Power Play

How important is soft power to our nation's security?

"More than any other secretary of Defense," Robert Gates told the Notre Dame graduating class this spring, "I have been a strong advocate of soft power-of the critical importance of diplomacy and development as fundamental components of our foreign policy and national security."

During the past four years, Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. chairman Mike Mullen have often said that wars cannot be won by military force alone. They have argued that in Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. aid is required to help create the political institutions and economic opportunities that can produce a lasting peace.

Soft power, though, is more than diplomacy and development spending, as Harvard University Professor Joseph S. Nye observed at Government Executive's Excellence in Government Conference in May. It's a broader concept, encompassing a nation's standing in the world and the power of its narrative. By this broader measure, we have not always fared so well of late. Indeed, the idea that the United States is in decline has appeared in partisan discourse. "Many in Washington-including the president-are really arguing over how best to manage the decline of our nation," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, said in May.

But the United States is not in absolute decline. We're likely to remain the world's only military superpower throughout this century. The U.S. economy is still the largest. While China's gross domestic product is expected to exceed ours by 2016, its people will not live as well as ours for decades to come. Compared to some countries on some measures, we might be in relative decline, but we are still the world's leader.

Soft power can help keep us there. As Nye observes in a new book, The Future of Power (PublicAffairs, 2011), the strength of our narrative will earn us friends (or enemies) across the globe. To many we remain a shining city on a hill, with a vibrant culture and strong democratic values, the land of opportunity, a nation of immigrants, e pluribus unum. But others see us reflected in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq, and the killing of innocent civilians by pilotless drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Nye writes, al Jazeera and the era of virtually free communications technologies have afforded our enemies the power to shape our image in parts of the world.

At another recent Government Executive event, I asked Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, about the balance of soft power and hard power. He said the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami's devastation persuaded him to "codify this idea of proactive humanitarian assistance." Navy hospital ships have treated more than 500,000 patients all over the world during the past five years, he added. But Roughead also was careful to say the Navy's humanitarian efforts have "used the capabilities that we have designed for conflict, and because of the culture, the nature of our people who serve, we were able to take this fist of power and extend the soft hand of assistance to those who need it."

I asked Nye how much of a hit defense budgets could withstand as our current wars wind down. He talked of the need to recapitalize Air Force and Navy assets, and guessed that cuts would not exceed 15 percent. It's still a tough and hostile world, one in which nonstate actors like al Qaeda pose a substantial threat. "Make no mistake," Gates also told his Notre Dame audience, "the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power-the size, strength and global reach of the United States military."

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