Maximizing Soft Power: the Key to American Foreign Policy

Maximizing Soft Power: the Key to American Foreign Policy

In his book, the Paradox of American Power, Joseph Nye Jr - Maximizing Soft Power: the Key to American Foreign Policy introduction. discusses how the information revolution and globalization have helped change the balance of power in international relations. Nye posits that with the changes brought about by the progress in information technology and the increase in global interdependence, military power is not enough and that soft power has become a key element in successfully pursuing American foreign policy.

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The information revolution and globalization alter the world of American foreign policy because they give rise and empower different non-traditional political actors to contend with in the shaping of policy. The information revolution is the rapid technological advances in computers, communications and software making it cheaper, more efficient, and powerful than it was fifty years ago. According to Nye, information revolution is characterized not merely by the speed but by the enormous decrease in terms of cost of transmitting information. Since the cost has gone down and the size of computers have shrunk, it has been convenient now more than ever for people to get in touch with one another and exchange information instantaneously, making information available and accessible all over the world. Indeed, it is largely because of information revolution that the levels of globalization – economic, social, and military – have increased. It is important to note that Nye stresses that globalization does not mean Americanization, and that globalization has been happening for centuries but that what is crucial that is happening now is that the worldwide networks of interdependence among peoples and nations have grown “thicker and quicker”, meaning that people today utilize the available resources that link them with other actors who hold the same interests. That is why suddenly, software engineers and graphic artists in Asia are working for US firms without ever having to leave their respective countries, environmentalists in Tokyo and the United Kingdom update their counterparts in the United States in a matter of seconds, terrorists relay messages and plans across countries through the intricate linkages they have set up, and news media cover and simultaneously broadcast events happening around the globe anywhere in the globe. Nye points that it is possible for states to impose central surveillance to have more control over the flow of information and their jurisdiction is far too costly.

Together, information revolution and globalization help diffuse the locus of power from states by empowering private companies and non-government organizations, and also diffuse power from large states to small states and non-state actors as well, resulting in an overall decentralization and leveling of power among political actors, and a shrinking world where the state competes and/or cooperates with transnational companies and non-governmental organizations depending on the situation. With increasing globalization and sharing of information, the state finds that although territorial boundaries have remained, in practice these have blurred. The state needs to deal with companies and groups operating across national borders to implement its policies like preventing smuggled goods and illegal drugs from entering the country, to safeguarding its interests like protecting the local fowl from avian flu and deporting illegal migrants.

The changes brought about by the information revolution and globalization emphasize the growing importance of soft power vis-à-vis hard power as presented by Nye. Nye uses soft power as the ability to attract and influence other actors to want what you want. Nye illustrates that for all purposes, military power is still important especially in fighting off terrorism, but that military power alone cannot solve international issues. Flexing the US military muscle entails costs that could otherwise be foregone, if only it will utilize its soft power to attract others to take up its cause and give it their support, especially in a globalizing world where relations among nations and states and non-state actors are increasingly intertwined and important.

Nye argues that in this day and age when information is everywhere, soft power is stressed since there is a scarcity of attention. With too many information, people need help to know which information to pay attention to, and editors and cue-givers play an important role in playing up and framing questions and issues. The struggle for power becomes a struggle to present information, and the one who presents the information with the highest credibility wins the audience. States who have high credibility are those whose culture and ideas are closer to prevailing global norms, those who have most access to channels of communication and therefore have more power to influence how to frame issues and questions, and those whose credibility are backed up and enhanced by their domestic and international performance. Credibility becomes an important source of soft power.

Likewise, the increase in globalization meant that states have to work with various private actors and non-government organizations as these contribute to governing civil societies as well, reshaping the role of governments as arbiter of interests.  States find that they cannot solve multilateral issues like terrorism, drug trafficking, AIDS and global warming by acting unilaterally. Transnational corporations and non-profit organizations including global policy networks wield their own brand of soft power too, with the former setting standards and rules beyond state control – both host and agent –, and the latter mobilizing shame and sympathy on their issues of interest to gain support (such as environmental groups, Transparency International and World Wide Fund for Nature). Also, globalization has strengthened US soft power as most of the global communication channels are American (Hollywood, Cartoon Network, MTV), influencing other cultures and peoples. The spreading of American culture and values has gained the country popularity and foreign markets by championing liberalism and democracy, and ambivalence from other nations that view this spread of American culture as global homogenization.  However, Nye puts forward that the United States is able to give so much to the world because of its openness to other cultures as well, infusing and mixing different cultures (Chinese, African, Latin American) to American culture, and that other cultures take from American culture what it can and infusing it in their own.

Nye’s assertions that the changes brought about by the information technology and globalization makes soft power an indispensable resource is forceful since it shows that in this world exist other actors – states, non-government organizations, transnational companies, international organizations – whose existence and importance in pursuing American foreign policy cannot be ignored nor take for granted, that the United States can no longer continue acting unilaterally because the balance of power and the dynamics of the international arena has changed. The cold war has long ended, the United States can claim to be a hegemon because of its military and economic supremacy and declare wars and refuse to cooperate with international efforts on any number of issues, but the fact remains that the rest of the world is bigger than the United States. By pursuing foreign policies unilaterally, the United States gains disrespect and loses the trust of other states because it is against the values that it espouses – democracy, the will of the majority – making it more difficult to carry out its policies. Instead of acting unilaterally, it will do well if the United States can utilize the soft power that it has and cooperate with other states and non-state actors to implement its policies. The United States played a big part in bringing about the information revolution and globalization with its values of liberalism, pluralism, autonomy and democracy, and it will gain the support of more political actors if only it could practice its values in the international arena.

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