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Small acts of engagement

A Unitarian Universalist expert on international relations praises the 'soft power' of attraction.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
January/February 2005 1.1.05

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Only one day after Joseph S. Nye Jr. moved out of the dean's office at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and back into a professor's office, he had already unpacked the most important things. Pictures of the lanky, gray-haired Nye fly-fishing were hanging neatly on the walls. Still in stacks on the floor were dozens of framed photographs of Nye shaking hands with world leaders including Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Margaret Thatcher.

After eight and a half years as dean of the Kennedy School, Nye is returning to teaching international relations. Before he returns to the Harvard classroom, Nye will spend a year as a visiting fellow at Oxford University's storied Balliol College. That's a setting well suited to Nye, a patrician and soft-spoken 68-year-old, who seems to be as much at ease among the spires of Oxford as he is fly-fishing in a New England stream.

Nye is best known for having developed one of the most compelling international relations theories since the Cold War ended. The theory centers not on a nation's military might, which he categorizes as "hard power," but instead on the often more persuasive "soft power" that can attract other nations through diplomacy, culture, ideals, and policies.

Soft power can take many forms. Franklin Delano Roosevelt transmitted soft power to Europe in 1941 with his famous Four Freedoms Address naming the freedoms every human ought to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Young people behind the Iron Curtain experienced America's soft power when listening to American music and news on Radio Free Europe. Chinese students in Tiananmen Square who held up a model of the Statue of Liberty were responding to it and using its symbolism. "Seduction is always more effective than coercion," says Nye. "And many of our values, such as democracy, human rights, and individual opportunity, are deeply seductive." Any institution that seeks to attract rather than coerce has soft power--including churches.

Nye's ideas about soft power have been steadily gaining currency among world leaders since he coined the phrase in the late 1980s. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and retired General Wesley Clark have cited it, as have the British foreign minister, the former archbishop of Canterbury, and political leaders, editorial writers, and academics around the world. Also notable are those leaders who are not familiar with Nye's theory. Nye recalls a 2003 conference in Washington at which he spoke in the morning about soft power, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke in the evening. An audience member asked Rumsfeld for his opinion on soft power. Rumsfeld replied, "I don't know what it means."

Whether Rumsfeld has since learned, Nye isn't so sure. "I hadn't noticed," he laughs. That is part of the problem in the United States today, Nye writes in his recent book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. "Some of our leaders do not understand the crucial importance of soft power in our reordered post-September 11 world," he continues. "As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich observed about the Bush administration's approach in Iraq, 'The real key is not how many enemy do I kill. The real key is how many allies do I grow.'"


Soft power is an idea that resonates with many Unitarian Universalists. And Nye happens to be one himself. He has been a member of the First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, since he moved to the historic town in the mid-1960s, attending the white church by the Battle Green with his wife, Molly Harding Nye, and three sons, now grown. "I don't see myself as a UU thinker," says Nye, who was raised as a Presbyterian. "I see myself as a Harvard professor who is a political analyst who just happens to be a UU." Nye gave a lecture about soft power at his church last spring and says he feels comfortable there because of the views about morality and the world that he finds in the congregation.

The soft power theory is one that, at first glance, seems to mesh seamlessly with commonly held UU beliefs. But it's a mistake to equate soft power with the pacifism that many UUs embrace. "There's a danger of some UUs turning a blind eye to the fact that there are some people in the world who are not susceptible to soft power," Nye says. "Unitarian Universalism is a denomination where we sometimes fail to realize that we have to combine hard and soft power," says Nye, unapologetically making the case for military might in select situations. "You can't always reason with a hardened criminal. You can't always reason with someone who is an absolute dictator as Saddam Hussein was or as Kim Jung Il is in North Korea, or historically as Hitler was or Stalin was."

The Rev. John Buehrens, former UUA president and now minister of the First Parish in Needham, Massachusetts, has described the schism between UU pacifists and UUs who believe there are occasions that justify military action as "one of the hidden fault lines among us."

Resolving the tremors along this fault line is problematic yet critical, Buehrens believes, and he thinks theories like Nye's go a long way toward advancing the discussion. "One of the great dilemmas for liberal idealists in the twenty-first century will be working out what the just criteria are for the use of power," says Buehrens.

To Nye, the key is to combine soft power with hard power deftly to create a third kind of power, "smart power." Says Nye, "The key is to combine power, both hard and soft, with moral purpose. If you have the capacity to attract others, then you're not going to have to use as many carrots and sticks."


Nye has argued in numerous op-ed articles that the Bush administration failed by not using sufficient soft power in Iraq. "By using hard power too quickly," he says, the Bush administration "undercut America's attractiveness, thereby squandering our use of soft power."

Regaining the lost soft power will be complicated and expensive. And it will depend on policy changes, such as finding a political solution in Iraq, investing more heavily in advancing the Middle East peace process, and working more closely to involve allies and international institutions, Nye argued in May 2004 in the International Herald Tribune. "Most polls show that our unilateralism has convinced people in other countries that we do not consider and respect their interests," he wrote.

By overusing our own hard power, argued Nye, the United States risks driving more people into the arms of terrorist recruiters. Terrorist groups have their own power to attract, and the United States risks bolstering the soft power of the terrorists by alienating moderate Islamists. "The war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations—Islam versus the West—but rather a civil war within Islamic civilization between extremists who use violence to enforce their vision and a moderate majority who want such things as jobs, education, health care, and dignity as they practice their faith," wrote Nye. "We will not win unless the moderates win. Our soft power will never attract Osama bin Laden and the extremists. We need hard power to deal with them. But soft power will play a crucial role in our ability to attract the moderates and deny the extremists new recruits."

Nye developed many of his insights about world power as an academic, but he also draws on his own decorated government service. During the Clinton administration, he served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, for which he received the Distinguished Service Medal. Also in the Clinton years, Nye was chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates intelligence estimates for the president. He was awarded a second Distinguished Service Medal by the intelligence community. During the Carter administration, he served as deputy to the undersecretary of state for security assistance, science and technology and chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, for which he received the highest Department of State commendation, the Distinguished Honor Award. His name was floated for a potential high-level post if John Kerry had won the 2004 election.

Although he has been out of official government service since the mid-1990s, Nye's office still attracts world dignitaries. Our interview in July was sandwiched between Nye's appointments with the ambassador from India, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, and an appearance on the Today Show.

In the midst of his government service, tenure as Kennedy School dean, heralded thinker, and entertainer of world dignitaries, Nye crafted a novel over the last decade. Think of the book as a bit of soft power for the cause of soft power. Published in November, The Power Game is a Washington thriller swirling around a fly-fishing international relations professor turned undersecretary of state.

It's irresistible to see Joe Nye in the novel's main character, Peter Cutler, but Nye denies that he's wholly embodied in any one character. For all the work he's done exploring hard power, soft power, and smart power academically and in the public sector, Nye still found there were avenues he could explore best through fiction. "There are dimensions about morality and power which I've written about analytically but which I still couldn't quite get at until fiction," he says. "In fiction, you extrapolate your dreams and nightmares and take things which you may have decided one way and suppose what it might have been like if they had gone another way."

Although Nye says Unitarian Universalism has not influenced his political theories, it's hard not to see its influence in his fiction. The main character's father is a minister drawn to Emerson's transcendentalism, and his grandfather quotes Thoreau. A whirlwind series of events leads the professor from Princeton to Washington and through Europe and Asia. But in the end, life's questions seem to all come down to fly-fishing in New England. The protagonist's father tells him, "Someday you'll learn that fly-fishing isn't about the fish." It's a lesson Nye teaches the reader, too. Amid political intrigue, power struggles, and impending nuclear war, fly-fishing becomes his metaphor for the proposition that small acts of engagement are what matter.

That's one point on which the character, Peter Cutler, and the author seem to agree. "Fly-fishing makes one concentrate on the details in nature, and it helps to recenter oneself," says Nye. "Using power for public policy is important, but if one loses touch with small acts of daily engagement, there is a danger of losing perspective."


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