The American Perspective on Hard and Soft Power

January 4, 2011 Topic: Civil SocietyPublic OpinionPolitical Theory Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

The American Perspective on Hard and Soft Power

Why Americans prefer flexing their military muscle.


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.

One is that the United States has never been threatened by the power of someone much more powerful than itself. The protective advantage of two ocean moats has been one of the biggest shapers of American attitudes about the exercise of power. When the republic was young and not yet powerful, the country that was then most able to project power—Britain with its Royal Navy—tended to do so in ways that contributed to, rather than threatened, the young North American republic's prosperity and growth. When a more mature United States finally began flexing its own global muscle around the turn of the twentieth century, it was already a match for anyone else. The most serious physical threat to the United States was the USSR of the Cold War and the nuclear age, but it was never more than a co-equal second superpower, and even at that one that would prove to be inferior to the United States in a race, declared most clearly by Ronald Reagan, to convert economic power into military power.

Because of these happy circumstances, Americans tend to be insensitive to how those not similarly blessed will be attuned to the threatening side of the exercise of power by those more powerful than themselves, and how such exercise may be resented or hated. The United States is the antithesis of a Belgium or a Poland or countless other countries that have been so attuned because matters of national survival are at stake. Because Americans have not been put in a similar position, they are slow to perceive and understand how others may perceive the exercise of U.S. power as threatening.

The United States also has not had the experience, as did the European powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of engaging in a form of balance-of-power politics in which for the most part the motives of the players were similar ones of acquiring or securing territory, resources, and still more power. When the United States finally stepped onto that playing field in World War I, it was with the declared mission of ending that balance-of-power game rather than indulging in it. So Americans find it easy to see their country as the city on a hill, as something fundamentally different from other powers and acting out of motives more noble than the others. This is the basis for many aspects of American exceptionalism. For our current purposes, the point is that it is also a basis for Americans finding it difficult to understand how foreigners could perceive as less than noble America's motives in exercising its power, and specifically hard power. It does not naturally occur to Americans that the use of military force in the Muslim world would be perceived, however incorrectly, by many in that world as undertaken to kill Muslims, capture their territory, and plunder their resources.

Most of the adversaries the United States faced in its greatest applications of hard power in the twentieth century—the two world wars, especially World War II, and the Cold War—were certifiably bad in the sense that they are generally perceived today as representing ideologies or political systems that it was right to oppose forcefully. This history has bolstered Americans' sense of their own motives in applying military force as being of a higher order than those of others who have applied it.

Americans have not had to overcome—or more precisely, believe they have not had to overcome—episodes in their own history similar to those our German and Japanese friends have had to overcome regarding the regimes in their countries before and during World War II, and the way those regimes applied hard power to the detriment of others. Even a recent U.S.-instigated war of aggression—the one launched against Iraq in 2003—is not seen in anything near the same terms, despite plenty of disagreement among Americans today as to how that particular use of military power ought to be seen and judged.

The United States has had one of the longest continuous histories in the world of more or less stable political life based on a firmly entrenched and broadly shared set of values, the ones embodied in a constitution and bill of rights written in the eighteenth century. Whatever soft power is embodied in that constitution and those values, it is not something that Americans have had to work at, or at least believe they have had to work at. It is another part of the American experience that has come naturally to them. Even the one big and bloody interruption to that history—the American Civil War, fought over the disagreeable issue of slavery—is seen today as a reaffirmation of the order and the values, given that the anti-slavery side won and the union was preserved. So again most Americans see the soft power involved as a matter less of doing than merely of being. There are those, whom Walter Russell Mead would label Jeffersonians, who believe that this aspect of American soft power does require work to make sure that it is not lost. They believe the political order and values embedded in it are more fragile than may appear. But these people are in the minority in the United States.