Ausgabe 34/2009

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye on Hard and Soft Power 'It Is Pointless to Talk to Al-Qaida'

Harvard professor Joseph Nye talks to SPIEGEL about America's role in the world, the change of strategy under US President Barack Obama and how his concept of soft power can be used to solve tough conflicts.

SPIEGEL: Professor Nye, the Taliban are advancing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, North Korea has a nuclear bomb, Iran is developing one. Isn't it time for hard power, the use of military force?

Joseph Nye: Every American president has three options. He can use force -- in other words, hard power -- to assert his interests, he can invest money or he can lead by attraction. The latter I call soft power, the appeal of American cultural values. I have never argued that the so-called hard-power instruments of a superpower -- the military, the intelligence services or economic sanctions -- can be replaced. It is all about the right mix of hard and soft power.

SPIEGEL: And right now military force would be more effective?

Nye: It is, of course, pointless to talk to al-Qaida. Their leaders cannot be attracted by American values. But the young people that Osama bin Laden wants to recruit for new terrorist attacks can be reached. That is where the soft power comes in.

SPIEGEL: How can they be reached? By the speech President Obama gave in Cairo in which he showed respect for the Muslim world, for example?

Nye: This speech was impressive. An America that listens, adheres to its own values and respects the values of other cultures makes the recruiting effort of the terrorists much more difficult. So, soft power can also be effective in a conflict that is largely dominated by the use of hard power.

SPIEGEL: Is there a historical example where a milder form of power politics was really effective?

Nye: Think of the end of the Cold War. Not a single shot was fired. For decades, the American military was necessary to deter Soviet aggression and expansion. But it was mainly the soft-power elements which penetrated the Iron Curtain and made the people on the other side lose faith in their system.

SPIEGEL: What are the sources of soft power?

Nye: It comes from three main sources: One is the culture of a country -- in the case of America, that ranges from Harvard to Hollywood. Second, political values can be very attractive for other countries, from democracy to freedom of speech to opportunity. And the third one is the legitimacy of a country's foreign policy -- meaning that if your foreign policy is considered to be legitimate by other nations, you are more persuasive. Conversely, a foreign policy that is seen as illegitimate, as was the case under George W. Bush, destroys the power of values and culture.

SPIEGEL: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reacted with annoyance when asked about your concept. He once said that he did not understand the meaning of soft power.

Nye: That was the mindset of the Bush administration, at least during its first term. They did not understand the potential of soft power and could not use it. They had to learn the hard way that hard power alone was not sufficient to achieve their foreign policy objectives.

SPIEGEL: Obama uses hard power in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a way that is not very different from his predecessor. The Pentagon is sending an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan in a bid to defeat the Taliban.

Nye: We should not play off the hard strategies against the soft strategies. We must restore a certain degree of security in Afghanistan before schools and clinics can be built. Violence must cease before civil aid can be given. In this case, hard power comes before soft power. Recently, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the strategy in her testimony before the US Senate as the "three D's:" defense, diplomacy, development -- in that order.

SPIEGEL: Has President Obama really changed the strategic goals of US foreign policy?

Nye: He is in the process of doing that. Clinton has now created the job of a second under secretary of state whose primary job will be to oversee development, not just in Afghanistan. Our foreign policy has been over-militarized. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized that most resources went straight to the Pentagon.

SPIEGEL: President Obama speaks with empathy and wisdom. Is that already a policy?

Nye: His speeches are helpful, but he needs to follow them up with concrete policy steps. It is not enough to have an attractive person at the top if his policy is not attractive.

SPIEGEL: So the hard part is still ahead of the president?

Nye: Yes, and that is normal. Every new administration first needs to define where it stands and what its goals are. Then the work really begins.

SPIEGEL: Does the economic crisis not inevitably weaken America's attractiveness to the world?

Nye: There is no doubt that the crisis of the capitalist system weakens the soft-power possibilities of the United States. Wall Street is currently not very popular in the rest of the world. Now it is important for the US government to master this crisis and make the necessary reforms to prevent it from happening again. That is the right way to strengthen our attractiveness. Should our policies fail, America will be weaker.

SPIEGEL: You emphasize the importance of a combination of hard and soft power in foreign policy. But does the use of one not sometimes handicap the use of the other? In Pakistan, even the Obama administration is still deploying unmanned drones to target and kill Taliban commanders. There is often collateral damage and many civilians are getting killed. This undermines America's reputation in that region because such a cruel use of force is seen as illegitimate by the people there.

Nye: Too much hard power can be counter-productive. The new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has talked about investigating these instances. He promised to avoid civilian casualties in future. Both steps are necessary because such incidents hurt the legitimacy of US policy.


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