power  on both sides of the Atlantic, what are we likely to see in the future?  Two years ago Robert Kagan raised hackles with the clever quip that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus. But this provocative comment greatly over-simplified the differences.  It is too easy to state simply that Europeans recoil from force and the Americans favour it.  After all, Europeans joined in pressing for joint action militarily in Kosovo in 1999 despite the absence of a Security Council resolution. Even in the Iraq War, there were many Americans who preferred Venus and many Europeans who preferred Mars.  Nonetheless, the success of the European countries in creating an island of peace in place of the three Franco German wars that ripped the continent apart over  a century, may predispose them towards peaceful solutions. The EU is a truly historical accomplishment, but the EU is not alone.  In the world today,  the use of force is no longer an option in relations among states that we characterise as liberal democracies, and that description captures the central dynamic between the US and Canada and the United States and Japan as well as with the EU.  The existence of such islands of peace is evidence of the increasing importance of soft power when there are shared values about what constitutes acceptable behaviour among similar democratic states.  In that sense Kagan’s quip is inadequate, because in their relations with each other, all advanced liberal democracies are from Venus. But as Robert Cooper has reminded us, the relations among advanced democracies is only one of three important dimensions of the inter-state power dynamic.  Relations involving industrialising countries like China, India, Brazil and pre-industrial societies like Sierra Leone or Somalia are still the domain of balance of power and military force. Moreover, the threat of non-state actors and trans-national terrorism is a fourth domain where hard power remains crucial.

Sometimes, Europeans project outward upon this complex world their own internal conditions of peace based on the good order that prevails in Europe.  They turn a blind eye to the greatest threat that the advanced democracies face.  Just as we Americans need to pay more attention to  soft power in our strategies, Europeans need to pay more attention to their hard power.  But even if they do, and even if the NATO countries worked out a division of labour in various niches in various domains of hard power, the disproportion between Europe and the United States in the military area is likely to persist. That also should suggest there could be a beneficial division of labour in which Europe's soft power and America's hard power can combine in a good cop - bad cop routine.  Elements of this were seen in the early approaches to Iran's nuclear programme, but such a dynamic is only effective if both cops know that they are playing the same game and co-ordinate their strategies. All too often this coordination has been missing in recent years.

So let me conclude by saying that in the 20th Century Europeans, for the most part, perceived the United States as a relatively benevolent power.  It would be remiss to give an actual Ditchley lecture without quoting Winston Churchill, so I will point out that Winston Churchill once said "The best hope for the world lies in the strength, will and good judgment of the United States."  However, polls show that the confidence which stemmed from America’s combination of hard and soft power, now no longer exists.  Europeans today have no question about the strength of the United States, but they are increasingly critical of its judgment.  Now some analysts predict that the United States and Europe are on a  path to divorce and increasingly divisive relations.  I am not that pessimistic.  More family quarrels?  Yes, definitely.  Divorce?  No.  For one thing, the new threats of trans-national terrorism, will require us to co-operate.  The idea that one side or the other can free ride, can get away from this threat of terrorism, I think is an illusion. In the economic domain, notwithstanding trade disputes from time to time, it is striking how well integrated the Atlantic area is in capital markets and in direct foreign investment.  But perhaps most important, is that despite the divergence of values on some issues, there are no two parts of the world today which share deeper values.  Indeed when Kagan did a post-script to his book about Mars and Venus, he re-thought his argument and argued that as democratic polity, the United States requires legitimacy to sustain its foreign policies.  We cannot simply go it alone.  Contrary to the views of the new unilateralists that American democracy is self legitimising, public opinion polls in the United States show that, in fact, Americans turn to other democracies for approval, and many of those democracies are located in Europe.

So the final paradox of American power in the 21st century is that world politics is changing in a way that makes it impossible for the world's strongest military power since the days of Rome to deal with some of the most crucial threats that it faces by acting alone.  On many of today's key issues, international financial stability, drug trafficking, the spread of infectious diseases like SARS or HIV, but especially on trans-national terrorism, unilateral military power alone cannot produce success and sometimes, if used inappropriately, it can be counter productive.  I believe instead, that the United States has to co-operate with Europe and others to address these shared threats and challenges.  And, in that sense, America's continued success will depend on rediscovering what we learned in the cold war -- how to balance hard and soft power, not soft instead of hard, but soft and hard together.  To go back to Machiavelli, it is better to be feared than to be loved, but he also understood that  it is also much better to be both.  In that sense, when the United States rediscovers the ability to combine soft with hard power, then we will be, once again, what I call a smart power.


© The Ditchley Foundation, 2004.  All rights reserved.  Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to The Editor, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, CHIPPING NORTON, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.