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Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. By Joseph S. Nye, Jr. (New York: Public Affairs, 2004. Pp. xvi, 191. $25 cloth.)

Review by James L. Abrahamson

Nye… argues that the new age of global information and the rise of terrorism… have changed the nature of international power and increased the importance of soft as opposed to hard power. …he encourages the United States to enhance its soft power by ensuring the consistency of its foreign policies and domestic values… [and] by proceeding multilaterally-especially through the United Nations.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and once assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, claims to have introduced the concept of “soft power” in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead and later used the term in The Paradox of American Power (2001). At the urging of friends and critics, and apparently influenced by the present struggle in Iraq, Nye undertook in this present volume to develop the concept fully.

Though critics, he says, have “often misused and trivialized” soft power as no more than “the influence of Coca-Cola, Hollywood, blue jeans, and money” on world public opinion, Nye defines the term as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”-hard power. Whereas the latter two methods of obtaining international cooperation derive from a state’s military and economic strength, a nation’s soft power, Nye writes, “arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”

In the book’s first three chapters, Nye describes the sources of soft power, assesses the extent to which states possess it, and explains why soft power is not uniform in its influence. America’s wealth, culture, political values, music, movies, and dress may, for example, enhance its influence in the developed world even as they inspire fear, hatred, and contempt amongst Muslims. The influence of America’s soft power is also weakened, Nye maintains, when its foreign or domestic policies conflict with its professed values. During the early Cold War, for instance, the practice of racial segregation cast doubt on America’s commitment to democracy and human rights, otherwise attractive attributes.

Nye also argues that the new age of global information and the rise of terrorism-what he calls the privatization of war-have changed the nature of international power and increased the importance of soft as opposed to hard power. As culture and values are slow to change, he encourages his country to enhance its soft power by ensuring the consistency of its foreign policies and domestic values, legitimizing its policies by proceeding multilaterally-especially through the United Nations-and giving careful attention to diplomatic style, lest sound policies be weakened by offensive implementation. Ignoring those cautions, Nye claims, is among the principal reasons that the United States failed to build a larger coalition for the invasion of Iraq and is not now receiving less assistance there than might have been offered.

Nye’s study of soft power is a good read, gracefully written and filled with clever commentary on events familiar to most educated Americans. Though insightful, his presentation is hedged, some might say nuanced, to the point of contradiction. Served by economists who answered questions with “on the one hand, but on the other hand” responses, President Truman reportedly dealt with equivocal economic advice by asking aides to find him a one-handed economist. Soft Power readers may wish for a one-handed political scientist because Nye’s analysis of the role of soft power is, well, soft.

More important, Nye does not really deliver on the assertion of his book’s subtitle, which described soft power as “The Means to Success in World Politics.” Though writing with Iraq very evidently in mind, Nye fell short of convincingly demonstrating that a change in diplomatic style (less Texas swagger? Less determination?) would have brought France, Germany, and Russia to America’s side. Skeptical readers may well think that all the soft-power and the soft-soap in the world would not have brought that trio to support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime.

Nye’s implication that soft power would have been decisive-short of the U. S. abandoning its policy-requires readers to believe that leaders of major nations act out of pique. Surely their actions stemmed from the belief that maintaining Iraq’s and the Mideast’s deplorable status quo best served their nation’s interests, which might have included withholding support as a means to put the United States to great cost, undermine its reputation, and thereby restrain its future use of power.

That is not to say that soft power is never useful. At its best, however, Nye’s argument suggests only that soft power can contribute to success, is perhaps one means of success in some instances, but is hardly ever the means, as his subtitle maintains.

In an effort to increase its soft power should the United States, when opposed by leading members of the international community, abandon policies that serve its national interest? Nye’s fourth chapter, “Wielding Soft Power” and an otherwise useful description of the history and practice of public diplomacy, implies that it should. Nye is right to urge the United States to increase cultural exchanges, encourage foreign students to attend American universities, improve its public diplomacy, and ensure its policies reflect its values. In this new era, American leaders might also wisely seek “a deeper understanding of the role of soft power” and perhaps even “a better balance of hard and soft power.” If soft power fails to prove decisive in winning multilateral support, the question still hangs in the air: must Washington abandon policies unpopular with several key states? Abandoning policies essential to U. S. national interests, if that is what Nye wishes to imply, strikes this reader as less the road to success than a weak rationalization of failure.

Nye’s book is nevertheless a worthwhile read for diplomats and policymakers. Most readers will probably be convinced that America could better cultivate and employ its soft power and improve and skillfully target its public diplomacy. Who would disagree that before acting unilaterally, Washington should seek cooperation, and within limits, be patient and respectful of the dignity of other nations and leaders. (Europeans, take note: that includes your treatment of American presidents.) Nye has failed, if such was his well hedged intent, to convince this reader to expect soft power to be decisive, and, especially, to seek soft power at the expense of a necessary or worthy, if unpopular, policy. Nor should the U. S. woo global opinion by ratifying bad treaties. Above all, Americans should not expect soft power and public diplomacy to sell the virtues of democracy to Osama bin Laden or leaders of the Arab world’s twenty-one despotic governments.

ISBN: 1586483064

Dr. James L. Abrahamson, a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is a retired Army colonel who previously taught history and government at the U. S. Military Academy, the Army War College, and Campbell University. The author of works on military reform, the impact of war on society, and the coming of the Civil War, his most recent book is Vanguard of American Atomic Deterrence: The Sandia Pioneers1946-1949(2002).


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