"It is pointless to talk to al-Qaida"

Joseph Nye talks about Obama's use of hard and soft power in Afghanistan, and what he learned from Henry Kissinger

Published August 18, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)

Monday, President Obama spoke about his commitment to the ongoing U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has shown far more willingness to engage in diplomacy than his predecessor, George W. Bush, but Obama has also continued to expand military operations in Afghanistan. So which is more effective in countering terrorism, so-called hard power that relies on military might or soft power that depends upon diplomacy? In this interview, Harvard professor Joseph Nye talks about America's role in the world, the change of strategy under President Obama and how Nye's concept of soft power can be used to solve tough conflicts.

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?

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.

And right now military force would be more effective?

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.

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

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.

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

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 that penetrated the Iron Curtain and made the people on the other side lose faith in their system.

What are the sources of soft power?

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.

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.

That was the mind-set 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.

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.

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, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the strategy in her testimony before the U.S. Senate as the "three D's": defense, diplomacy, development -- in that order.

Has President Obama really changed the strategic goals of U.S. foreign policy?

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.

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

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.

So the hard part is still ahead of the president?

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.

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

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 U.S. 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.

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.

Too much hard power can be counter-productive. The new U.S. 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 U.S. policy.

Does Osama bin Laden not have an attractive message for many people in that region of the world?

Sure, he has a lot of soft power. He proved this when he brought down the Twin Towers. Bin Laden did not hold a gun to the heads of the people who flew the planes. He did not pay them either. They did it because they were attracted by his convictions.

Has bin Laden's soft power increased or decreased since?

I think that his soft power was greater in 2001 than it is today. His excessive use of terror, including numerous attacks that indiscriminately killed many women and children, and of course many Muslims, has hurt the attractiveness of his message.

President Obama has not been able to celebrate any major foreign policy breakthroughs so far -- which of course is not all that easy. How, for example, should the United States deal with North Korea? By relying more heavily on hard power?

Yes. But when it comes to North Korea, Chinese hard power is needed. Beijing provides the majority of food and fuel for North Korea. It would be important to persuade the Chinese to actually do more with their hard power. To achieve that, America will have to employ subtle diplomacy. We need to quietly assure the Chinese that we won't be sending U.S. troops to North Korea. That will alleviate some of the Chinese fears about the consequences of a North Korean collapse.

What strategy would you recommend to Obama for dealing with Iran?

The question with Iran is whether it will be possible to persuade them that they would be better off following the example of Japan. The Japanese have the technology to build a nuclear weapon. But they decided it is too costly to be a nuclear power and not very useful for enhancing prosperity.

And you truly believe that the mullahs will forgo their nuclear ambitions for economic considerations?

We won't know until we have negotiations. Obama wants to explore the diplomatic options to determine what is possible and what is not. I think he is right about that.

How can a politician learn soft power?

Every politician just has to remember how he got his position in the first place. A young candidate running for Congress or any outsider interested in public office could only achieve his goals by relying on soft power. They could not force anyone to vote for them. They needed to convince their potential voters, they needed to do fundraising, they needed to be attractive candidates. Democracy is the best school to learn soft power.

Is Obama too soft?

If you have grown up in Chicago politics, you understand hard power versus soft power. Obama can be hard and soft.

Henry Kissinger, the doyen of American global policy, would object that foreign policy is not about hard or soft power, but about interests. Isn't your soft-power concept a contradiction of his realpolitik?

Kissinger was my professor when I was a graduate student at Harvard. There are differences to a degree, but we are not far apart. The key question is how you define the national interest. Was it in America's interest to go into Iraq? I think not. Was it in America's interest to go into Afghanistan? I think yes. I partly agree with Henry: It is about interests. It's the definition of America's national interest we sometimes disagree on.

How would you define the current national interest of the U.S., the world's only remaining superpower?

I don't think that the national interest is predetermined by geopolitics or the history of a country. Important political leaders never just followed their interests -- they were concerned about the interests of their people. Take Nelson Mandela: He decided that reconciliation would be more important for South Africa than revenge. Or look at Helmut Kohl: He put the goal of German reunification at the top of his political agenda and was less concerned about the German exchange rate or the effects on the West German economy at that time.

What is the priority of U.S. foreign policy right now?

I think that America should find its interests in ways that are more consistent with the interests of other countries, which are things that are good for us but also good for others. That will make Americans exporters of hope again, not exporters of fear.

Hillary Clinton wanted to make you ambassador to Japan. The White House intervened and appointed a major donor to the Obama campaign instead. Are you disappointed?

Well, the State Department can only recommend a person, but, frankly, the White House has the final say. As you know, there is a long tradition in the United States that about a third of the ambassadors are political appointments.

Should that be changed?

Money and donations are an important part of our political system. They are hard power. I would much rather have Obama spend his political capital on the big issues and not the small issues.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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Afghanistan Al-qaida Iraq Middle East Pakistan Terrorism U.s. Military