Home / Articles / The First Annual Samuel J. Savitz Memorial Lecture on Cultural Diplomacy
Editor’s Note: On April 21, the first annual Samuel J. Savitz Memorial Lecture on Cultural Diplomacy was held to honor the memory of Samuel J. Savitz, a longtime FPRI Fellow and Vice Chairman of the FPRI’s Board of Trustees. The event featured Professor Joseph S. Nye, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and Robert D. Kaplan, FPRI’s Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics, discussing the concept of soft power and American foreign policy. This annual lecture will focus on how cultural diplomacy can serve as a tool to enhance diplomatic relations and advance the interests of the United States.
Good evening. It’s my pleasure to welcome you here to the Museum of the American Revolution on this beautiful late afternoon. I am ZeeAnn Mason. I’m the chief operating officer here at the museum and we’re delighted to, again, have our friends from FPRI with us for this program that we’re looking forward to hearing our distinguished speakers here and in the virtual world.
We share many things with FPRI. Like you, we are committed to furthering an informed and educated citizenry. Before the pandemic times, we used to run historical simulations with high school kids from throughout Philadelphia. I hope those days can return again before too long.
That work helps us in our mission to uncover and share stories about the complex events and diverse people that sparked America’s ongoing experiment in liberty, equality, and self-government.
We are a new institution, just five years old. We had our fifth anniversary on Tuesday. That’s why you walked by those balloons on the first floor, so take a selfie on your way out. Thank you. Thank you. It was quite a journey to get here and it’s been a wonderful five years. We’ve served over a million people and we are working to change lives as people become active citizens.
Along those lines, I do hope … I know we will continue to collaborate with FPRI in the years to come. Without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce your president, Rollie Flynn. Thanks again for coming.
Good evening. I’d like to welcome all of you, both those of you in the room as well as our Zoom audience at home, to what is a very special occasion for us, the first annual Samuel J. Savitz Memorial Lecture on Cultural Diplomacy.
It’s to honor the memory of Samuel J. Savitz, who was our long time FPRI senior fellow, and vice chairman of the FPRI board of trustees. This is going to be an annual lecture, which will focus on how cultural diplomacy can support US foreign policy and advance the interests of the United States.
I would also like to express our deepest thanks to Selma Savitz and the Savitz family for their generous support to FPRI, which made this lecture possible.
Tonight, we’re also very fortunate to have piped in virtually from Harvard, Professor Joseph S. Nye, the former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who literally termed the coin soft power, as well as our very own Robert D. Kaplan, FPRI’s Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics, and they’re going to be discussing the concept of soft power and American foreign policy.
Before we get started with the program, I’d also like to introduce our chairman of the board, FPRI’s Robert Freedman, who is going to say a few words about Sam Savitz.
Thank you, Rollie. Sam was a most remarkable person. One of the things that he did in his professional life, he founded an organization called the Savitz Organization, which was devoted to pensions, retirement plans, and the thing about that area of law is that you have to see the forest as well as the trees. He could do that.
The forest is the big picture, what makes sense in terms of pensions for people to enable them to have a decent retirement? At the same time, the nitty gritty is incredible. There is so much detail in the pension law and then it keeps changing, so you have to keep up with it. He was able to do both of those things at a very, very successful organization named after him.
The other thing I wanted to mention that was remarkable about Sam was he came across personally as being very mild. He never said, that I ever heard, a harsh word. He never criticized somebody strongly. He would always phrase things in a delicate way, “Let’s consider perhaps another point of view to look at things.”
But actually he was underneath very firm. Very firm. In fact, he was so firm he told me when he was a young man, he took up boxing. He got pleasure, I suppose, out of hitting somebody in the nose and that’s about as aggressive as you get, but at the same time, he was very, very suave in working with a group.
With the board of trustees on which he served for 25, 30 years maybe, I lost count, he was always respected because he had his own views but he knew how to express them. When the time came, when I looked kind of haggard and old and the board decided it needed to nominate somebody, just in case I died unexpectedly, Sam was nominated for that role. That’s the role he had. It was a wonderful thing that he never had to fulfill that duty. Thank you.
Thank you, Bob. I can personally attest to the fact that Sam had such a sense of decency, grace, and a unique ability to make every person he dealt with feel special. When I first came to FPRI, he took time to teach me and make me feel welcome and I’ll never forget that. Anyway, he was a very, very special person.
Now it’s time to introduce our speakers tonight. Joseph S. Nye Jr., as I mentioned, literally coined the term soft power and the concept of cultural diplomacy. He is Harvard University’s distinguished service professor emeritus and the former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
He received his bachelor degree, summa cum laude, from Princeton University, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard. He also served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He was chair of the National Intelligence Council and a deputy under Secretary of State. He won distinguished service awards from all three agencies.
His books include The Future of Power, The Power Game, A Washington Novel, and Do Morals Matter? Professor Nye is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Diplomacy.
In a recent survey of international relations scholars, he was ranked as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy and in 2011, Foreign Policy Magazine named him one of the top 100 global thinkers. In 2014, Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun.
We also have here tonight to speak with and interview Professor Nye, our very own Robert D. Kaplan, the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at FPRI. He is the best-selling author of I think it’s now 20 books on foreign affairs and travel, which have been translated into many languages and those books include The Good American, The Revenge of Geography, Asia’s Cauldron, Monsoon, the Coming Anarchy, and Balkan Coasts.
For three decades, he reported on foreign affairs for the Atlantic. He’s a member of the Defense Policy board and the U.S. Navy’s executive panel. This is true of both of our speakers, Foreign Policy Magazine also named him one of the world’s top 100 global thinkers. They did that twice.
Without further ado, I’d like to turn the floor over to Robert Kaplan.
Oh, good. Good. Let’s get started. Do you know that soft power has become, and I mean this in a positive sense, a cliché? But cliches don’t start as cliches. They start as a very original thought, and because they’re used so often, they become a cliché. Can you walk us through how you got the idea and what were the circumstances? We’re going back decades I believe at this point.
Was it something you were mulling over for a long time? Was it an idea that came to you suddenly? Did you test it out on your students? How did it work?
Well, thanks, Bob. [inaudible 00:10:06] your question, let me just say that it’s a real pleasure [inaudible 00:10:12]. I should go back to the [inaudible 00:10:23] the question of soft power isn’t something [inaudible 00:10:28]. It was really addressing another issue, which was whether the United States was in decline. Paul Kennedy, the distinguished Yale historian, had written a book, which reached the best-sellers list saying the US was over and done with and this was in the late ’80s, and that we were going the way of Philip the Second in Spain and so forth.
I thought this was wrong. I was trying to explain why it was that I thought America was not in decline and I sort of analyzed American military power, and then I looked at American economic power. Then I said there’s still something missing that gives us power. It’s that power to attract others, so military power gives you a power to coerce, economic power gives you a power to pay, but that ability to attract others is what I wound up calling soft power.
It grew out of a puzzle, as I was trying to explain why I thought the US wasn’t in decline, rather than trying to invent a new term, per se. I was quite surprised when it became, as you put it, a cliché or something widely used. Probably the most surprising day was when Hu Jintao, the Chinese president in 2007, told the Chinese Communist Party that they had to do more to increase China’s soft power. I thought, wow, there’s a concept that I was working on at my kitchen table [inaudible 00:12:18].
Yeah. You had said … I believe you defined soft power as the power to persuade, whether that’s openly to persuade or whether implicitly to persuade as opposed to hard power, which I believe would be to coerce, essentially.
That’s right. That’s right. You think of power as the ability to affect others. There are three ways you can do that. You can do it through coercion, sticks, you can do it through payment, carrots, or you can do it through attraction, of getting others to want what you want. Soft power then is the ability to affect others to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment.
Well, it very much oscillates. I think one way of judging this is by looking at a reputable public opinion poll such as Pew or Gallup, which asks questions regularly about do you find such and such a country attractive or not?
You can say, “Well, that’s just a popularity contest” but actually it turns out that it can affect your ability to influence others. During the Iraq War, George W. Bush wanted to get help from Mexico on voting for security council resolution for the invasion of Iraq and Vicente Fox, who was Bush’s friend and who Bush had cultivated, basically, said, “I can’t help you on this because your position is so unpopular that it’s not attractive here in Mexico.”
There’s a case where lack of soft power had a very real impact on a major foreign policy issue and there are others as well, but you measure it by attractiveness. Attractiveness can sometimes make a difference.
It also has a [inaudible 00:15:00] effect. We often think of … The example I gave you was short-term effect. In the long-term, soft power tends to have impacts which we don’t see in the short-term. For example, if you ask is Russia today using hard power, yes, it is and we’re using a form of hard power back in terms of economic sanctions.
But the interesting question is Russia is losing a lot of its soft power, and that matters not as to whether they will win or lose in Ukraine, though, the attractiveness of Zelenskyy and Ukrainian opposition certainly has increased the willingness of Germans and others to provide military equipment to Russia, but it will have a major impact in the long-term.
If you go back to the Cold War, obviously, American deterrent capability in NATO was crucial in determining the outcome of the Cold War as well as American economic power but the Berlin Wall came down not under a barrage of artillery but under hammers and bulldozers wielded by people whose minds had been changed by western ideas. That’s an example of the importance of soft power in the long-term.
Well, if soft power is the ability to attract, then you have to ask what resources give you that ability to attract? There are many different types of resources but one is a country’s culture and when it’s attractive to others and the second would be our values when we put them into practice. A third is policies, when the policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, but within each of those categories of resources, you can distinguish a particular types of resources.
For example, sometimes people say, “Well, can the same resource produce hard and soft power?” The answer is yes. If I have a naval ship, and I bombard the coast, that’s using a naval ship for creating hard power. If I use that same naval ship to deliver humanitarian assistance, as we did in Indonesia after the tsunami [inaudible 00:18:06], that presence of that naval ship with humanitarian resources produces attractiveness or soft power.
The resources that produce soft power can change, but you can use different types of resources to produce soft power. The key thing is the behavior is what attracts and if it attracts then it’s a resource that can help produce soft power.
Yes. That brings to mind someone who defined navies as not just war-making but navies make port visits, and they can deliver humanitarian aid, so navies can be the softest side of military hard power whereas armies occupy or armies are more purely aggressive instrument. The navies are the diplomats of the military sphere, in a way.
Well, I agree with that but let’s not undersell the army. When I was in the Pentagon, I supervised a program called International Military Education and Training, IMET. Often that was supervised by army units.
When you bring military officers from other countries to live and work with Americans in American military bases that develop friendships to begin to understand our culture, so forth, that can produce attraction. This woman named Carol Atkinson, who has done a book doing a study of military education and training, it shows that it doesn’t convert everybody but it has a net positive impact that’s of some importance.
Well, let’s take it country by country a bit. The United States, was soft power more prevalent under some presidents than others? In other words, Kennedy was handsome, he was attractive, there was something very charismatic about him, and then you had other presidents who did not have those qualities. If you will, can you trace the trajectory of soft power through recent American presidential administrations?
Well, I think if you looked at Kennedy and Johnson, they were certainly different styles. Kennedy did have this youth and attractiveness that you refer to, did things like establish the Peace Corps and other such things. He also got us into Vietnam. Now people debate whether 16,000 troops, which were there when he was assassinated, whether he would have kept them there after he won the election, but Johnson then picked that up and increased it enormously to have a million American troops in Vietnam.
The combination of those two things led to an enormous decline in American soft power. By the end of the ’60s, combining these two presidents, one charismatic, the other a very savvy politician, their policy led to people protesting around the streets against American policy.
In that case, it wasn’t the personality of the president that made the difference in the long run. It was the perceived sense of legitimacy in policy. On the other hand, there’s an aspect of soft power, which goes beyond any given personality or president and that goes to values that I mentioned earlier.
When the people were protesting against American government policy in Vietnam, they weren’t seeing the communist international, they were singing Martin Luther King’s We Shall Overcome. In other words, an aspect of American culture and civil society, the civil rights movement, was the modality, which many people used in protesting. You might almost think of that as a meta soft power, which is the attractiveness of a culture even when the government isn’t living up to it.
If you bring this forward, you’ll see that after Vietnam, the honesty of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and the optimism of Ronald Reagan helped to restore a sense of American soft power. More recently, with the Iraq War, [inaudible 00:23:07] again show that great loss of American attractiveness. The election of Obama as the first African American president helps to raise America’s soft power. I remember talking to a British politician, a member of the House of Lords, he said, “You Americans are amazing.” This was in November of ’08, he said, “You are wildly unpopular and then you have an election like this and all of a sudden, you’re popular again.”
Personalities do matter but this larger question of our values and our culture probably matter more.
Yes. Then you had Nixon who was personally unappealing, he was an unusual politician in that sense. He almost seemed uncomfortable as a politician, but yet he opened up China, and achieved détente with the Soviet Union, and that was obviously popular in its time. It gave the world a sense of relief.
That’s true. I mean, Nixon had some really major problems but he also had some virtues and some policies that worked and were successful. I think as people look back on that period, that there are aspects of his presidency, which are more attractive than they were at the time.
Well, it’s … I’m glad you ask that. Sort of. It’s hard to be impartial on Trump, because he is such a controversial figure in our politics. I wrote a book a year or two ago called Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.
I was [inaudible 00:25:25] how do I be fair to Trump and also assert that he was a net negative for American soft power? Perhaps it could be summed up by Trump’s phrase America first. Now in principle, there’s nothing wrong with that. Macron should say France first. Every president or leader of a country should protect their national interest.
The difference is how you define the national interest, whether you broaden it to include the interests of others or whether you think of it in very narrow terms. Unfortunately, with his rejection of alliances and his rejection of international institutions and goals like helping to stop climate change and so forth, Trump defined American national interests so narrowly that when he said America first, it made everybody else think, “Oh, we’re second” and nobody likes to be thought of as second.
I think the polls show it’s not just my subjective judgment, which I try to describe at length in the book but I think the polls also show that there was a considerable decline in American soft power under the Trump administration.
China, because with China, there was quite a … You know, there was quite a significant period when the Chinese were seen to have soft power. They were … During a period, say, between the death of Mao and the rise of Xi Jinping, and even now, I was just in Saudi Arabia and the Saudis were talking about the attractiveness of the Chinese model, that you could have development, you could have … You could deliver to your population, a rising standard of living without being a democracy and, therefore, the Chinese model is very attractive to many countries in the developing world, even today.
Well, the Chinese model is attractive to countries like Saudi Arabia or, let’s say, Zimbabwe. It’s not very attractive to, let’s say, western Europe or Australia or the United States and so forth. If you look at China’s policies and how do they develop soft power, they’re really different sources that help them and limit them.
A very high Chinese official once asked me to dinner in Beijing, it turned out to be a private dinner, and he wanted to ask how could China increase its soft power? I said, “Well, you have a lot of attraction out of your traditional culture. You also get a lot of attraction from your great economic success, raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.”
I said, “But you have two major drawbacks. One is that you don’t pay enough attention to civil society. You insist on tight party control of everything, so that when you get somebody like a genius like Ai Weiwei, you either jail him or exile him. That deprives you of important aspects of soft power, which grows not out of government policies but out of the larger culture and civil society.”
I said, “The other problem you have is you have a lot of territorial disputes with your neighbors. China has borders with 14 other countries.” You know this very well from your writings. With half a dozen of them, they have serious disputes. It’s very difficult to create attraction or soft power by establishing a Confucius Institute in New Delhi if Chinese soldiers are killing Indian soldiers on the Himalayan border.
I think China is limited … It’s development model may attract Saudis and the Zimbabweans but it’s really not going to attract everybody and, frankly, I’d rather have the American assets for soft power than the Chinese assets.
Okay. Then there’s Russia and I’m assuming that over the last two or three months, Russian soft power, what there was of it, has been depleted or has gone downhill very, very fast and the face of Russia today is the face of almost World War Two style military aggression.
Yeah. I think Russian soft power is in tatters. That’s a pity because if we think of Russian traditional culture, I mean, the glories of Russia in literature and music and painting and so forth, this should attract people. When you have somebody carrying out the atrocities we saw on Bucha, for example, it’s hard to be attracted to Russian culture. I think Putin has shattered what remained of Russian soft power.
That’s very interesting. Then there is France, which I kind of laugh a little bit about because everyone wants to go to Paris, everyone has great memories of going to Paris. I would say far more than people want to go to Berlin or have great memories about Berlin. There’s just something about Paris.
This affects foreign correspondence, it affects diplomats. There’s just like people are obsessed and interested in France, I’ve always felt, far out of proportion to the actual importance of France.
Well, I think that’s true but it’s not new. I mean, what’s fascinating is if you go back to the 18th Century, European courts in eastern Europe, even in Prussia and in Russia, the court language was often French. It was de rigueur, if I can coin a phrase, to speak French and French culture gave France a great deal of soft power.
After the Franco Prussian war in 1870 where the French took a serious beating in terms of hard power, the French created the Alliance Française, which was their effort to promote French culture through government support.
That was basically a compensation for the decline of their hard power to try to see if they could increase their cultural presence and, thereby, increase their soft power. As you noted, to some extent, there’s a residue of that that still works.
Yes. Yeah. There’s just something about France. Just like there’s something about America in a very, very different way, so to speak. Is soft power relative to other states? In other words, even if the United States, let’s say, for the sake of argument, American soft power is in decline, if it’s in even greater decline or faster decline in China, then America still has the edge against China in terms of soft power.
Well, I think that’s right. As you know, all power is relative. I mean, if a country’s military strength is declining but its opponent’s military strength is declining even more rapidly, you’d say despite the decline, one is more powerful than the other and the same is true with soft power. If China’s soft power were really increasing, then we might want to worry more.
China’s soft power is, at best, at a plateau and, frankly, in their support of Russia on Ukraine, they’ve been hurting their own soft power. I was participating this morning in the Boao Forum, which is the Chinese answer to Davos. I was on a panel with a group of Chinese officials and one former Japanese prime minister, Fukuda.
This issue came up. I said, “Look, whatever you may think of the behavior of Russia and Ukraine, abstaining on the resolution in the UN which condemned it, hurts your own soft power. I mean, you Chinese talk about the importance of countries respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity and then Russia goes and outrageously violates those and all you can say is abstention?” I said, “That’s a way to lose your own soft power by tagging it to the Russian soft power.”
To put it in the larger perspective, oh, I don’t know, six months ago, people were talking about the axis of the authoritarians, that this was the way of the future, Xi Jinping talked about the east wind prevailing over the west wind. Well, that axis of the authoritarians looks a little sickly right now.
In that sense, the soft power that came from this belief that this was the way of the future and so forth, I think that’s been damaged by Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, and Chinese behavior in supporting it.
Yes. Absolutely. We’re in a phase now, to quote Vladimir Lenin, where decades can pass and nothing happens but then weeks go by and everything happens. The next few weeks are going to have a great effect over all these questions and over maybe the next 15 years in Russia and beyond.
I think that’s exactly right. It’s quite amazing how the agenda of world politics change. We had been pressing the Germans for years to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and we pressed them for years to increase their defense expenditure to 2% of GDP. We weren’t that good at it, in persuading them but Vladimir Putin managed to do it overnight.
Yeah. It’s incredible. Final question on technology. You’ve written about technology, you’ve written in a larger sense on the nature of power itself and how it’s changing. Any thoughts about soft power given that we’ve left the print and typewriter age and we’re in the digital video age?
Well, the importance of information, I mean, people say we’re in an information age or a digital information age indicates that the resource of producing attraction or destroying attraction is going to switch to digital means, and uses of information.
Using information for warfare is not new. We did it in the Cold War, the Soviets did it in the Cold War, and so forth. What’s new is the role of social media and digital information. I mean, if you look at what the Russians did during the 2016 American presidential election, what’s fascinating is everybody said, “Oh, the Americans dominate because we have these big social media companies that are based in the United States.”
The Russians took that instrument and turned it against [inaudible 00:38:32]. What they did was use our social media, the popularity of Facebook, to create distraction and disruption, if not pure disinformation in the American electoral system.
We have to realize that technology doesn’t inherently provide soft power but is an instrument, which can be used to either increase or destroy soft power, and it’s a two-edged sword. I mean, the fact that a company is based here doesn’t mean that the sword can’t be wielded by someone else.
Technology is changing the way the game is played, but it’s not that what new is information, it’s what new is the volatility. In the past, if you wanted to conduct an information operation in the US, if you were the Soviet Union, you had to train spies, you had to get them visas, you had to give them a good cover, you had to send them to the US and if they’re caught, you lost all that investment.
Now all you do is direct a few electrons through malware into the right computer and if it bounces off, doesn’t cost you a thing. You can do that instantaneously, and at a great distance. You don’t have to worry about visas or borders or anything of that sort.
The game of information warfare has been around for a long time. What technology has done is make it much more accessible to more actors and much more instantaneous in its effects and if we think it’s bad now, we look ahead to something like GPT 3, which is a transformative language device that open AI has developed where it can complete new stories, which can be totally false and it can do it in a minute, or if you take the ability to do deep fake photographs and videos and the fact that you can circulate them on the eve of an election before there will be any time to repudiate then, this whole technology is creating opportunities but also dangers, which we haven’t yet completely come to terms with.
Thank you very much for an informative presentation. You, in the beginning, talked about military power, economic power, and soft power. One of the issues that sprung into my mind was we have good metrics for military power and economic power. We can measure them, we can affect them, but I am troubled … Are there metrics that you would use other than just perceptions of leadership or polls by the populists in how you analyze soft power?
I did. It’s an important [inaudible 00:42:32]. There have been various organizations that have tried to develop soft power indices. There was a group in London, a consultancy, which produced the Soft Power 30 Index, and there have been several of these, which rank countries by various criteria that they use.
They tend to measure the resources that produce soft power, but the important thing with any index of power is that when you measure the resources, which is the easy thing to measure, you may not measure the behavior itself.
For example, even taking your case about military power, we say that country A has 10,000 main battle tanks and country B has 1000 main battle tanks, therefore, country A is 10 times stronger than country B. It all depends on whether the war is fought in a swamp or if it’s fought in a desert, as the Americans found out in Vietnam compared to Iraq. What we measure when we do military balances makes certain assumptions about context, or if you want, we’ll see this in the next few weeks I suppose when the impact of armor in the north of Ukraine, where they are forests and urban barriers, may turn out to be somewhat different from what we’ll see in the plains of eastern Ukraine.
In that case, doing a military balance assessment isn’t quite as simple as it first looks. The same thing is true with soft power. If you measure how much a country produces films, for example, Hollywood versus Bollywood, or if you measure how many books are published or if you measure scientific articles and how many a country produces and so forth, these are the kinds of things that are used as resources to construct the indices that I have mentioned.
It depends. If soft power depends on attraction, something that may attract in one country and one culture doesn’t attract in the other. If I take a Hollywood movie, take something like [inaudible 00:45:19] old television show Baywatch, and it had very attractive women running around in bikinis, and that certainly created soft power for the United States and Brazil but not in Saudi Arabia, where it was seen as the work of the devil.
Soft power depends on the context just like military power depends on the context. Is it a swamp or is it a jungle? I think a shorthand for getting a quick index is these public opinion polls, which give you attractiveness. If you were really serious how you see the impact of soft power, it would probably be by looking at how decision makers’ minds were changed by whether they found a country attractive or not. That was the example I gave earlier of Vicente Fox and George Bush.
But to construct or reconstruct the history of major foreign policy decisions, looking for that kind of evidence, is a lot of work, obviously, so you can get some cases that illustrate it but in the meantime, you’re probably going to be thrown back either on these indices, which try to measure resources, even though, they are dependent upon the context or the shorthand that I’ve been using, which is public opinion polls.
A question from the audience, many of the elements of soft power are not the deliberate result of government spending as such. That said, the USG’s ability to leverage US soft power does depend on spending, ie, investment and diplomacy. Soft power is not an easy sell on Capitol Hill, however. How do you make the case for greater investment in soft power?
Well, it’s a very important point because if you look at historically, we got funding for US Information Agency in the Cold War because of the feeling that we were in a tight competition with the Soviet Union, but when the Cold War ended, Congress basically abolished USIA. The capacities which USIA was supposed to represent were incorporated into the State Department and you have the under secretary for public diplomacy, the area called R in the State Department, but it’s under-funded. It’s very hard to get people to spend money on soft power.
Ironically, it’s not a bad investment. If you ask how much it costs to produce one tank and how much it costs to send a leadership delegation from an African country to Washington or to Iowa for a week or so, one is a lot cheaper than the other. But we don’t do a very good job of selling that.
Fortunately, a good deal of American soft power is produced by our civil society. It’s produced by everything from Hollywood to universities to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and so forth, or think tanks like FPRI. That’s a great source of attractiveness for us. Much of that is independent of government spending but that doesn’t mean that better budgetary resources for government programs wouldn’t be a good idea. It would be. But as the questioner put it, it’s a hard sell.
Thank you. Maybe to build upon that last question a little bit is when you described soft power, there’s the general overall soft power, the overall attractiveness of a company, versus the more very specific, in this African nation we’re going to target a delegation and bring them to the US. When you think of soft power, how much is the broad soft power and the attractiveness of the culture in general versus more specific efforts, particularly, as you think about diplomacy?
Well, we get a good deal of soft power from our values, as I mentioned. A lot of foreign students and so forth are affected by the values that are declared in the Declaration of Independence going back to this Museum of the American Revolution. You know, we hold these truths to be self-evident, or the Statue of Liberty. There’s some amount of soft power, which we gain from being what John Winthrop called the city on a hill. We don’t have to broadcast, we don’t have to do anything. Just by representing certain power values, assuming we live up to them, we can generate a good deal of soft power.
On the other hand, it helps to have an amplifier. That’s what Voice of America or Radio Free Europe and so forth are, or that’s what these Fulbright program is about or that’s what these leadership tours are about. I saw some statistics a while ago about the number of existing presidents and prime ministers around the world who had come to the United States on a leadership tour for a week or two, sponsored by the State Department, and it was extraordinary how many had been visited to the United States.
I think what success in this area is to use both our civil society and our government programs and it’s interesting that if you look at China, they have a lot of government programs, bringing people from an African country to Beijing and so forth, but they don’t have a lot in terms of civil society. There are not a lot of African leaders or students who are clamoring to go to Chinese universities. They generally prefer American or European universities.
It means we have to keep alert. We have to put more effort into it. Our civil society and attractiveness of our culture and values gives us a head start, but it doesn’t give us everything we need to run the race or win the race.
You know, this brings back memories for me, because I remember as a young journalist in Eastern Europe during the Cold War how people would crowd into U.S. Information Agency libraries. You know, the American libraries that were attached to U.S. embassies, and also the fascination with following the American space program in the 1970s. People were just fascinated by this, young people.
Another question from the audience, in my youth, American rock and roll and Hollywood seem to exert a strong attraction on youth in Europe and elsewhere. Are there equivalents in today’s world or has American pop culture lost its leading position of influence?
My impression is that American pop culture still has a very powerful influence. Speaking personally, since I’m an old generation, I’m not a great fan of hip hop but if you look around the world, you’ll find that hip hop is quite popular in other countries and other cultures.
I think the same thing with American films, that Hollywood, for all its failures and excesses at times, is still very definitely attractive. If you take, let’s say, aspects of American culture, that are more trivial like t-shirts that support the Red Sox or the Phillies or something, you’ll go to … Let me change from Zimbabwe to Zambia, next door, you’ll go there and you’ll find kids wearing them.
I think American pop culture still has a powerful impact. It’s not in of itself sufficient to create soft power. In other words, you can find somebody who is drinking a Coca-Cola who still hates Americans. On the other hand, the fact that American pop culture still does capture the minds of probably more people than any other popular culture, including Chinese popular culture, I think does give us something of a leg up.
No. I’m trying carefully not to say it depends. The Pope has a good deal of soft power and other than a few Swiss guards, not much military power. That’s an existence theorem, if you want.
Let me take an example of small countries, which don’t have significant military power. They have some but they’re never going to be super powers. Norway, five million people, and it has a great deal of soft power because its values are attractive to others and its foreign policy is attractive. It dedicates 1% of its gross domestic product to international development assistance. It takes leading positions on issues like climate change and so forth.
A lot of people are attracted to Norway, even though, Norway’s military power is fairly limited. Or Singapore is another example. Singapore is, again, about five million people and it has enough military power to be able to present itself to Indonesia, its neighbor, or to China, as what it calls a poison shrimp. In other words, don’t swallow us, you’ll be sorry, but it’s also true that they couldn’t possibly defend themselves if they were seriously attacked.
Singapore gets a lot of soft power through its cultivating its neighbors in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and its programs to educate people from other countries by taking them through Singapore. We had a program at the Kennedy School at Harvard when I was dean, in which we had a series of what were called Lee Kuan Yew fellows. These were people from not just Singapore but from other southeast Asian nations who came, let’s say, from Myanmar or Thailand or Indonesia, spent a few months in the National University of Singapore, and then went for a few months at Harvard. The Singaporeans benefited from the soft power that that created. That didn’t rest upon Singapore’s hard power or its military power.
Another question from the virtual audience, how did the well documented, publicized six January riots, the daily dysfunction of US government, and engagements with autocratic countries play in terms of impacting the values and culture of the US internationally and the effectiveness of US power?
Well, I think that’s an extremely important question and it’s one that’s been worrying me. I’ve been trying to ask the issue of how do we recover some of the soft power that we lost during the Trump years, when we turned our back on allies and international institutions.
We did recover, as I mentioned earlier, from our loss of soft power during the Vietnam War. We’ve seen some … In public opinion polls, we’ve seen some recovery in American soft power from the replacement of President Trump and the [inaudible 01:00:50] of American first narrowly defined.
But there’s still a great deal of anxiety in other countries about the strength of American democracy. Is the new populism, as it’s sometimes called, going to, again, lead us to turn inward to a narrow view of America first? Are we going to be able to preserve democratic values and processes, which have attracted others in the past? January 6th is a symbol of that. It worries a lot of people and it sets certain limits on our recovery of soft power.
Thank you very much, Professor Nye and Bob for this very insightful session with both of you and virtually as well. As a friend, as friends of FPRI that are here this evening, we especially appreciate your acknowledging FPRI is also an instrument of soft power. As you mentioned, the exchange of international students does that.
To just add a few more illustrations onto that, I mean, we in Philadelphia are very proud of our Philadelphia orchestra, which, of course, was an instrument of soft power in the opening to China and we have medical institutions now doing a lot of international work.
Are there other examples we might be aware of? Have we pretty well covered the gamut of the types of activities? I’m sure there are many more that you would propose are truly soft power by the private sector?
Well, actually, if you look at American companies, how companies behave is important in terms of attraction. A lot of people in other countries, they have much more contact with the American private sector than they do with the American government.
In that extent, to which we make good products is crucial, but also the way we present ourselves and them and have a sense of corporate responsibility that attracts others, this is another source of soft power. Now a company and a country are not the same thing. I mean, after all, multinational corporations, many of them derive more than half their profits from outside the boundaries of the United States. Nonetheless, they still tend to have a residual national identity, so in that sense, their behavior does reflect on the country.
In addition, to the private sector, corporations, there are foundations that I mentioned briefly earlier, American foundations are very diverse, are very active, do all sorts of things overseas, and have a strong effect on others. The dramatic ones are ones like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have programs in the medical area, that exceed those of some of our government departments, but they’re also small charities and organizations. I give annually a small amount of money to an organization called, which supports the purchase of cows for people in villages and poor countries.
It’s a very small organization but there’s so many of them. In that sense, to respond to your question, we think of always the big things but the small things matter as well.
Well, let’s take Vladimir Putin, since I’m not sure when we say Russia, I’m not sure Putin represents all Russians. It’s worth noticing that … I read a figure, I guess it was in the Financial Times or something, that over 200,000 people in high tech had exited Russia because they so disagreed with Putin’s policies.
Well, that’s a very high cost for the Russian economy but let’s say that … Russia is more than just Putin but if we just say Putin doesn’t care, I think it will be expensive to him over time. In other words, look at the question of can he recruit support right now for his campaign? I mentioned earlier, the extraordinary turnaround in Germany.
It used to be that you had a number of Germans who were quite defensive of the Russian connection. There’s a long tradition of this in Russia/German relations. In fact, former German chancellor, Schroeder, was the chairman of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. When you made efforts to try to block Nord Stream 2, there was a certain attraction to Russia, traditional attraction reinforced by economic interests, and this led the Germans to resist the American requests for stopping Nord Stream 2.
Then Putin does this brutal invasion of his neighbor, denying Ukraine has a right to exist as a country, and all of a sudden, German policy turns overnight. Russia lost or Putin had lost his soft power. There is a pretty clear identifiable cost in the short run of the loss of soft power.
What worries me is that some day, we’re going to have to live with Russia, hopefully, a post-Putin Russia, and we’re going to have to reintegrate Russia into our western culture and the international system and, in some ways, I worry a little bit that while I agree fully with what’s going on with punishing Russia now, I think we’re going to have to look ahead over a longer term to a post-Putin Russia and ask how we deal with it and integrate it.
Thank you. One of the things that’s been troubling me and it’s slightly related to what we’ve been talking about is what’s happened to artists and athletes in terms of the western world, for example, what happened today at Wimbledon where they’re not allowing any Russians or people from Belarus to play at Wimbledon and what’s been happening to artists across the board.
How do you think about that? Especially because you’ve also dealt with issues around writing about morality. What’s your feeling about what the reaction should be and is to that?
Well, that’s a great question and a really tough one to give a single answer to. To name and shame Russia for its behavior is a way to reinforce the norm that you don’t cross borders with force and steal your neighbor’s territory. Then the question is how far do you go in terms of who you include in that?
If you have an oligarch or if you have a musical conductor like Gergiev, who is close to Putin, then I think boycotting them makes sense. If you have an outright over-supporter of Putin or a defender of the war, then I think they should be named and shamed and deprived an opportunity.
I worry, though, when it gets to Russians who have been willing to criticize the war or disassociate themselves from the war, and have no clear relationship to Putin, I think as we exclude them, we wind up anathematizing Russians generally, and that violates this point that I was making in my answer to the previous question, that some day we’re going to have to reintegrate Russia into western culture and the international system.
But how you draw the line on any particular case is very difficult. I think you’re going to have sincere disagreements among people about where the line is drawn but my own view is we shouldn’t be punishing all Russians, but we should punish enough Russians with clear and obvious connections to Putin or a willingness to defend the invasion of Ukraine, they should be clearly punished, and how you draw that line in each particular case is going to be somewhat controversial.
Yes. I think that in the last few weeks or two months have seen a dramatic change in soft power. You know, around the world, and we’re only in the early stages of this. We don’t know where it’s going to lead. But you’re right, Joe, that we’re going to have to deal with Russia. You know, very much so.
We also have to think in terms of a post-Putin Russia could be a chaotic Russia, it could be even a more nationalist Russia, or it could be a more democratic liberal Russia. We don’t know at this point, but we have to I think in terms of the Russian population, not ostracize them. You know, because we will have to deal with Russia, because Henry Adams, the great historian of about 120 years ago in his book, The Education of Henry Adams, said that Europe’s perennial challenge was, is, and always will be Russia. He wrote this around 1910, because Russia was too big to absorb into Europe but not quite European enough, like western Europe. Russia, as an issue, as a challenge, is going to be with us for years to come.
Well, my final word is that I agree with what Bob just said but also that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a chance to visit FPRI, which is an organization that I’ve long admired and to have a nice conversation with my friend Bob Kaplan, with whom we shared some years on the defense policy board together. For me, it’s been a very pleasant evening and as I looked at the menu you have for dinner, I’m just sorry I couldn’t be there in person. All the best for your future.
Thanks. Thank you, Professor Nye, Bob Kaplan, thank you very much. Fascinating and really appreciate it. I’d also like to, once again, say thank you to the Museum of the American Revolution for hosting us, to the Savitz family for their generosity in sponsoring this lecture series, to our board of trustees, many of whom are here tonight, and to our members of both here and in the audience at home, and tell you how much we appreciate and depend on your support. FPRI, this event tonight is in the tradition of FPRI to look at topics, deeply, and topics that others aren’t paying attention to. We’re grateful to you and we wish you a good evening.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.