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The Decline of
America’s Soft Power
Why Washington Should Worry

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Volume 83 • Number 3

The contents of Foreign Affairs are copyrighted.©2004 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Decline of
America’s Soft Power
Why Washington Should Worry

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Anti-Americanism has increased in and should simply accept that others will
recent years, and the United States’ soft envy and resent it. The world’s only super-
power—its ability to attract others by the power does not need permanent allies;
legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values the issues should determine the coalitions,
that underlie them—is in decline as a not vice-versa, according to Rumsfeld.
result. According to Gallup International But the recent decline in U.S. attractive-
polls, pluralities in 29 countries say that ness should not be so lightly dismissed. It
Washington’s policies have had a negative is true that the United States has recovered
eªect on their view of the United States. from unpopular policies in the past (such
A Eurobarometer poll found that a as those regarding the Vietnam War), but
majority of Europeans believes that that was often during the Cold War, when
Washington has hindered eªorts to fight other countries still feared the Soviet Union
global poverty, protect the environment, as the greater evil. It is also true that the
and maintain peace. Such attitudes United States’ sheer size and association
undercut soft power, reducing the ability with disruptive modernity make some re-
of the United States to achieve its goals sentment unavoidable today. But wise poli-
without resorting to coercion or payment. cies can reduce the antagonisms that these
Skeptics of soft power (Secretary of realities engender. Indeed, that is what
Defense Donald Rumsfeld professes not Washington achieved after World War II:
even to understand the term) claim that it used soft-power resources to draw others
popularity is ephemeral and should not into a system of alliances and institutions
guide foreign policy. The United States, that has lasted for 60 years. The Cold War
they assert, is strong enough to do as it was won with a strategy of containment that
wishes with or without the world’s approval used soft power along with hard power.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., is former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Dean of

Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is author of
Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

The Decline of America’s Soft Power
The United States cannot confront adopt policies that appeal to those mod-
the new threat of terrorism without the erates and use public diplomacy eªectively
cooperation of other countries. Of course, to communicate that appeal. Yet the
other governments will often cooperate world’s only superpower, and the leader
out of self-interest. But the extent of their in the information revolution, spends as
cooperation often depends on the attrac- little on public diplomacy as does France
tiveness of the United States. or the United Kingdom—and is all too
Soft power, therefore, is not just a mat- often outgunned in the propaganda war
ter of ephemeral popularity; it is a means by fundamentalists hiding in caves.
of obtaining outcomes the United States
wants. When Washington discounts the LOST SAVINGS
importance of its attractiveness abroad, With the end of the Cold War, soft power
it pays a steep price. When the United seemed expendable, and Americans
States becomes so unpopular that being became more interested in saving money
pro-American is a kiss of death in other than in investing in soft power. Between
countries’ domestic politics, foreign polit- 1989 and 1999, the budget of the United
ical leaders are unlikely to make helpful States Information Agency (usia) de-
concessions (witness the defiance of Chile, creased ten percent; resources for its
Mexico, and Turkey in March 2003). And mission in Indonesia, the world’s largest
when U.S. policies lose their legitimacy in Muslim nation, were cut in half. By the
the eyes of others, distrust grows, reduc- time it was taken over by the State De-
ing U.S. leverage in international aªairs. partment at the end of the decade, usia
Some hard-line skeptics might counter had only 6,715 employees (compared to
that, whatever its merits, soft power has 12,000 at its peak in the mid-1960s).
little importance in the current war During the Cold War, radio broadcasts
against terrorism; after all, Osama bin funded by Washington reached half the
Laden and his followers are repelled, not Soviet population and 70 to 80 percent
attracted, by American culture and val- of the population in Eastern Europe
ues. But this claim ignores the real metric every week; on the eve of the September
of success in the current war, articulated 11 attacks, a mere two percent of Arabs
in Rumsfeld’s now-famous memo that listened to the Voice of America (voa).
was leaked in February 2003: “Are we The annual number of academic and
capturing, killing or deterring and dis- cultural exchanges, meanwhile, dropped
suading more terrorists every day than from 45,000 in 1995 to 29,000 in 2001.
the madrassas and the radical clerics are Soft power had become so identified with
recruiting, training and deploying fighting the Cold War that few Americans
against us?” noticed that, with the advent of the in-
The current struggle against Islamist formation revolution, soft power was
terrorism is not a clash of civilizations; it becoming more important, not less.
is a contest closely tied to the civil war It took the September 11 attacks to
raging within Islamic civilization between remind the United States of this fact.
moderates and extremists. The United But although Washington has rediscov-
States and its allies will win only if they ered the need for public diplomacy, it

fore ign affairs . May / June 2004 [17]

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
has failed to master the complexities of more attractive than U.S. policies. Given
wielding soft power in an information such widespread (albeit ambivalent)
age. Some people in government now moderate views, there is still a chance of
concede that the abolition of usia was isolating the extremists.
a mistake, but there is no consensus on Democracy, however, cannot be imposed
whether to recreate it or to reorganize its by force. The outcome in Iraq will be of
functions, which were dispersed within crucial importance, but success will also
the State Department after the Clinton depend on policies that open regional
administration gave in to the demands economies, reduce bureaucratic controls,
of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The speed economic growth, improve educa-
board that oversees the voa, along with tional systems, and encourage the types
a number of specialized radio stations, of gradual political changes currently
has taken some useful steps—such as the taking place in small countries such as
establishment of Radio Sawa to broadcast Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco.
in Arabic, Radio Farda to broadcast in The development of intellectuals, social
Farsi, and the Arabic-language TV station groups, and, eventually, countries that
Al Hurra. The White House has created show that liberal democracy is not incon-
its own O⁄ce of Global Communications. sistent with Muslim culture will have a
But much more is needed, especially in beneficial eªect like that of Japan and
the Middle East. South Korea, which showed that democ-
Autocratic regimes in the Middle East racy could coexist with indigenous Asian
have eradicated their liberal opposition, values. But this demonstration eªect will
and radical Islamists are in most cases take time—and the skillful deployment
the only dissenters left. They feed on of soft-power resources by the United
anger toward corrupt regimes, opposition States in concert with other democracies,
to U.S. policies, and popular fears of nongovernmental organizations, and the
modernization. Liberal democracy, as United Nations.
they portray it, is full of corruption, sex,
and violence—an impression reinforced FIRST RESPONDERS
by American movies and television and In the wake of September 11, Americans
often exacerbated by the extreme state- were transfixed by the question “Why
ments of some especially virulent Chris- do they hate us?” But many in the Middle
tian preachers in the United States. East do not hate the United States. As
Nonetheless, the situation is not polls consistently show, many fear, mis-
hopeless. Although modernization and understand, and oppose U.S. policies, but
American values can be disruptive, they they nonetheless admire certain American
also bring education, jobs, better health values and aspects of American culture.
care, and a range of new opportunities. The world’s leader in communications,
Indeed, polls show that much of the however, has been inept at recognizing
Middle East craves the benefits of trade, and exploiting such opportunities.
globalization, and improved communica- In 2003, a bipartisan advisory group
tions. American technology is widely on public diplomacy for the Arab and
admired, and American culture is often Muslim world found that the United

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The Decline of America’s Soft Power
States was spending only $150 million on vision for Israelis and Palestinians, and
public diplomacy in majority-Muslim modernizing Arab economies.”
countries, including $25 million on out- Most important will be a long-term
reach programs. In the advisory group’s strategy, built around cultural and edu-
words, “to say that financial resources cational exchanges, to develop a richer,
are inadequate to the task is a gross more open civil society in Middle Eastern
understatement.” They recommended countries. To this end, the most eªective
appointing a new White House director spokespeople are not Americans but
of public diplomacy, building libraries and indigenous surrogates who understand
information centers, translating more American virtues and faults. Corporations,
Western books into Arabic, increasing foundations, universities, and other
the number of scholarships and visiting nongovernmental organizations—as well
fellowships, and training more Arabic as governments—can all help promote the
speakers and public relations specialists. development of open civil society. Cor-
The development of eªective public porations can oªer technology to mod-
diplomacy must include strategies for the ernize educational systems. Universities
short, medium, and long terms. In the can establish more exchange programs
short term, the United States will have to for students and faculty. Foundations
become more agile in responding to and can support institutions of American
explaining current events. New broad- studies and programs to enhance the
casting units such as Radio Sawa, which professionalism of journalists. Govern-
intersperses news with popular music, is a ments can support the teaching of English
step in the right direction, but Americans and finance student exchanges.
must also learn to work more eªectively In short, there are many strands to an
with Arab media outlets such as Al Jazeera. eªective long-term strategy for creating
In the medium term, U.S. policy- soft-power resources and the conditions
makers will have to develop a few key for democracy. Of course, even the best
strategic themes in order to better explain advertising cannot sell an unpopular
U.S. policies and “brand” the United product: a communications strategy
States as a democratic nation. The will not work if it cuts against the grain
charge that U.S. policies are indiªerent of policy. Public diplomacy will not be
to the destruction of Muslim lives, for eªective unless the style and substance
example, can be countered by pointing of U.S. policies are consistent with a
to U.S. interventions in Bosnia and broader democratic message.
Kosovo that saved Muslim lives, and
to assistance to Muslim countries for ANTE UP
fostering development and combating The United States’ most striking failure
aids. As Assistant Secretary of State for is the low priority and paucity of resources
Near Eastern Aªairs William Burns it has devoted to producing soft power.
has pointed out, democratic change must The combined cost of the State Depart-
be embedded in “a wider positive agenda ment’s public diplomacy programs and
for the region, alongside rebuilding U.S. international broadcasting is just
Iraq, achieving the president’s two-state over a billion dollars, about four percent

fore ign affairs . May / June 2004 [19]

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
of the nation’s international aªairs budget. messages, but also on two-way commu-
That total is about three percent of what nication that engages all sectors of society,
the United States spends on intelligence not just the government.
and a quarter of one percent of its military
budget. If Washington devoted just one IT GOES BOTH WAYS
percent of its military spending to public Above all, Americans will have to become
diplomacy—in the words of Newton more aware of cultural diªerences; an eªec-
Minow, former head of the Federal Com- tive approach requires less parochialism and
munications Commission, “one dollar to more sensitivity to perceptions abroad.
launch ideas for every 100 dollars we invest The first step, then, is changing atti-
to launch bombs”—it would mean almost tudes at home. Americans need a better
quadrupling the current budget. understanding of how U.S. policies appear
It is also important to establish more to others. Coverage of the rest of the world
policy coherence among the various dimen- by the U.S. media has declined dramati-
sions of public diplomacy, and to relate cally since the end of the Cold War.
them to other issues. The Association Training in foreign languages has lagged.
of International Educators reports that, Fewer scholars are taking up Fulbright
despite a declining share of the market visiting lectureships. Historian Richard
for international students, “the U.S. Pells notes “how distant we are from a
government seems to lack overall strategic time when American historians—driven
sense of why exchange is important. ... by a curiosity about the world beyond both
In this strategic vacuum, it is di⁄cult the academy and the United States—were
to counter the day-to-day obstacles that able to communicate with the public about
students encounter in trying to come here.” the issues, national and international, that
There is, for example, little coordination continue to aªect us all.”
of exchange policies and visa policies. As Wielding soft power is far less unilateral
the educator Victor Johnson noted, “while than employing hard power—a fact that
greater vigilance is certainly needed, this the United States has yet to recognize.
broad net is catching all kinds of people To communicate eªectively, Americans
who are no danger whatsoever.” By need- must first learn to listen.∂
lessly discouraging people from coming
to the United States, such policies under-
cut American soft power.
Public diplomacy needs greater support
from the White House. A recent Council
on Foreign Relations task force recom-
mended the creation of a “White House
Public Diplomacy Coordinating Structure,”
led by a presidential designee, and a
nonprofit “Corporation for Public Diplo-
macy” to help mobilize the private sector.
And ultimately, a successful strategy must
focus not only on broadcasting American

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