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International Journalists Discuss Merits of Hard and Soft Power


The United States remains the preeminent military and economic power in the world. It can use this so-called “hard power” to impose change on other nations. But coercion has a downside. That’s why using “soft power” – or subtler means to influence other nations – is becoming an increasingly popular tool in international relations.

Joseph Nye, Originator of the Concept


Joseph Nye, a political science professor at Harvard University, first coined the term “soft power.” In his 1990 book, The Paradox of American Power, Nye wrote that no nation has ever had so much cultural, economic, and military power as the United States. And yet, he observes, no nation has ever been so interdependent with the rest of the world. Nye argues that maintaining “soft power” – that is, non-military power – is fundamental to global leadership. It includes the use of diplomacy, economic development, and education to bring about a desired change in ideas and values. Nye’s view is not unusual in academia, but its practice in real-world politics has been slow to gain favor. That is, until recently, when the concept found a new champion in U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

A German Perspective

German journalist Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says the change in thinking by the Bush administration is noteworthy. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Rueb notes –what he calls a “remarkable” move by the Secretary of Defense in asking for more money for the Department of State. He says Europeans are beginning to appreciate that the Bush White House really is changing. Rueb says while the U.S. image has been tarnished because of the Iraq war, it has not been destroyed. And, he says through the use of “soft power,” President Bush’s successor will have an opportunity to create a more positive image.

Matthias Rueb stresses that the importance of the United States in employing soft power, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, should not be underestimated. But he says the emerging democracies in the region still rely on U.S. military and economic might. And Rueb says that “hard power” is especially important in those countries that border an increasingly hostile Russia.

A Pakistani Perspective

Pakistani journalist Ayaz Gul in Islamabad says he thinks the United States needs to cultivate its soft power, especially in its war on terrorism. Gul notes that Pakistan’s current problems in its remote border regions are also causing insecurity in Afghanistan because these regions are considered safe-havens for the Taliban and al-Qaida. Gul says that Pakistan started using force in the tribal areas after 9/11 to overcome militants. But seven years later, he says, it is apparent that the use of brute force has created more enemies not only for Pakistan but also for the world in general.

Ayaz Gul says Pakistan’s new civilian government faces an enormous challenge in the tribal regions, one that begs for a different approach. Islamabad has been trying to convince the international community that, if its problems in the tribal areas are to be resolved, peace and security have to be established there and in Afghanistan. According to Gul, the most effective way to do that is through education, health, and jobs – that is, through “soft power.”

An Arab Perspective

By contrast, wielding “soft power” is a fairly new concept in the Arab world. So says Lebanese-American journalist Claude Salhami, international editor at United Press International (UPI). In Iraq, for example, Salhami says 30 years of dictatorial power under Saddam Hussein was followed by a military occupation. But Salhami suggests the “soft power” formula cannot flower unless there is “hard power” as a backup. Salhami recalls U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote: “Speak softly and carry a big stick!”

Salhami says the United States needs to do a better job of winning the hearts and minds of people in the Arab world. He notes many in the Middle East speak of liking America, while adding that they often don’t like the U.S. government. In Iran and Gaza, he says, people may call for “death to America,” but then will ask, “How can I get a green card? How can I go to college in the United States?”

A Question of Balance

The journalists agree that, while the United States must retain its hard power, it must also cultivate its soft power. And knowing when to use them requires a judicious balance.

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