Tuesday, November 27, 2007

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Soft power penetrates the Bush administration

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave an interesting talk a few days ago at Kansas State University.

It was unusual for two reasons. First, he was asking for greater budgetary and institutional support -- for other Cabinent departments:

[M]y message today is not about the defense budget or military power. My message is that if we are to meet the myriad challenges around the world in the coming decades, this country must strengthen other important elements of national power both institutionally and financially, and create the capability to integrate and apply all of the elements of national power to problems and challenges abroad. In short, based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former Director of CIA and now as Secretary of Defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use “soft” power and for better integrating it with “hard” power.

One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more – these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success. Accomplishing all of these tasks will be necessary to meet the diverse challenges I have described.

So, we must urgently devote time, energy, and thought to how we better organize ourselves to meet the international challenges of the present and the future – the world you students will inherit and lead....

during the 1990s, with the complicity of both the Congress and the White House, key instruments of America’s national power once again were allowed to wither or were abandoned. Most people are familiar with cutbacks in the military and intelligence – including sweeping reductions in manpower, nearly 40 percent in the active army, 30 percent in CIA’s clandestine services.

What is not as well-known, and arguably even more shortsighted, was the gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world – the “soft power,” which had been so important throughout the Cold War. The State Department froze the hiring of new Foreign Service officers for a period of time. The United States Agency for International Development saw deep staff cuts – its permanent staff dropping from a high of 15,000 during Vietnam to about 3,000 in the 1990s. And the U.S. Information Agency was abolished as an independent entity, split into pieces, and many of its capabilities folded into a small corner of the State Department....

What is clear to me is that there is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development. Secretary Rice addressed this need in a speech at Georgetown University nearly two years ago. We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military, beyond just our brave soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the coming years.

Now, I am well aware that having a sitting Secretary of Defense travel halfway across the country to make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies might fit into the category of “man bites dog” – or for some back in the Pentagon, “blasphemy.” It is certainly not an easy sell politically. And don’t get me wrong, I’ll be asking for yet more money for Defense next year.

Still, I hear all the time from the senior leadership of our Armed Forces about how important these civilian capabilities are. In fact, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen was Chief of Naval Operations, he once said he’d hand a part of his budget to the State Department “in a heartbeat,” assuming it was spent in the right place.

The second unusual quality was that Gates embraced an academic concept Joseph Nye's notion of "soft power." This is quite the turnaround -- a few years ago, Nye complained in Foreign Affairs about Gates' predecessor: "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld professes not even to understand the term."

It is interesting to see the head of one bureaucracy realize that his organization benefits from enhancing the capacities of a quasi-rival organization, and kudos to Gates for this kind of thinking.

On the "soft power" idea, I have just a smidgen of sympathy for Rumsfeld. Over the past half-decade, the hardworking staff here at danieldrezner.com has found this idea simltaneously beguiling and frustrating. However, as Nye defined the term initially -- getting others to want what you want -- he was talking primarily about non-state capabilities, such as culture and ideology.

Question to readers: can a government consciously generate soft power?

posted by Dan on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM


The United State can generate soft power. What is required is that our government reflect what is best in our country. Our elected officers and our adminstrative/executive officers should act out what we claim are our values. That does not mean waving flags and singing Yankee Doodle. It means not jumping ship when a more profitable one sails past. It means being honest about your sexual orientation and trusting people to understand. It means risk. I realize that is unlikely to happen, but to call it idealistic would be short-sighted.

posted by: bstr on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

I am from India and i have been living here for the last 7 years - i may have the perspective of an outsider that this strategy of soft power is supposedly meant for.

As some one who has turned more conservative over the years, my answer would - do not count on the Govt a whole lot - soft power is best demonstrated by people who are not even conscious that they are doing it - no American musician, actor, writer consciously tried to project a good image of America as far as i can see - people come to the conclusion that there must be something good about the country that it can offer freedom for such creativity to its citizens.

But to be fair, organizations like USAID should continue helping and working with people around the world who also believe in a free and opportunity filled society.

Another thing that people outside of this country have no exposure to is every day America - some thing that you are not going to get unless you live here. I think it would be terrific if more people came to know of how this country is still traditional in many ways or the huge middle class here - people with the same dreams and aspirations as millions of others outside this country.

America does have a reputation of being a "rich and spoiled country that is drunk with power" - something which can be countered if more people get know of what a normal, decent place most of America is. I am not sure if the Govt can do this or is upto it. Especially after the disastrous management of the Iraq war.

Heck the Govt cannot even convince most people living here that the surge has gone really well and it is something to cheer for !

posted by: NS on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

It sounds as if what Gates has adopted is the term, "soft power" rather than the academic concept, "soft power." Since from my point of view the concept has little value while the term by itself is inoffensive, I approve. Gates' specific points about rebuilding foreign policy agencies outside the Pentagon , which have been so badly treated during the last two administrations, are sound as well.

posted by: Zathras on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

Admiral Mike Mullen...once said he’d hand a part of his budget to the State Department “in a heartbeat,” assuming it was spent in the right place.

There's the rub. How do you know you're getting a good return on your investment? Diplomacy and foreign aid don't usually produce short term results, even at their most successful. That's how these programs got cut in the first place, they couldn't be easily defended in post-Cold War budget fights. The populists and isolationists haven't gone away, they'll continue to resist any increase in govt. spending for diplomacy or foreign aid.

posted by: kwo on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

In the academic sense, the answer is no. If you look at Nye's book, it seems quite clear to me that soft power occurs from people wanting the same things as you so as to meet their own desires or interests, that is, to suit their own purposes. Unless said people are unable to understand what will meet their needs or desires, there is no role for others in this process; soft power is nothing more than beneficial serendipity.

posted by: TMD on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

While I agree with Gates on the need to both reorganization and increase funding for the "soft" power agencies of the national government, the issue is more fundamental. It is both how and with what skills we as Americans engage the world. Too few of us spend time overseas, and even fewer are fluent in a foreign language and culture. For example, we all intellectually know that relations between China and the US is the critical, if not pivotal, nation-state relationship of the 21st century, yet how many K-16 students learn Mandarin or spend any time in China. In my state of Oregon, less than 1% of high school graduates have taken any Mandarin, less than 2% of the undergraduates at our three leading public universities take Mandarin, and for one recent year only 35 out of about 80,000 public university students studied abroad in China. And Oregon's figures may be better than the national averages. How can the US expect to have any "soft" power when we have this as an educational system?!!!

posted by: Dave Porter on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

It seems the federal goevernment has at least two tools to exercise soft power. First, as bstr wrote above, actions of the government can reflect the values that make the US universally attractive (such as clearly disavowing torture or effectively contributing humanitarian aid after disasters). Second, the government can do its best to stay out of the way in matters where transnational forces are assisting the spread of US soft power (by re-establishing the very sane system of accessible student visas and skilled worker visas or by instituting free trade measures).

I believe Gates addresses this reasonably well, particularly in reference to USAID and economic reconstruction. Transparent, fair markets and the rule of law are the US's two strongest idealogical exports and the state has a role in promoting them.

posted by: Brian O'Connor on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

Try this article by Robert Kaplan in today's Los Angeles Times:


"... There has been no magic-bullet solution in Colombia, no newsworthy technique that you could write about. It was just bread-and-butter, never-give-up, attrition-of-the-same. The Green Berets provided small-unit training that raised the combat ability of the Colombian military, making it more aggressive in hunting down the drug armies as well as more aware of human rights as a pivotal tool in counterinsurgency. Meanwhile, State Department aid came with an implicit proviso: The Colombian army should put more emphasis on medical, education and social programs to secure the goodwill of the inhabitants. ..."

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

The question of soft power relates to a capability the does not seem to exist. The US State Department would have identified this need long ago if it was really important.

Methinks that soft power is not important and should not be developed, unless it is needed by the State Department.

At a lower level soft power costs money and the business case to motivate such extravagant expense is non-existing as yet.

posted by: Johan Theron on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

A government can't create wealth; at most, it can foster the conditions that lead to its creation. It can sure as hell destroy wealth, though. I think the situation with soft power is similar.

posted by: Mike on 11.27.07 at 11:18 PM [permalink]

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