Understanding Soft Power in U.S. Foreign Policy

disaster aid

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"Soft power" is a term used to describe a nation's use of co-operative programs and monetary aide to persuade other nations to ascribe to its policies. With U.S. State Department budget cuts likely in the wake of the August 2, 2011 debt ceiling deal, many observers expect soft-power programs to suffer.

Origin of the Phrase "Soft Power"

Dr. Joseph Nye, Jr., a noted foreign policy scholar, and practitioner coined the phrase "soft power" in 1990. Nye has served as the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; Chairman of the National Intelligence Council; and Assistant Secretary of Defense in Bill Clinton's administration. He has written and lectured extensively on the idea and usage of soft power.

Nye describes soft power as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion." He sees strong relations with allies, economic assistance programs, and vital cultural exchanges as examples of soft power.

Obviously, soft power is the opposite of "hard power." Hard power includes the more noticeable and predictable power associated with military force, coercion, and intimidation.

One of the main objectives of foreign policy is to get other nations to adopt your policy goals as their own. Soft power programs can often influence that without the expense—in people, equipment, and munitions—and animosity that military power can create.

Examples of Soft Power

The classic example of American soft power is the Marshall Plan. After World War II, the United States pumped billions of dollars into war-ravaged western Europe to prevent it from falling to the influence of the Communist Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan included humanitarian aid, such as food and medical care; expert advice for rebuilding destroyed infrastructures, such as transportation and communication networks and public utilities; and outright monetary grants.

Educational exchange programs, such as President Obama's 100,000 Strong initiative with China, are also an element of soft power and so are all varieties of disaster assistance programs, such as flood control in Pakistan; earthquake relief in Japan and Haiti; tsunami relief in Japan and India; and famine relief in the Horn of Africa.

Nye also sees American cultural exports, such as movies, soft drinks, and fast-food chains, as an element of soft power. While those also include the decisions of many private American businesses, U.S. international trade and business policies enable those cultural exchanges to occur. Cultural exchanges repeatedly impress foreign nations with the freedom and openness of U.S. business and communication dynamics.

The Internet, which reflects American freedom of expression, is also a soft power. President Obama's administration has reacted harshly to attempts of some nations to curb the Internet to eliminate the influence of dissidents, and they readily point to the effectiveness of social media in encouraging the rebellions of "Arab Spring." As such, Obama recently introduced his International Strategy for Cyberspace.

Budget Problems for Soft Power Programs?

Nye has seen a decline in the United States' use of soft power since 9/11. The wars of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush Doctrine's use of preventive warfare and unilateral decision making have all eclipsed the value of soft power in the minds of people at home and abroad.

Given that perception, budget woes make it likely that the U.S. State Department—coordinator of most of America's soft power programs—will take another financial hit. The State Department already suffered $8 billion in cuts to the remainder of its FY 2011 budget in April 2011 when the president and Congress made a deal to avoid a government shutdown. The August 2, 2011, debt ceiling deal which they reached to avoid a debt default calls for $2.4 trillion in spending cuts over by 2021; that amounts to $240 billion in cuts each year.

Soft power supporters fear that, because military spending became so predominant in the 2000s, and because the State Department accounts for only 1% of the federal budget, it will likely be an easy target for cuts.