'Soft power' is a powerful force for change

According to Prof. Joseph Nye, the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, “Everybody knows that America is the most powerful country in the world. But power isn’t just about weapon systems or Wall Street. It is also about ideas, ideals and even entertainment.”

He declared that our nation’s leaders need to understand that one of our greatest foreign policy resources is “soft power.”

Nye explained that military and economic clout may make others do what we want, but soft power enables America to achieve its goals through attraction, not coercion. He pointed out that people around the world are attracted by the values we profess to live by, such as our commitment to democracy and human rights.

Another source of soft power is our system of higher education, Nye said. More than a million foreign students flock here every year to study at American colleges and universities, taking home with them not just knowledge and marketable skills but also greater understanding of the values we cherish.

Many leaders of countries that officially condemn everything American also send their children here to be educated. Those parents range from the leaders of Communist China to Somali warlords.

American culture, for better or worse, is another source of soft power. American movies, music, television and the internet are dominant forces in popular culture all over the world. Iran’s religious leaders call these the essence of “Great Satan,” yet masses of average Iranians risk punishment by using them.

Soft power also works through international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, NATO and the Inter-America Rights Commission. They enhance our soft power to an extent that they shape the agenda of choices for other countries in ways that are compatible with our interest.

Professor Nye emphasized that the United States has emerged as the world’s sole superpower, with unmatched military power, great economic wealth and dominance in technology. Thus, he said it is more important than ever to rely on soft power rather than coercion to pursue our goals.

The world-renowned German foreign policy expert Josef Joffe postulated that historically, “When one country is predominant, the desire of others to balance its power leads them to team up against it.”

He argues that this hasn’t happened yet in respect to the United States because most countries in the world see America not as a threat, but as an attraction.

Indeed, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has been a most reluctant participant in military intervention around the world. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan were not fueled by imperial, expansionist desires. They were political miscalculations to be reversed.

The United States has a long established record of foreign aid to countries in need. I remember after World War II, it was American aid in the form of UNRA packages and trainloads of foodstuff that kept us fed in war-torn Czechoslovakia. Even decades of Communist propaganda couldn’t erase the memory of American generosity from the minds of people there.

The promotion of democracy and the rule of law worldwide, but especially in Russia and China, are essential to securing a peaceful world. In a global economy, no country is isolated from events occurring even in distant parts of the world. Environmental disasters, the contamination of air and water, or the spread of deadly viruses do not stop at borders.

While most Americans don’t want to see their country become the world’s policeman, the majority of our citizens understand that America inherited the mantle of world leadership and in the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, America is the “indispensable” country in the world.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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