An Assault on Joseph Nye, Part Three: Keeping It Real

U.S. Air Force C-130 drops relief supplies over Kenya, June 2010 (U.S. Department of Defense)

In my previous two posts, I’ve argued how the hard power/soft power Hobson’s Dichotomy of Joseph Nye fails at the level of language and on the level of theory. Here I will contend that Nye’s very popular international relations theory also fails as a predictive, policy or practical theoretical standard. In short, it simply cannot anticipate, nor accurately reflect, actions taken by states in the real world. This is the quintessential yardstick of international relations theory, and it fails by any reasonable standard.

Nye works especially well in the academic world, where his bifurcated nomenclature provides two big classification buckets to throw theory into. So we see dozens of papers and conference presentations that categorize what does or does not constitute hard or soft power solutions to all the world’s problems. But those who actually work to solve those problems never use these terms. “Soft power”per se doesn’t help the U.N. in Congo, or get power to Kabul, or end the war in Syria, or set up a government in South Sudan, or reduce CO2 emissions, or end AIDS, or eliminate piracy.

But Brazilian peacekeepers can, and so can plugging into the Uzbekistan power grid, or threatening a no-fly zone, or issuing USAID good governance contracts, or implementing Europe-wide carbon-trading, or spending on a massive scale to bring down drug prices, and deploying naval vessels to escort commercial vessels. In other words, States use modalities – means, tools, usually people and things – to exercise power over other states and non-state actors.  And good theory will more accurately predict which of these modalities will be employed to solve these various problems. Nye’s theory, while primarily prescriptive, simply can’t do this job.

Nye places enormous and undue faith in “soft” implements that cajole and convince adversaries and reluctant allies alike. But he conflates the individual elements of national power – aid, diplomacy, national forces or strategic communications – while fetishizing the rather mundane modalities of international politics with a kind of sorcerer’s magic.

In a normal diplomatic parley, for example, all of these tools would be either arranged or arrayed for maximum advantage over the interlocutor. The most powerful negotiator is the one with the most tools in play, the one who can give the most away for the maximum national interest in exchange. An excellent example of this was the perpetual sticking point over the reduction or elimination of strategic nuclear forces between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States kept missile defense off the table and the Soviets, who were convinced this would lead to a consumptive new  arms race, refused to enter into an agreement. In other words, the U.S. had something the Soviet Union wanted, so the long-term advantage went to the United States which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, kept missile defense and negotiated START with Russia and the post-Soviet successor states anyway.

From a strictly theoretical standpoint, it’s not even entirely clear whether this would be an execution of hard or soft power. Missile defense as articulated in the 1980s was merely an idea. But it was an idea that cut to the heart of the problem in the Soviet Union, which was an economy that spent an estimated 25 percent of its GDP (perhaps higher) on defense; in effect the Soviet economy was building tanks to feed itself. Gorbachev knew he could never drive perestroika toward a consumer economy unless he could reduce defense spending and the military’s control over resources. Missile defense guaranteed an indefinite arms race and virtually unlimited control over the Soviet economy by the military. There was nothing soft about the American threat at all, or its effect on 200 million Soviet subjects, for as abstract as missile defense seemed at the time.

Most middle-power states – which defines virtually all of America’s allies along with the BRICs – view diplomacy not as a “soft” means to influence other countries but as a deadly serious business, a zero-sum gambit where the national interest reigns paramount. There is nothing to give away; no effort is sacrificed to advance or protect sovereign needs or rights. This is effectively war by other means because, with the national interest so thinly protected, there is very little else worth fighting for. It is a very hard business with high risks and very little margin for error.

Under these circumstances, only a very rich and powerful country like the United States can afford to be “soft” – that is, giving, charitable and big. Our allies enjoy American generosity and, quite contrary to their public portrayal, work hard to match it in their own ways.  But our adversaries, at least at the government level, are not influenced by our generosity or charity. They do not understand it because they simply cannot, under any circumstances, afford to give something away without an equally valuable quid pro quo.  At worst, they see our generosity as a weakness or a threat; more usually it is viewed with incomprehension or just drunk up like free booze at the company Christmas party: the only  people dumber than those giving it away are those not drinking. In any event, this “soft” aspect of our national power is not nearly as influential with governments – and may in fact be far more detrimental – than Nye maintains.

I’ll admit that this discussion does not address the real locus of power, which is public opinion, and I am strongly inclined to believe that the moral aspects of generosity, charity, bigness and support do go far to help sway the public.  (Indeed, one of the most frustrating points I had to argue when I worked overseas was that contrary to public misperception, Americans are the most generous people in the world in real and per capita terms.  That people think the opposite is the result of perhaps the most successful whisper campaign ever mounted.) That will always help us in the long run, particularly in repressive states like Russia, China and Iran that lie to its people about us to maintain control. But Nye’s theory functions in the existing state system, more or less, and that is where we must leave it. That is also where it fails.


About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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