Anti-Americanism: America must regain its soft power

Posted in United States | 19-May-04 | Author: Joseph Nye| Source: International Herald Tribune

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts Anti-Americanism had been rising around the world even before the pictures of abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Polls showed that attitudes toward the United States fell sharply in Europe last year plummeted in the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia. The shocking photos added fuel to the fire. As a pro-American businessperson told me recently in Poland, many of us who supported the United States now feel like we have been "punched in the stomach."

In Jordan and Pakistan, one recent poll shows that people overwhelming view Osama bin Laden more favorably than George W. Bush. Yet both these countries are on the front line of the war on terrorism.

While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others in the administration have denigrated soft power, it will be essential to winning the "war on terrorism." Soft power is the ability to get what we want by attracting others rather than by threatening or paying them. It is based on our culture, our political ideals and our policies. Yet we have squandered it badly. Being pro-American has become so politically toxic in the domestic politics of many countries that their leaders have had to limit their cooperation with us.

Skeptics about soft power argue that anti-Americanism is inevitable because of our role as the world's only military superpower. They regard popularity as ephemeral and advise us to simply ignore the polls. As the big kid on the block, we are bound to engender envy and resentment as well as admiration. But the ratio of hate to love depends on whether we are seen as a bully or a friend.

We were large in the 1940s, but we won favor with the Marshall Plan. It may be true that wars were traditionally determined by whose armies won, but in the "war" against terrorism in this information age, success also depends on whose story wins. And we are losing the battle of the story.

Can the United States regain its soft power'

We have done it before. Anti-Americanism soared during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, but we recovered within a decade. Not only did we change our policy in Vietnam, but the emphasis on human rights and democracy by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan helped to emphasize attractive American values. Polls show that most of current the anti-Americanism is attributed to our policies rather than our culture. Fortunately, it is easier to change policies than culture.

Recovery of American soft power will depend on policy changes such as finding a political solution in Iraq, investing more heavily in advancing the Middle East peace process, and working more closely to involve allies and international institutions. Most polls show that our unilateralism has convinced people in other countries that we do not consider or respect their interests.

We will also need to do a better job in presenting our case to the world. We spend only a billion dollars a year on international broadcasting and exchange programs - about the same as France though we are five times larger. A bipartisan advisory group reported last year that our expenditure on public diplomacy for the entire Islamic world came to $150 million, which is equal to a few hours of the defense budget. If we spent merely one percent of the defense budget on public diplomacy, that would quadruple our investment in the instruments of soft power.

Finally, we need to practice our values at home. When we fail to allow legal counsel to detained American citizens, we lose credibility as the land of freedom. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing such cases. And the ability of our press and Congress to publish and publicize abuses like Abu Ghraib proves that our democracy works. Our willingness to admit and punish transgressions will provide some solace to those who want to be our friends.

During the Vietnam War, there were widespread protests against American policies in Europe and elsewhere. But when the protesters sang songs during their marches, they did not sing the communist "Internationale." Rather they echoed Martin Luther King by singing "We shall overcome." Those deeper values are a crucial aspect of American soft power. The president needs to reassert them not just by words, but by disciplinary remedies at the top of the chain of command that produced such poor planning in Iraq and the horrors of Abu Ghraib.

Joseph S. Nye is dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics."