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Review by Howard Cincotta

The Future of Power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., PublicAffairs/Perseus Book Group: New York, ISBN 978-1-58648-891-8 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-58648-892-5 (electronic), 2011, 300 pp., $11.55 paperback, approx. $10.50 Kindle/Nook editions.

Joseph Nye, now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, originated the term, if not the concept of “soft power,” and he has been writing extensively on the subject ever since. In The Future of Power, however, he doesn’t try to cross any new conceptual frontiers. Instead, he offers a lucid summary of his thinking on the “sources and trajectory of American power,” including distinctions of between hard and soft power, the changing nature of power in the modern world, and inevitably, whether power is something the United States now finds itself running short of.

In many ways, power feels like a blunt instrument: it seems pretty easy to recognize when it gets used, whether for or against us. Yet, as Nye demonstrates, power is inherently relational and contingent, and for this reason, remarkably hard to pin down. “A policy-oriented concept of power depends upon a specified context to tell us who gets what, how, where, and when,” Nye writes. It is an observation that, not coincidently, parallels Harold Lasswell’s classic definition of politics.

Hard power is push, in Nye’s formulation; soft power is pull. In a kind of Hegelian dialectic, he offers up the concept of smart power as “the combination of the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction.”

Nye identifies the “three faces” of power: “commanding change, controlling agendas, and establishing preferences.” The first entails coercion, and aligns most closely with the popular conception of power as the ability to bend others to our will. The second face is more cooption than coercion – determining what issues are either on or off the table, and therefore even legitimate topics for discussion. The third face of power is the least visible – the ability to shape an individual’s or group’s beliefs and outlooks without any apparent outside pressure or direction at all.

After examining military, economic, and soft power – and the ways in which their boundaries blur and overlap – Nye looks at how the nature of power has changed in the modern world. He emphasizes that a chief characteristic of our networked, globalized, cyber-spaced world is not a diminution of state power so much as a diffusion of power in which nation states must share a far more crowded stage with the proliferation of NGOs, global corporations, social media, and Internet-empowered groups and individuals whose interests range from human rights and the arts to terrorism.

The power game continues, Nye stresses, even if it has become much more complicated, especially with the new dimension of social media. Nevertheless, states will continue to be dominant players in the international arena. Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to bring regime change to Syria or Iran, nor will Google be permitted to deliver uncensored information to the Chinese people. Still, these governments can’t afford to dismiss the networking and information power that these services represent.

Nye dismisses much of the simplistic talk about the decline of American power as confusing two very different phenomena: an absolute decline in power, and a decline relative to a new rising generation of states. He then offers judicious assessments of the strengths and vulnerabilities of the BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China – plus Japan and the United States. His conclusion: “Describing power transition in the twenty-first century as an issue of American decline is inaccurate and misleading.”

Nye concludes with a set of “State Smart Power Strategies” that reject the unilateralism of the Bush Administration for “successful strategies in the new context of power diffusion and the ‘rise of the rest.’”

We are a great power, Nye observes. Now it’s time to be a smart one as well.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Howard Cincotta
Howard Cincotta

Howard Cincotta was a writer and editor with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) for more than 30 years. He worked on USIA magazines for Africa and the former Soviet Union and headed a special publications office that produced a wide range of print materials for international distribution. Cincotta later directed electronic media operations for USIA and IIP and has continued to write feature articles and speeches for the State Department.

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