AN ADDITIONAL $54 BILLION IN DEFENSE SPENDING announced in President Trump’s budget comes at the cost of other spending, ranging from environmental protection to services for the elderly to support for the humanities. Diplomacy and foreign aid also took particularly hard hits, with budgets cut by nearly 30 percent. “It is not a soft-power budget,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said. “This is a hard-power budget, and that was done intentionally.”

Harvard Kennedy School professor Joseph Nye developed the concept of soft power in international relations as the power to attract and co-opt, as opposed to the use of force and coercion. We talked to him about the value of soft power, who might defend it and how, and where it can come from, if not from the federal government. 

Q: President Trump has argued that American foreign policy, judged by the record of lost wars and growing trouble spots, has failed. Is it time for America to rethink everything, and is the questioning of the role of soft power appropriate?

A: Trump’s history is wrong. Vietnam was a lost war despite deployment of more than a half a million troops at one time. In contrast, the 1991 Gulf War was a victory, and George H.W. Bush made sure he had a UN resolution and Arab allies to provide the legitimacy of soft power. The Cold War was won by a combination of hard and soft power. Our NATO forces and nuclear weapons deterred Soviet aggression in Europe, but the Berlin Wall collapsed not under an artillery barrage, but under hammers and bulldozers wielded by people whose minds had been affected by our soft power. Mulvaney doesn’t seem to understand that a smart strategy combines rather than opposes hard and soft power. Soft power is cheap, but it can be a force multiplier.

Q: Trump wants to put America first and for American foreign policy to benefit Americans. How would you sell soft power to someone who agrees with that worldview?

A: Perhaps the best simple answer came from General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense: “If State Department funding gets cut, I need to buy more ammo.”  Or in the words of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a noted defense hawk: “If you take soft power off the table, then you’re never going to win the war.”

Q: There is a businessman in charge at the State Department, and a dearth of high-level staffers to help him. Is there a line of defense for soft power and the importance of diplomacy within the government?

A: The Trump administration has been slow to fill staff positions in the State Department, so the defenders are thin on the ground. But Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has argued “foreign aid is not charity. We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1 percent of the budget and critical to our national security.” It is not as though the trade-off of hard and soft power is tough: the foreign affairs budget (including aid) is less than 10 per cent of the defense budget. By analogy, the Department of Defense is a watermelon; State is a grape (now shrinking to a raisin).

Q: How important is federal funding – diplomacy and aid and other government activities – in America’s soft power, and where else might that power come from if not from the government?

A: Soft power is the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment. Fortunately, a good deal of a country’s soft power comes from its civil society, not just from government programs. American soft power originates in organizations as diverse as Hollywood and Harvard; our churches and charities and our foundations.

Q: In the absence of American soft power, would there be a vacuum, and who or what do you think might fill it?

A: Many countries spend heavily on their soft power. China has made it a priority and spends billions each year. But China has problems related to its tight party control over civil society, and its nationalistic disputes with many neighboring countries. Portland, a London consultancy, publishes an annual index “The Soft Power Thirty.” The United States ranked first last year; China was number 28. After the Trump Administration’s budget and other policies, I bet the United States will not rank number 1 next year. Any takers?

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