Leveraging U.S. ‘soft power’

The United States continues to invest in the deployment of soft power measures against hostile states. This Cold War instrument is now central to U.S. strategy in the Middle East, particularly regarding relations with Iran.

“Soft power” is the obverse of “hard power” (military and other forms of coercive power such as economic or trade sanctions) in that it is non-coercive and aims to enhance the appeal of those employing it to its recipients. In the panoply of modern U.S. defenses, soft power measures are relatively small — measured in terms of expenditure or personnel — but certainly not trivial and ideologically of the greatest importance. Above all, soft power is intended to be a positive instrument: It aims to make the attractiveness of the U.S. and the values it embodies the basis of winning over adversaries, especially the citizens of hostile states.

U.S. policy tool. The long-term effectiveness of deploying soft power against hostile states is difficult to assess. However, the substantial budget increase last year for soft power measures against Iran — from under $10 million to $75 million — expresses a major commitment to this approach. Overall, Washington spends nearly $1.5 billion on this sort of public diplomacy each year. Historically, the U.S. government has sought to leverage soft power in two broad ways:

Propaganda. Propaganda machinery was established during World War I and peopled with former advertising executives and university academics, whose work consisted principally in persuading others of the rightness of U.S. policy. This system evolved into the sophisticated mixture of covert and overt government agencies now in place.

Cultural promotion. Washington also sought to promote U.S. cultural and other values among oppressed peoples during the Cold War decades. This frequently involved projecting the virtues of U.S. materialism, in an effort to enhance the appeal of Western lives based in free institutions. The old U.S. Information Agency, abolished 10 years after the end of the Cold War in 1999, played a crucial part, funding libraries, exhibitions, exchange programs and visiting speaker programs.

Making it work. Most major powers have sought to imbue values that they believed would lead subject or other peoples to accede to authority. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires famously tolerated considerable ethnic and religious diversity within their purviews as buttresses to their cultural influence and presence among those groups. There are several traditional instruments of soft power:

‘Universal values.’ Cultural values can sometimes become potent policy instruments when married with the claim that they embody principles with universal appeal. For Washington, the dominance of its popular values has made this dimension particularly significant. As globalization is closely associated with “Americanization,” the United States has been uniquely advantaged globally to leverage this asset.

Openness. An openness to outside influences, especially “world opinion,” is another way of exercising soft power, since it simultaneously demonstrates the need to be influenced and the willingness to be so influenced. U.S. sensitivity to charges of failing to uphold domestic civil rights is a case in point. Equally, failure to respond to external exhortations can damage soft power.

Modern public diplomacy. In modern parlance, Washington seeks to deploy soft power through “public diplomacy,” with the aim of:inculcating a positive view of the United States, and the values it represents; and counteracting the negative images of the United States that have proliferated and intensified over the last three years.

Administration program. The administration of President George Bush has assigned progressively higher importance to public diplomacy. Its policy has several different elements:
International broadcasting. Washington has made broadcasting “objective” radio and television reports into countries whose citizens are confined to state-controlled media a priority.
Foreign student visas. The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks led to a significant fall in the number of visas issued to foreign students wishing to study in the United States. However, foreign-student figures have now risen above the 2001 level. In 2007, Washington issued 591,000 foreign- and exchange-student visas, a new record.

Language exchange programs. Washington has sought to attract foreign language teachers and increase funding for U.S. students who wish to study languages abroad such as Farsi, Arabic and Chinese. Student participation in these schemes has risen from 27,000 in 2004 to 39,000 this year.

‘Rapid Response Unit.’ The United States has created a State Department unit responsible for monitoring foreign analyses and perceptions of the U.S. and its policies. This informational source provides daily data to thousands of senior federal officials.
Bureau of International Information. This state bureau maintains websites in six foreign languages as well as English, and attempts to counteract misinformation and negative characterizations of the United States or its policies.

Measuring effects. The 9/11 Commission recommended a significant expansion in Washington’s use of public diplomacy and soft power in the “war on terror,” and proposed targeted broadcasts to Arab and Muslim populations. However, the efficacy of these programs will only become apparent over the long term:

Countering negative public views and “anti-American” propaganda from domestic sources abroad is difficult — as the faltering effort to stimulate democracy and civil society activists in Iran indicates. Often such activists need to eschew unpopular U.S. connections to gain public legitimacy.

Most foreign publics have access to multiple media sources and are inclined to believe their favored outlets. Therefore, successfully getting Washington’s message across is difficult. Furthermore, Middle East populations are not generally as hostile to their own regimes as were many citizens of formerly Soviet-dominated countries.

Nevertheless, it would probably be counterproductive to reduce U.S. public diplomacy efforts, especially in the face of two positive trends:

While exchange programs involve relatively modest numbers of people, they have been proved to exert a positive effect on the attitudes of most participants — and their associates and family members — towards the United States. This clearly represents good value for money.

Public diplomacy is actively engaged in driving wedges between the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, who hold moderate views and abhor violence, and Islamist-inspired terrorists.

Benefits of ‘waging peace.’ One member of the administration has aptly characterized public diplomacy as “waging peace.” Terrorism may sometimes be defeated by military force, but this outcome often results in smoldering resentment that may fuel future conflict. Promoting and diffusing a positive image of Western society and its values, including but not limited to the United States, is obviously an integral part of any serious strategy for achieving peace and stability among both state and non-state actors.

Waging peace is a crucial element of long-term U.S. security efforts, for several reasons:

• It is fundamentally about self-belief in Western values and their intrinsic defensibility. These core principles happen also to be the mainstay of such international institutions as the U.N.’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights. This is the backbone of the ideological struggle now unfolding globally.

• Setting out why it is important to defend these values through the exercise of soft power is important for the citizens of the United States and other Western states, especially as the costs of hard power mount.

• Promoting soft power also provides a standard or touchstone within Western societies about what is and what is not permissible in that promotion. Proselytizing the appeal of a free Western state requires demonstrating that that such states are capable of policing and correcting encroachments by their own governments on such freedoms.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com.