Paul Pillar

The American Perspective on Hard and Soft Power

On Tuesday I spoke to a conference, organized by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, with the theme of "The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Revival of Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy?"  What follows are my remarks to the conference.  

Americans bring some distinctively American perspectives to the employment of different instruments of power, hard and soft. My subject is how some of the relevant perspectives grow out of the history, geography, and other circumstances of the United States, and out of the political culture that those circumstances have nurtured. We see those perspectives manifested in particular policies of particular administrations, but those policies have deeper roots. By “perspectives” I mean not only preferences for using some instruments of national power rather than other ones, but also related perceptions, including difficulties and consequences associated with such use.

Consider two major aspects, one bad and one good, of the place of the United States in the world. One is anti-Americanism, which is an all-too-prevalent theme in public discourse in many parts of the world, reflected to varying degrees in the rhetoric and sometimes the policies of governments in those parts of the world. The theme is particularly apparent in much of the Muslim world and especially the Middle East and parts of South Asia. The other aspect is how attractive the United States is as a place to live, among those who do not live here but would love to do so if given the chance. These two aspects, the positive and the negative, often co-exist in the same parts of the world. Sometimes they even co-exist in the hearts, minds, and mouths of the same individuals in those parts of the world—individuals who have critical things to say about the United States but would still welcome a chance to live there.

The positive side of this—the things that make it attractive to live in America—is certainly one of the biggest elements of soft power enjoyed by the United States. It is this country's image as, based on the reality of, a land of prosperity and freedom. The negative side, the anti-Americanism, has a combination of causes, the relative importance of which tends to get debated when the subject is what leads people to become so extremely anti-American that they engage in violence, especially terrorist violence. Some of the causes have to do with the United States's status as the sole superpower. It is able to do, more than any other country can, more things that more people around the globe perceive, rightly or wrongly, as threatening or destructive. The causes also have to do with particular U.S. policies—policies that make use of that ability to do many things around the globe that can be perceived as threatening or destructive. Some of America's global influence that becomes a source of resentment could be labeled as soft power—specifically, the export of popular culture and consumerism that some people abroad resent as “cultural imperialism”. But to a much greater degree the causes of the resentment and even anger that underlie the anti-Americanism have to do with the exercise of hard power, and particularly that quintessential form of hard power, military force.

How do most Americans perceive all of this? The attractive side of the United States, as it positively affects the perceptions of foreigners, is something that most Americans take for granted. Of course, they would say, America is a land of prosperity and freedom. Moreover, it is a land of immigrants. Just as it has been a magnet for generations of previous immigrants, it should hardly be news that it continues to be a magnet for many present-day would-be immigrants. Whether or not this is regarded as a form of soft power—and outside the intellectual elite few Americans would ever have heard of that term—it is not a form of power that seems to require the United States to do anything. The United States just is. To the extent that Americans talk about having to do something related to the attractiveness of their country to foreigners who would like to live there, the talk is focused on controlling the movement of such people—that is, on policing illegal immigration.

Most Americans have difficulty perceiving and understanding the negative side: the resentment and even anger among foreigners that stems from the United States exercising its power, especially hard power. They see their own motives as pure, and they have a hard time understanding the perceptual side-effects and negative consequences of using hard power. They focus instead in a direct, straightforward way, on the direct effects of what the use of military force or other hard power can accomplish.

Several attributes of the history and circumstances of the United States contribute to these perceptual habits and shortcomings.