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American “Soft Power”: Allure and Confusion


This essay describes Dr. Ford’s recent article, “Soft on ‘Soft Power,’” which appears in the SAIS Review, vol. 32, no.1 (Winter-Spring 2012), at 89-111.  The article itself is available from the Review by clicking this link. NPF offers this abstract in order to pique readers’ interest and encourage them to read the full text.

My most recent article – in the current edition of the SAIS Review, which appeared on my doorstep yesterday afternoon – offers a critique of the fashionable Obama-era emphasis upon “soft power” as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.  In it, I argue that while “soft power” has some value both as an analytical construct and as a guide to policymaking, it is frequently misconceived and oversold.  Specifically, it is too often confused with mere impact upon the world, without reference to how effectively national leaders can manipulate their country’s “soft” interactions with others in support of policy ends.

When viewed through this prims of usability, I suggest that U.S. “soft power” stacks up much less well than is usually alleged vis-à-vis the ability of a Leninist soft power “competitor” such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to manipulate, if it wishes, most aspects of its multifaceted interactions with the outside world.  Making the situation worse, I suggest that the Obama Administration has fallen into the trap of putting faith in the supposedly transformative aspects of America’s “soft” impact at the expense of its willingness to employ those relatively few usable elements of “soft power” that actually are available to the leaders of a free and democratic society that by virtue of this very freedom can do little to twist and skew their country’s economic and socio-cultural interactions in the service of political and propaganda objectives.  The administration, I suggest, has thus relied upon “soft power” as a kind of magical balm for all sorts of policy problems, turning it from one potentially useful policy tool into a recipe for evading difficult choices.

Don’t get me wrong.  America’s “soft” impact upon the world is obvious and inescapable.  What is less clear, however, is how useful this “soft” impact is from the perspective of a U.S. policymaker.  How do we get actual power – tools that can be used in support of specific policy goals – out this mere impact?

It is one thing, after all, to posit – rightly or wrongly – that the appeal of American values, the model offered by our political system, the broad presence of U.S. brands overseas, and our pop cultural exports will somehow lead eventually to other countries making choices more congenial to us.   It is quite another to hold out reliance upon “soft power” as a means by which an American policymaker can actually accomplish any specific policy objective in the here and now.  To what extent is “soft power” actually something that our national leadership can use in a purposeful fashion to influence other countries and shape our international environment?  This question is, my article contends, central to the conception of “soft power,” in that it is this element of usefulness as a tool of national policy that distinguishes “soft power,” as power, from mere “impact.”

Impact is important, and may over the long term produce congenial results, but until that time comes, if and when it does, policymakers need policy tools – which is to say, they need to be able to manipulate their country’s socio-cultural, political, and economic impact in service of their goals.  That’s “soft” power.  And indeed some aspects of America’s impact are clearly manipulable in this fashion, but precisely because we are a free country it is not – and should not be – within the power of our national leaders to make every U.S. interaction with the world a supporting instrument for some kind of global information operations strategy coordinated in Washington.  Viewed through the lens of usability, much of what is usually spoken of as the elements of U.S. “soft power” – e.g., most of the behavior of our media, business, financial, and cultural sectors – isn’t really much by way of “power” at all.

The current U.S. administration certainly talks big about the virtues “soft power,” but when it comes to actually trying to use it – as opposed to simply placing one’s trust in vague notions of globalization-facilitated socio-economic convergence that will make everything come out alright whether or not one faces up to difficult policy trade-offs and actually exerts effort to bring about changes in the world – Washington is remarkably ambivalent.  One hears grandiose talk of “navigating by our values” and leveraging these values into “soft power,” but the Obama Administration has been strangely reticent about actually promoting those values overseas.  Indeed, President Obama himself has said that he sees nothing particularly exceptional about the very American values by which we are expected to “navigate” and which we are supposedly to model for others in the world.  (Everyone, we are told, believes themselves special.)  Could one imagine a more absurd foundation for ideational “soft power” projection than such politically-correct relativism?

Perhaps the most charitable thing that can be said about the administration’s approach is that it might conceivably represent such a profound faith in the power of our “values” that it isn’t seen as being really necessary to promote them at all.  (Perhaps they are expected simply to attract and persuade the world all by themselves, with everyone else’s good behavior self-assembling, as it were, in concentric circles as our self-absorbed virtue radiates outward.)  It would be wonderful were that the case, but it is not clear to me that taking such a passive approach to “soft power” is really exerting power at all – nor, certainly, is it really having a foreign policy.  It is just sitting back and hoping for the best.  Such an approach may sometimes work, but it doesn’t deserve much credit as a national strategy, and it is not clear what precisely is so “smart” about it.

Not everybody in the contemporary world, however, has such a passive approach to “soft power.”  Indeed, one can perhaps see in contemporary China the polar counterpoint to the Obama Administration’s lassitude.  Moreover, thanks to the extent to which the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still penetrates so much of Chinese society – being able to exert considerable control, when it wants to, over business, financial, media, and cultural institutions (the most significant of which are still actually run directly by the state and supervised by the Party anyway) – the modern PRC is conspicuous in the degree to which its system combines (a) the capacity to exert a real degree of purposive control over the facets of China’s social and political engagement with the outside world with (b) a notable willingness to use such tools in pursuit of national objectives.  When such a conjunction occurs in a country having the considerable (and still growing) economic weight of the modern PRC, “soft power” – in the sense of usability that I emphasize in my article – can be quite real indeed.

The article provides multiple examples of the “soft teeth” of Chinese power in the world – that is, the many ways in which the CCP Party-State can, when it wishes, flex the muscles of its still basically Leninist system of party cell organization and centralized political supervision in order to make almost any given aspect of the country’s interaction with the world serve its policy goals.  In all sorts of ways, in other words, the Party-State has a very real ability to translate “impact” into actual usable power.  Chinese Party leaders are these days generally content to exert an overall “steering” role, generally leaving it to government technocrats, military officers, and corporate leaders to manage day-to-day affairs without CCP micro-management.   Nonetheless, they have options that are simply unimaginable to the leaders of free societies, and the very unfreedom of their system permits a wide range of “soft power” interactions to be manipulated in support of CCP goals when needed.  This power is not always used, but it is almost always available.  (Shrewdly done, in fact, such power doesn’t have to be routinely exerted: the whole point is to establish a quiet system of normative expectations whereby those who wish to engage with the PRC quietly police themselves, with no need for heavy-handed official interference once the appropriate message has been conveyed.)

In sum, I argue that the Obama Administration has misread “soft power” in problematic ways.  As my comparison of U.S. and PRC “soft power” suggests, Washington seems to have mixed up impact and power, confusing the United States’ enormous global presence and visibility for the ability of U.S. leaders to leverage that presence toward policy ends.  Too often, it seems to have assumed that America’s mere existence and example will spontaneously drive favorable policy outcomes overseas that are favorable to us, without anyone in Washington actually having to work for it.

To some extent, this confusion seems to have led to some atrophy of the policymaking process, as well as neglect of the explicitly assertive aspects of “soft” policy promotion.  If simply relying upon the attraction of our “values” will produce a better world all by itself, for example, why go to the trouble of grappling with difficult policy trade-offs?   After all, if American values, moral authority, and overseas socio-cultural ubiquity will assure our success at the end of the day either way, there really are no difficult foreign and security policy-trade offs, and most of those that seem to present themselves can be dismissed as being unreal – representing only, in a favorite Obama phrase, “false choices.”  (How else besides foolishness, for instance, could one explain White House confidence that we can reassure global allies that our commitments to their security are stronger and more credible than ever, while at the same time slashing military and nuclear budgets and dramatically reducing our defense capabilities?)  Why, indeed, even go to the trouble of actively promoting our political values anyway?

Just how different these the concepts of impact and power actually are can be seen by how few points of influence the leaders of free-market democracies actually have in modulating their countries’ myriad points of contact with other states in a globalized world.   Possessing only a few such tools to begin with – and being surprisingly ambivalent about actually promoting American values – the Obama Administration has ended up saddled with both a weak theory of power and a disappointing record of practice.  (A case could even be made that notwithstanding its allure as the foreign policy tool most beloved of the Western liberal intelligentsia, “soft power” is in some respects at least as potent a weapon in the hands of Beijing’s modern experiment in “capitalism with Leninist characteristics” as it is for countries in which citizens enjoy genuine political and economic freedoms.)

To my eye, therefore, we should be wary of modern Washington’s politically-correct idealization of “soft” influence as a panacea for our country’s foreign policy and national security challenges, or as a rationalization for the relinquishment of “hard power” capabilities in an era in which officials are desperate for excuses not to spend money (or time and political capital) on more traditional elements of national power.  “Soft” approaches are surely worth something, but they have been worryingly oversold by the Obama Administration. As I conclude the article,

"Modern American foreign policy would stand on firmer ground if it overcame both its fashionable distaste for ‘hard power’ and its inexplicable skittishness about using those ‘soft power’ tools that really do seem to be feared by Market-Leninists, Islamist theocrats, and authoritarian despots alike: genuinely ‘navigating by our values,’ promoting the distinctively American ideals of multiparty democracy, checks and balances, constitutional rule of law, and political freedom for an informed and empowered citizenry."

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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