Soft power is a term first coined by Joseph Nye, professor of international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. At its essence, soft power is the ability to shape the preference of others to get the outcomes you want through attraction and co-option, rather than through threats, payments or coercion.
In 2006, the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington convened a bipartisan, high-level Commission on Smart Power chaired by Professor Nye and Richard Armitage, to "develop a blueprint for revitalizing American's inspirational leadership."
“America must revitalize its ability to inspire and persuade rather than merely rely upon its military might. Despite the predominance of U.S. hard power, there are limits to its effectiveness in addressing the main foreign policy challenges facing America today. Many of the traditional instruments of soft power, such as public engagement and diplomacy, have been neglected and fallen into disrepair.”
The Commission’s report, released in November of 2007, concluded that
“The United States must become a smarter power by once again investing in the global good - providing things people and governments in all quarters of the world want but cannot attain in the absence of American leadership. By complementing U.S. military and economic might with greater investments in soft power, America can build the framework it needs to tackle tough global challenges.”
The report’s release coincided with the onset of the financial crisis that has since engulfed the world, which significantly raised the stakes for the soft power leadership that the US, as the world’s largest economy must now provide to help resolve the global financial crisis as expeditiously as possible. In particular, effective leadership is critical to avoid the kinds of trade wars and global unrest that resulted from the Great Depression in the 1930s and ultimately led to World War II.
Given this backdrop, I have been intently watching President Barack Obama in action during his recent trip to Europe, first to London to attend the G-20 summit, followed by visits to France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Turkey. His formal speeches were very good, as they usually are, but what I found particularly compelling from a smart power point of view were his more informal interactions in press conferences and town hall meetings.
As I reflect on the qualities that, in my opinion, make President Obama the kind of smart, global leader that the CSIS report called for, three in particular come to mind: confidence, trustworthiness, and humility. Let me elaborate.
The President has inherited a set of huge, near impossible problems, starting with the economic crises that if not properly handled could lead to depressions in the US and the rest of the world. Other massive problems in need of urgent attention are not far behind, among them energy and the environment, health care, and reforming the international financial infrastructure.
Such problems cannot possibly be attacked in any kind of hierarchic, top-down manner. No one really knows what will work and what will not, and even if you thought you knew, changing the attitudes and behaviors of millions of people is near impossible to accomplish. All an effective leader can realistically do is create the right conditions and incentives so that people begin to make the necessary adjustments and transformation on their own.
But the most important job of a leader, especially while in the middle of the crisis we find ourselves in, is to impart confidence that if we all do the right things, the problems can indeed be solved. A leader needs to convince people that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself and thus urge them to be positive about the future, help figure out what needs to be done, and start moving forward. That is what we saw the President doing over and over during his European trip. For example,
“We must renew our institutions, our alliances. We must seek the solutions to the challenges of this young century. This is our generation. This is our time. And I am confident that we can meet any challenge as long as we are together,” the President urged the young people attending the Strasbourg Town Hall.
“I am absolutely confident that this meeting will reflect enormous consensus about the need to work in concert to deal with these problems. I think that the separation between the various parties involved has been vastly overstated,” he said about the G-20 summit during his London press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
But being positive and confident is not enough. A leader must be believable in order to generate the kind of trust needed for people to follow his calls to action. There must be substance behind his words, otherwise they will just sound like empty rhetoric. He must be realistic about the magnitude of the problems we all face, and explain in simple language what he believes must be done to address them.
In the last several weeks, the President has been on television with unusual frequency, personally explaining his various programs to address the crises in the banking and automobile industries, the plans for reforming health care and education, as well as the stimulus package for the economy. Some have been saying that the President is being too cool and detached as he calmly explains his various initiatives to the nation. They want outrage and drama, and complain that the President is acting more like a professor having a rational dialogue with intelligent students than a politician selling his programs.
In Europe, the President has been candid about the challenges we face and the need for coordinated action. At the Strasbourg town hall, for example, he explained why helping poorer countries was very much in the interests of the more developed economies:
“Over the long term, though, we've got to have a strategy that recognizes that the interest of the developed world in feeding the hungry, in educating children, that that's not just charity; it's in our interest. There's not a direct correlation between poverty and violence and conflict and terrorism. But I can tell you that if children have no education whatsoever, if young men are standing idle each and every day, and feel completely detached and completely removed from the modern world, they are more likely, they are more susceptible to ideologies that appeal to violence and destruction.”
“If you have no health facilities whatsoever in countries in Africa, these days a pandemic can get on a plane and be in Strasbourg or New York City or Chicago overnight. So we better think about making sure that there are basic public health facilities and public health infrastructure in those countries, because we can't shield ourselves from these problems. So that means developed countries have to increase aid, but it also means that the countries who are receiving aid have to use it wisely.”
The last major smart leadership quality I want to comment on is humility, - that is acknowledging the enormous complexity of the problems we face, and the need to work together and learn from each other. At every stop in his European trip, the President repeatedly said that he was there to listen and learn, not to lecture others. During the student roundtable in Turkey, he answered a question by saying:
“ . . . I think the most important thing to start with is dialogue. When you have a chance to meet people from other cultures and other countries, and you listen to them and you find out that, even though you may speak a different language or you may have a different religious faith, it turns out that you care about your family, you have your same hopes about being able to have a career that is useful to the society, you hope that you can raise a family of your own, and that your children will be healthy and have a good education -- that all those things that human beings all around the world share are more important than the things that are different.”
At this early point in his administration, none of us can tell what kind of a leader President Obama will ultimately turn out to be. Given the complex and unpredictable problems we all face, we badly need world leaders who are comfortable and effective with the practice of smart power, so they can help us build the kind of globally collaborative society that we so urgently need in the 21st Century. Let us all hope that Barack Obama will turn out to be just such a leader.