Great thing about Davos: You don’t have to just talk about legendary figures, you can talk to them. After speculating on how the notion of hard and soft power—a concept coined by Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense—might be changing, I discovered that Nye himself is here. I grabbed a few minutes with him this afternoon to get his own take on the new politics of power.
“Power is the ability to get the outcome you want,” he explained. Hard power gets that outcome through coercion, as in war. Soft power does it through attraction, by providing a compelling example or acting as a good role model, as in democracy.
I’d wondered if a growing divide between Europe and the United States (reflected in the tone of debate here in Davos) over the meaning of Western values was diminishing America’s soft power and contributing to its difficulty in finding allies in a war in Iraq.
Nye agreed there was a divide, but he argued that it’s more because of the actions and policies of the Bush administration—he’s an outspoken critic—than it is due to 9/11 or even the stock market bust.
One source of soft power, he notes, is the way you make your policies and the extent to which you include others. Unilateralism tends to drive countries away, instead of attracting them. That’s the point Nye makes in his book The Paradox of American Power. The paradox, Nye argues, is that to have power, America must share it.
America also has no monopoly on soft power, Nye noted. “Turkey wants to get into the European Union. That’s soft power.” The rise of the European alternative to the American model is a popular perspective in Davos this year. That won’t make Colin Powell’s coalition-building job any easier.