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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Strength of Soft Power

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Power is the ability to influence others to get what you want. There are ultimately three main ways for a nation to wield power: by using or threatening force; by inducing compliance with rewards; or by using "soft power" -- attracting followers through the strength of a country's values and culture, and the inclusiveness of its policies. When a country can induce others to follow by employing soft power, it saves a lot of carrots and sticks.

American soft power has diminished in recent years, particularly in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. Polls showed dramatic declines in the popularity of the United States, even in countries such as Britain, Italy and Spain, whose governments had supported the United States. America's standing plummeted in Islamic countries around the world. Yet the cooperation of these countries is essential if the United States and other countries such as Russia are to succeed in a long-term struggle against terrorism.

The United States went to war in Iraq for three major reasons. The first was to prevent Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction. Postwar inspectors concluded that although Hussein had the knowledge and intentions to acquire such weapons, the threat was not imminent. The second reason was the belief that Hussein was supporting al-Qaida, but intelligence agencies concluded that while there may have been some contacts, it is unlikely the Iraqi regime supported the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. More importantly, the war has proven to be a major source of recruitment for al-Qaida, not only in Iraq, but throughout the Islamic world.

The third reason for the war was to transform the Middle East. Spearheaded by the United States, regime change and democracy in Iraq would solve the Middle East's larger problems. The roots of terrorism were seen as growing out of the undemocratic nature of the regimes in the region. As the first two arguments were diminished, George W. Bush's administration put more emphasis on the third. While three elections in Iraq are encouraging, it is still too early to judge the merits of this argument. A full assessment of the Iraq war and its effects on the "war on terrorism" will take a decade or more. At this time, the invasion of Iraq created an insurgency that has become worse. The presence of foreign troops creates a stimulus for nationalist and jihadist responses.

Traditional world politics was typically about whose military wins. But politics in an information age is equally about whose story wins. This is particularly true in the struggle against transnational terrorism. A Pentagon advisory committee has reported that the United States is being outflanked in that "war of information."

Soft power skeptics say not to worry -- popularity is ephemeral and should not guide foreign policy in any case. Some go further and say that anti-Americanism is an inevitable reaction to America's size as the world's only superpower after the decline of the Soviet Union. The United States is the big kid on the block, and its disproportionate military power is bound to engender a mixture of admiration, envy and resentment. But those who dismiss the recent rise of anti-Americanism as simply the inevitable result of America's size are mistaken in thinking nothing can be done about it. The United States was even more preeminent at the end of World War II than it is today, but it pursued policies that were acclaimed by allied countries. Similarly, American leadership was welcomed by many at the end of the Cold War, even though no country could balance American power. But it also paid more attention to multilateralism, alliances and international institutions. It matters if the big kid on the block is seen by the others as a friend or as a bully.

It is a mistake to dismiss the recent decline in U.S. soft power so lightly. It is true that the United States has recovered from unpopular policies in the past, as in the years following the Vietnam War. But that was during the Cold War, in which some countries still feared the Soviet Union as the greater threat. Failure to attend to soft power can undercut hard military power. The widespread international perception that the United States was determined to go to war in Iraq regardless of the views of other countries has forced the United States to shoulder more of the burden of policing and reconstructing Iraq. Contrast that with the Persian Gulf War of 1991, when allies paid for most of the reconstruction of Kuwait.

It is in this context that the United States finds itself engaged in a war of ideas for the hearts and minds of moderate Arabs. To overcome its current disadvantages and win that war, the United States will have to become far more adept at wielding soft power throughout the Muslim world.

American efforts since Sept. 11 have fallen short, though the Bush administration seems to be taking soft power more seriously in its second term. The United States spent a paltry $150 million on public diplomacy in Muslim countries in 2002. The combined cost of the State Department's public diplomacy programs including international broadcasting that year was just over $1 billion -- about the same amount spent by Britain or France, countries one-fifth the size. It is also equal to one-quarter of 1 percent of the military budget. The United States currently spends 450 times as much on hard power as on soft power. If it spent just 1 percent of the military budget, it would mean quadrupling the spending on soft power.

If the United States is going to win its struggle against transnational terrorism, its leaders are going to have to do a better job of aligning its values with foreign policies. It will need to seek a political solution in Iraq, promote the Middle East peace process, and pay more attention to allies and international institutions. Then it will be in a position to combine soft power with hard power.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is distinguished service professor at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics" and "The Power Game: A Washington Novel."