Joseph S. Nye, Jr and Smart Power

An analysis of the latest book (2004) by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye setting out the principles of ‘smart power,’ a PR approach to managing foreign policy which the Obama Administration has taken to heart.


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and Smart Power


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




As I mentioned in a recent analytical article about Hilary Clinton’s programmatic speech to the Council of Foreign Relations on July 15, 2009, the Secretary of State found a key inspiration for the foreign policy concept of the Obama administration in the writings of Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye.


The central issue in Nye’s work for the past decade or so has been ‘soft power,’ the power of attraction and co-optation in international relations. Nye revisited and refined the concept in several books before arriving at a formula for combining soft power with traditional ‘hard power’ of military and economic coercion to arrive at ‘smart power” as the optimal way to deal with a world which divides between democracies, where cooperation and mutual influence are the rule, and the remaining half of the world where force or the threat of force is often the only way to resolve differences. This balanced approach to foreign policy is set out at length in his book entitled Soft Power: The means to success in world politics (New York: 2004).


Nye’s obvious success in reaching his intended audience of top American policy makers places him among the leading thinkers who have shaped the debate on foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and justifies the careful attention to his 2004 book which I will attempt in the analytical article which follows.


A Gentleman and a Scholar


Joseph S. Nye’s career in many ways embodies the finest principles of Harvard University, where he has occupied a number of different positions and now is a senior professor. Nye has alternated periods of scholarship with university administration and high level public service in the nation’s capital. He is a former dean of the prestigious Kennedy School of Government. In Washington he served as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and was Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration……


The unwilling partisan fighter


Let us say right away that the period when Nye wrote this book was a time of high partisanship in American political life. It was slightly more than a year after the US invasion of Iraq, when a brief domestic debate over the advisability of pursuing a military intervention without the legitimacy of a UN Security Council resolution was cut short by the blitzkrieg overthrow of the regime in Baghdad and the subsequent lock-step conformism of American society, including its institutions of higher learning, in support of ‘our boys’ serving valiantly in wartime.


In these conditions, Nye tried his level best to present a neutral, scholarly persona. The text has the feel of the passive voice or third person as the author sets out the views of his chosen sources without ever appearing to side with them He treated the then raging neoconservatives with kid gloves. He was deferential to the pamphleteer Robert Kagan, referring in a complimentary fashion to his popular book Of Paradise and Power with its justifications for a warlike America versus pacifist Europe. His differences of opinion with Charles Krauthammer, the rabid neoconservative columnist in The Washington Post, are couched in the most respectful terms. Moreover, Nye’s critical words with respect to the Bush administration are reserved only for the second-tier players like Rumsfeld and Cheney, whom he faults for arrogance and unilateralism which undermined US ‘soft power.’ As for the president, Nye only extends bouquets as he praises George W. Bush repeatedly for launching his HIV/AIDS programs abroad and for supporting increased development assistance though the Millennium Challenge initiative, both of which meet his conditions for creating the public good that enhances soft power.


This attempt at being accommodating and loyal does not seem to have earned for Nye any reciprocal respect from the other side of the aisle. In fact, from the time when he first proposed it, Nye ran into opposition to his concept of ‘soft power’ that ranged from skepticism to outright dismissive treatment. In the Preface to his book, Nye himself calls attention to the remark by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that he did not know what was meant by ‘soft power.’ And one does not have to be a neoconservative to give short shrift to the concept. In his recent bestselling book Power Rules, middle-of-the-road realist foreign policy analyst. Leslie Gelb writes that hard military power is the currency of international relations, and condescendingly calls ‘soft power’ just foreplay. Gelb somewhat maliciously traces the shifts and turns in Nye’s thinking over the years from single-minded attention to soft power to a more nuanced appreciation of the balance between the forces of attraction and coercion in management of international relations.


In the critique below I will not question the notion of ‘soft power’ in terms of its efficacy or recommended weighting in a nation’s foreign policy. Instead I intend to direct attention to the methodology of Nye’s research. The point will be to see just what level of scholarship we have before us, what kind of critical faculty is at work and the degree of scholarly seriousness, namely how this compares with the photographic and biographical portraits of the author offered by the publisher.


Secondly I will spend some time exploring the mindset that gave rise to the concept of soft power. The central notion of soft power/smart power is embedded in a broader view of the world in general, the threats and opportunities facing the United States, the priorities for foreign policy. These have to be flushed out to better understand what the adoption of ‘smart power’ in the Clinton formulation means for American foreign policy generally.



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For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.   G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2009-2010