Joseph S. Nye Jr. | The Interview

Wielding ‘smart power’ in world affairs

By Anna Mundow
February 6, 2011

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In his new book “The Future of Power,” Joseph S. Nye Jr. analyses the changing nature of power in the 21st century as upheavals man-made and environmental alter the global terrain and as both state and non-state entities jostle for dominance. Nye is a proponent of “smart power,” a term he coined in 2004 to describe the strategic combination of coercion and persuasion.

Nye, a former assistant secretary of defense, is a professor and former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His other books include “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” and “The Powers to Lead.” He spoke from his home in Boston.

Q. Has the term “smart power” been corrupted over time?

A. The term has been picked up by the Obama administration and used by Hillary Clinton to describe US foreign policy. But it is the older term “soft power” that is more often corrupted when it’s mistakenly used to describe anything that is not military power. More correctly, it refers to the ability to get what you want through attraction and persuasion. The Chinese president, for example, declared in 2007 that China needed to increase its soft power, and they have invested billions of dollars to that end.

Q. Are you saying that smart power is soft power backed up by hard power?

A. I think of smart power as the ability to combine hard and soft power. There may be situations in which you don’t want any hard power, and there may be others where soft power is not effective; stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, for example.

Q. Does it require an underlying belief in American dominance?

A. Soft power and smart power are both available to any size country, not just the US or China. But the US, when it lives up to its values, probably has more soft power than a small country and certainly has more hard power. Our leadership resides in our ability to create the right combinations in the right circumstances.

Q. You use the term “values.’’ But don’t you characterize smart power as morally neutral?

A. Well, smart power is neutral in the sense that it can be used by bad states as well as good states. But it does depend in part on values which are more often the sources of soft power. Ironically, Osama bin Laden had soft power when he inspired people to fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They did so because they believed in bin Laden’s values. In that sense values matter. They can, however, be used as instruments by bad as well as good people.

Q. Do you have a moral position that you edited out of this book?

A. I try to write as an analyst when I argue that there is something to be said for soft power as a more ethical means. For example, even if I have bad ends and want to steal your money, I can use hard power — shoot you and take your money — or soft power — persuade you that I’m a guru and that you should give me your money. In the first case you don’t have anything to say about it, in the second case you do. If one believes in the value of individual autonomy and choice, as I do, soft power allows more of that individual autonomy even if the overall action is a bad one.

Q. Your strategy has been called the friendly face of American imperialism. How do you respond to that?

A. That criticism is often made by people who don’t understand the theory. Other countries besides the US can use soft power therefore it’s not an apology for the US or an instrument of American imperialism. In this book I try to describe the role of military, economic and soft power in an information age and to persuade people that we need to think in a more sophisticated way about what power means whether it be American, Chinese, or otherwise.

Q. With all that you’ve seen, do you find it hard to write a phrase such as “winning hearts and minds” without irony?

A. There is a risk of trivializing ideas. “Winning hearts and minds” has been around since the Vietnam War. On the other hand, when one tries to understand General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine (and whether he’ll succeed or not we don’t know) it is interesting to note that what he is trying to do is save civilian lives. The idea is not to kill as many people as possible but to win the minds of those who form the sea in which the insurgents swim. The insight is an important one and has a long standing in history.

Q. Do you see the uprising in Tunisia and now in Egypt as a test case of US commitment to smart power?

A. Smart power in this current case will require US foreign policy to align with the aspirations of people seeking democracy while at the same time not creating chaos in the region which would undercut our support for Israel and our efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Smart power would aim to accomplish both a human rights democracy agenda as well as a more traditional agenda.

Q. Do you see that happening?

A. I’m always hopeful.

Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts. She may be reached at