From Hardwar to Softwar

The importance of 'soft power,' the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment and the focus of Joseph S. Nye's comprehensive study, is not sufficiently recognized here today.

"Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics" by Joseph S. Nye Jr., Public Affairs, 191 pages, $15.75

This is an important book for American policy, but it also carries an indispensable message for Israel: Soft power, which creates a positive image in people's minds and generates support, is not a "luxury." It is a crucial component in coping with a world that is growing more complex and increasingly dangerous.

The author distinguishes between three levels of power, i.e., one's capacity to influence the behavior of others to further one's objectives: hard power, primarily military; economic power; and soft power. Soft power, he writes, "is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideas and policies." America's soft power lies, for example, in the value it places on individual liberty and democracy, its scientific and technological prowess, the attraction of American movies, the urge to imitate American pop stars and TV shows, and so on.

The effectiveness of soft power depends on the population involved. American television programs that enjoy high ratings in Europe and parts of Asia arouse contempt among many Muslims, who see them as evidence of America's immorality. Nevertheless, Nye's basic premise is that it is not enough for the United States to be a military superpower. America needs the cooperation of the international community and other countries to defend its vital interests, one of which is the war on terror. Winning such cooperation depends on respect for America and its policies, i.e., its soft power.

The metaphor the author uses is a three-dimensional chess game: military power on the top, economic power in the middle and soft power at the bottom. "If you are in a three-dimensional game," he writes, "you will lose if you focus only on one board and fail to notice the other boards and the vertical connections among them." The game must be played both horizontally and vertically, while grasping the complex relationships and developing a multidimensional strategy.

Nye discusses the major features of soft power in modern times: its cultivation by private bodies and social institutions due to being outside the government realm; the rising importance of nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontiers in the global arena; the need for long-range thinking because soft power takes time to develop; the impotence of stand-alone information campaigns; new forms of soft power utilizing the media and Internet; the importance of policy "style" as opposed to content; the influence of public opinion on the policy of democratic countries, even if "popularity" is not a proper criteria in foreign policy; the importance of listening to others and understanding their mindset as a prerequisite for building up soft power and using it effectively; and more.

Minor flaws

While there is nothing groundbreaking in the idea of power as influence (and the author acknowledges this), Nye offers a comprehensive study of this key concept, which has been brought back to the center of political discourse through his coinage of the term "soft power."

Nevertheless, it is doubtful that his distinction between military, economic and soft power conveys the complexity of "power" in full, when it comes to such matters as political influence (of the kind in which American Jewry excels), the stamina of the masses and decision making. Nye's discussion of economic power might have gone deeper, and his observations on the Middle East ignore the basic question of just how much democracy can be injected into the region in the foreseeable future. Yet these are minor flaws that do not detract from the cardinal importance of the book, especially for Israel.

Despite improvements in the way Israel sells itself, the importance of soft power is not sufficiently recognized here today. The decision not to appear before the International Court in the Hague to defend itself on the issue of the security fence is a glaring example of this. Regardless of whether Israel's appearance would have influenced the court's opinion, its absence displayed scorn for the court and harmed the country's image in many parts of the world - not to mention the loss of an important opportunity to explain its position to a global audience. The fact that the U.S. does not recognize the authority of the International Court does not justify Israel's actions. Not everything that America can afford to do is right for Israel.

The author concludes with the observation that "America's success will depend upon developing a deeper understanding of the role of soft power and developing a better balance of hard and soft power in our foreign policy. That will be smart power." This recommendation applies with even greater force to Israel. Soft power here is sorely underdeveloped, largely because it is dismissed as unimportant. What Israel needs is multidimensional statesmanship that recognizes the value of soft power, in combination with other sources of Jewish strength. Nye's book goes a long way in making us aware of this need and in outlining what can be done to fill the void.

Prof. Yehezkel Dror teaches political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.