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.


A final relevant aspect of American history and the habits of thought it has nurtured about the application of power is how successful the United States has been in so many of the endeavors it has undertaken, from winning world wars to putting a man on the moon. This experience has nurtured an American confidence that with enough dedication, resources, and know-how, the United States can accomplish just about anything. Setbacks are taken not as a lesson not to try the same sort of thing again, but instead as a stimulus to fix whatever needs to be fixed before undertaking the same sort of endeavor. This outlook characterizes attitudes toward the use of military force. We see it today with the expedition in Afghanistan, and in the comparisons drawn with the costly misadventure in Iraq. Marc Lynch of George Washington University, as quoted in a piece in the most recent Economist about America and the Middle East, describes the prevailing American outlook this way: “The lesson we seem to have learned from Iraq is not, 'Disaster, don't do it again', but rather, 'Now we know how to do counterinsurgency.' ” Much of the debate over policy toward Afghanistan is an engineer's type of discussion over what strategy, tactics, resources, and people are required to stabilize the country rather than over more fundamental questions about the purposes and application of power. And there has been little examination of the roles and relative strengths and weaknesses of hard and soft forms of power as applied to the original purpose of the expedition, having to do with counterterrorism.

The characteristically American engineer's outlook as applied to soft power tends to focus more on messaging than on underlying substance. We see this in the perpetual hand-wringing in Washington over public diplomacy. For years it has been seen as broken and in need of fixing, although there is much disagreement over how to fix it. Hands are wrung because of the disconnect between the basic goodness that Americans see in their own country and the anti-Americanism that exists overseas. Many who disagree over the best techniques to employ in public diplomacy in effect agree on the idea that if we can just do a better job of getting our message across, the sentiment overseas is bound to change. Fewer people engaged in the debate point out that messaging can only do so much, and that whether you are selling toothpaste or foreign policy, the substance and quality of the product matter at least as much as the advertising.


American attitudes toward soft and hard power can be summarized as follows.

Soft power is seen as an asset—but exactly that: as an asset, more than as a policy instrument. It is seen as flowing out of America's essential goodness rather than out of any concerted effort, apart from messaging, to shape whatever it is that gives rise to the soft power in the first place and can be used as a tool of influence. It is, in short, taken for granted more than it is seen as something in need of nurturing and shaping. An implication is that the United States probably does not gain as much influence from its soft power as it could with more concentrated attention to the subject.

The United States exhibits an overall bias toward the instruments of hard power, and especially military power. This is not because Americans are militarist; they are not. They see this particular tool as one that they have necessarily unsheathed from time to time to do battle with foreign threats that raise their heads, after which they resheathe it. The bias exists first because of the insufficient appreciation of the role of soft power. Second, because of the signal successes, such as winning World War II, that have come directly from using this hard power tool. Third, because of enough confidence in America's ability to accomplish what it sets out to accomplish overseas that Americans are not permanently discouraged by lack of success, such as in the Vietnam War. And fourth, because of insufficient ability, for the reasons I have mentioned, to perceive and understand the broader side-effects of the U.S. use of military force, particularly on the perceptions and affinities of foreign populations. A greater understanding of those side-effects would represent one of the most significant ways in which discourse about U.S. foreign policy could be improved.