Sell It Softly

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics."

Power, simply put, is the ability to influence others to get what you want. Nations need power because without it they have a difficult time advancing their goals. But there are ultimately three main ways for a nation to achieve power: by using or threatening force; by inducing compliance with rewards; or by using “soft power” -- attracting followers through the strength of a country’s values and culture. When a country can induce others to follow by employing soft power, it saves a lot of carrots and sticks. This is a lesson the United States needs to keep in mind.

We won the Cold War in part by deterring Soviet aggression with our hard military power. But the Soviet Union’s final dissolution came only after we also began to effectively employ soft power. Ultimately, people in Eastern Europe and Russia were attracted to Western values through exchange programs, better diplomatic relations and broadcasts that penetrated the Iron Curtain.

Since Sept. 11, it has become commonplace to say that the United States is engaged in a war of ideas for the hearts and minds of moderate Arabs. To win that war, we will have to become more adept at wielding soft power in the region.

The greatest challenge to the United States today comes from radical Islamist ideology, in particular from the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, which originated in 18th century Saudi Arabia and has grown more powerful in recent decades. Radical Islamists are expert in the use of soft power, attracting people to their ranks through charities that address basic needs and through religious institutions that form the backbones of communities.


Support for radical Islam has been consistently provided by Saudi Arabia, where the ruling family agreed to propagate Wahhabism as a means of placating clerics. The royal family’s support of Wahhabism was itself an exercise in soft power. Because Saudi funding came from both government ministries and private charities, it is practically impossible to estimate the total amount of payments. One expert testified to Congress that the Saudis had spent roughly $70 billion on aid projects after the oil boom of the 1970s, much of it funneled through radical Islamic groups, and others report that the Saudis sponsored 1,500 mosques and 2,000 schools worldwide, from Indonesia to France. These institutions often displaced more-moderate and less-well-funded interpretations of Islam. Even if the numbers are heavily inflated, they dwarf the $150 million that the U.S. spends annually on public diplomacy in the Islamic world.

Soft power is not a panacea, of course. It is difficult to control -- as the Saudi royal family has discovered -- and can have unintended consequences. Organized religious movements of all stripes, including Christian, Buddhist and Muslim, have used soft power for centuries to attract millions of people to their teachings. But soft power can also attract people to malevolent religious organizations and networks.

Ultimately, the soft power of Wahhabism has not proved to be a resource that the Saudi government can control or use to obtain favorable outcomes. It has become a Frankenstein’s monster, returning to haunt its creator. The radicals regard the royal family as corrupt and in league with Western infidels. They aim to overthrow or disrupt the government, as demonstrated by the 2003 terrorist attacks on residential compounds and the bombing that ripped apart a police headquarters in Riyadh last week. The royal family’s bargain with the Wahhabist clerics backfired because the soft power of Islamic radicalism has flowed in the direction of Osama bin Laden and his goal of overthrowing the Saudi government.

A snapshot of this situation was captured by polls taken shortly after the Iraq war. Pluralities in Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco and the Palestinian Territories said they had a lot or some confidence in Bin Laden to do the right thing regarding world affairs. In those same countries, more people had more confidence in Bin Laden than in George W. Bush or Tony Blair. The fact that Bin Laden inspires confidence sends a clear message to Americans about the soft power of our sworn enemy.

Hard military power is not a sufficient response. Soft power must also be fought with soft power. Americans and others must find better ways of projecting our soft power to attract moderate Muslims.

Effective public diplomacy requires three strategies. First, we need to respond much more quickly with American interpretations of events. The establishment of Arabic language broadcasting units like Radio Sawa and satellite television channel Al Hurra, both of which intersperse news with popular programming, was a good first step for the U.S. Now we must learn to work more effectively with Arab news media such as Al Jazeera, which is a trusted news source for many Arabic speakers.

Second, like any entity trying to get a message out, we have to decide which key strategic themes to emphasize. One real need is to better articulate American policies and to explain how they relate to the values of moderate Muslims. For example, the charge that U.S. policies are indifferent to the killings of Muslims can be addressed by pointing to American interventions that saved Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as assistance to Islamic countries to foster development and combat AIDS. As Assistant Secretary of State William Burns pointed out last year, public diplomacy must be accompanied by “a wider positive agenda for the region, alongside rebuilding Iraq; achieving the president’s two-state vision for Israelis and Palestinians; and modernizing Arab economies.”

Finally, and most important, we must develop a long-term strategy of cultural and educational exchanges aimed at creating a richer and more open civil society in Middle Eastern countries. The most effective spokespersons for the United States are not Americans but indigenous surrogates who understand America’s virtues as well as its faults. Visa policies that have cut back on the number of Muslim students in the United States do us more harm than good.


Much of the work of developing an open civil society can be promoted by corporations, foundations, universities and other nonprofit organizations, as well as by governments. Companies and foundations can offer technology to help modernize Arab education. American universities can establish more exchange programs for students and faculty. Foundations can support the development of American studies in Muslim countries, or programs that enhance the professionalism of journalists. Governments can support the teaching of English and finance student exchanges.

Only when we learn to combine this type of soft power with our hard power will we succeed in meeting the challenge of Islamist terrorism.