Soft Power

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.

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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.”

Presented by

Joseph Nye

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard.

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