Soft Power

More

America rests on shared values rather than shared ethnicity. Anyone can become an American. Today, our openness makes us a “city upon a hill.” Jefferson’s idea that all men are created equal co-existed with slavery and segregation, but eventually the power of his idea proved their undoing. Open criticism strengthens us both at home and abroad. Democratic debate over values has helped drive our history.

Return to:

The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

American power in the world relies on these ideals of openness and critical debate. In the information age, success is not merely the result of whose army wins, but also of whose story wins. Hard military power is not enough. We need the soft power of attraction as well. Their successful combination is smart power. The current struggle against extremist Islamist violence is not a clash of civilizations, but a civil war within Islam. We cannot win unless the Muslim mainstream wins. While we need hard power to battle the extremists, we need the soft power to attract the hearts and minds of the mainstream.

During the Vietnam War, the United States was widely unpopular around the world, as it is now. Protesters filled the streets to demonstrate against our policies. The song they sang was not the communist “Internationale,” but “We Shall Overcome.” Yet despite unpopular government policies, our openness and self-criticism allowed the American idea to retain its appeal. A free press, independent courts, and a Congress willing to confront the executive branch can provide a similar measure of soft power today.

The greatest threat to the American idea is what we may do to it ourselves. Terrorism is like jujitsu: The small players win if they make the large player use his strength against himself. If we respond to terrorism by becoming less open—economically, socially, and politically—we lose. As George Kennan warned in 1946, at the start of the Cold War, the greatest danger that can befall us “is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In