Obama and Soft Power (II)

Several people responded to my earlier blog about Obama by asking what I meant by soft power. There is an entire chapter (and references) in my book The Powers to Lead for those who want to pursue it further, but put simply, soft power is the ability to obtain what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. We all experience it every day. The better we are able to attract others, the less we have to spend on carrots and sticks. That is important, and it is a lesson that we have to re-learn as a nation after the past eight years.

Some people pointed out that soft power makes a poor slogan in Amercan electioneering. That may be true, but soft power is an analytical term, not a slogan. It refers to an important dimension of power. I invented the term in 1990 when I was writing a book about why I disagreed with the then conventional wisdom that the United States was in decline. After summing up American military and economic power, I realized that something was missing -- our ability to attract others through our culture (where it has appeal), our values (when we apply them without hypocrisy) and our policies (when they are regarded as inclusive and legitimate in the eyes of others). Of course, hard power is also very important, and the ability to combine hard and soft power effectively is what I have called "smart power." That comes closer to being a useful slogan in American politics. It is ironic that China's President Hu Jintao last year proclaimed China's objective of increasing its soft power while Americans are unable to talk seriously about this dimension of power. ( A notable exception was Defense Secretary Robert Gates' plea for more investment in soft power tools last November.) So long as we have a truncated political discourse that ignores part of the tools in our toolbox, we will wind up with policies like those of past eight years. My belief is that Obama, because of his background and emotional intelligence, will be better able to understand the role of soft power and better able to provide effective leadership.