The Hard and Soft of Colin Powell

Colin Powell, stirred but not shaken

The Davos agenda turned to war over the weekend. Colin Powell had scheduled his big speech for noon on Sunday, and despite the scheduled half-day off and the lure of the slopes, people started arriving as much as an hour early to get a seat. Given the influence of the audience here and the growing tide of anti-Americanism in Europe, this was a hugely important—and potentially risky—address. Powell had been briefed on the tough crowd (anybody connected to American politics, from senators to lesser administration officials, was drawing hostile questioning), and his speech was rewritten to be more direct. But the cost of getting it wrong was high, and I could only imagine the pressure he must have been feeling.

To see if the stress was showing, the day before I had waited with a gang of photographers to see the secretary leaving after a private meeting with the Turkish prime minister, Abdullah Gul. That, too, must have been tense. Turkey, as an Islamic country hoping to enter the EU, is torn between two worlds, but the United States needs to move its troops through the country now. Pausing on his exit, Powell made some mild remarks that suggested something less than a total win from the talks (news reports later said that the military had agreed to limited pass-throughs), and he looked a bit paler than I remembered. But other than that, his famous calm seemed intact.

So far the Bush administration hadn’t done much to answer its European critics here. Davos, as a gathering of business globalists (Lance Knobel, a former Davos organizer and keen observer of the place, describes them more precisely as “Atlanticists”), tends to be more moderate than, say, the average Parisian cafe on the subjects of American unilateralism, corporatism, and globalization, to say nothing of genetically modified food, the Kyoto global-warming treaty, and McDonald’s. But this year even the normally supportive Brits were sounding exasperated with the United States. When John Ashcroft spoke on Friday, his panel turned into a debate over racial profiling, and the attorney general’s somewhat semantic line—”The mere fact that a person who is interviewed [by U.S. authorities] happens to be a person of color does not mean that it’s profiling”—didn’t win many converts.

It was up to Powell to do what he could to change the mood. He is the right man for the job: admired and trusted by many Europeans, who see him as a voice of intellectual and moral credibility in an otherwise doctrinaire administration. But the audience also knew that whatever his personal views might be, he was here to explain and defend the administration’s policy. And the kindest thing that many could say about that is that they were keen to understand. If Powell could take the debate from emotional antipathy to intellectual disagreement, that would count as a win.

Two small moments of humanity, before and after his speech, may have held as much sway with the crowd as anything in his prepared remarks. As he was being introduced, he spotted his son, FCC Commissioner Michael Powell, in the audience and blew him a kiss. And answering a final question, he talked about what Sept. 11 had been like for him as he flew back from a meeting in Peru, getting fragmented information in the air: the escalating and conflicting reports, the dawning realization of how bad it was, and the realization of what it would mean for the country and himself.

As for the speech itself, you’ve no doubt already read the highlights: America’s willingness to go it alone if necessary, Powell’s waning confidence in the inspection process, and a somewhat thin list of known weapons-related materials that Iraq has yet to account for. (“What happened—please, what happened—to the three metric tons of growth material that Iraq imported, which can be used for producing early, in a very rapid fashion, deadly biological agents,” Powell asked. A scientist later told me that this “growth material” is probably just agar, something stocked in any high-school biology lab.)

The address didn’t seem to change many minds—that would have required smoking-gun evidence, which Powell didn’t provide—but people in the audience seemed to find it clear and Powell personally credible, which counts as progress in the current climate.

But I was intrigued to hear the second reference in as many days to “soft and hard power,” Joseph Nye’s famous formulation of the difference between inspiring change and forcing it. Powell invoked this theme, defining soft power as “democracy, the value of the free economic system, the value of making sure that each citizen is free and free to pursue their own God-given ambitions.” Hard power, needless to say, is war.

“There is nothing in American experience or in American political life or in our culture that suggests we want to use hard power,” Powell said. “But what we have found over the decades is that unless you do have hard power—and here I think you’re referring to military power—then sometimes you are faced with situations that you can’t deal with.

“I mean, it was not soft power that freed Europe. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GIs who put their weapons down once the war was over and helped all those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.”

True enough. But the discussion made me wonder if the meaning of soft power has changed since World War II, or even since Sept. 11. The question that prompted Powell’s response came from George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who defined soft power not as democracy and free markets but as “something to do with human values.”

These days—and particularly here in Davos— “values” is something of a loaded word, hinting, in sessions on corporate responsibility and a tolerance for political alternatives, at the differences between the American and European views on everything from social welfare to prescribing Western-style democracy around the world.

If there’s a subtext here, it is that over the past two years, as much due to the stock market bust as war, the set of “shared values” across the Atlantic may have shrunk. And that changes the hard-soft equation.

If America and Europe agree on the right soft power model for Iraq and by extension for other Islamic states, then the debate is simply one of process: invading without sufficient evidence, or invading alone. But what if they don’t? What if Europe sees this not as the United States pushing the soft power of shared Western values but of distinctly American ones? It would take more than Powell’s personal credibility to close a divide that wide.