Center for Strategic Communication

Image Credit: Flickr - Laura Padgett

Image Credit: Flickr – Laura Padgett

In Foreign Policy today, Joseph Nye penned an article discussing China and Russia’s desire to increase their soft power. As originator of the term, Nye explains that neither China nor Russia understands exactly how to do this.

Though Nye is correct in identifying China and Russia’s difficulty with soft power, he neglects to get down to the core issue on why this is difficult.

As soft power is the ability to attract rather than coerce or pay-off, the ability to grow and use soft power is a bit more nebulous. Unlike hard power, soft power is not something that can simply be bought, constructed or traded like a tangible object. Rather, soft power results from the collective attributes of a nation, through action, history, culture and rhetoric. It cannot be applied like a fragrance to freshen a rotten product.

Despite the ebb and flow of American Soft power since the turn of the century, it remains overall fairly strong. Nye contends that “much of America’s soft power is produced by civil society – everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture – not from the government.”

While this is arguably true, I would not remove government as a major variable in the soft power equation. Much of what Hollywood, academia, and civil society are able to do is enabled directly by our principles of government.

Certainly, what can only be described as dysfunction in the American government right now—especially in regards to the fiscal situation—has an eroding effect on U.S. soft power. Though internal bickering may result in an inability to pass a budget, no amount of cooperation gives Congress the ability pass a measure to requisition more soft power, or contract a company to design it. But it can pass legislation that frees it to grow on its own.

Rather than trying to “use” more soft power, Russia and China must first act to earn it. Moral leadership, technological leadership, financial leadership, and foreign policy leadership and setting standards for individual rights are all factors that can help to increase soft power. In the case of Russia and China, making more deliberate efforts to resolve issues on the international scene could make a difference. Russia should distance itself from its support of the Assad regime in Syria. China should pursue diplomacy to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Both countries should work to increase freedom of the individual within their borders. That’s how you increase your soft power.

For America, technological and scientific leadership have long been a strong factor in its soft power reserve. Yet we are at risk of losing this. For example, recent cuts in fusion energy research—one of America’s most challenging, yet promising research fields—may cause this country to lag behind. Explaining the harm this can cause, ASP’s Nick Cunningham and Theodore MacDonald recently wrote in AOL Energy today:

As other countries invest more heavily in fusion power, America’s leadership in this field will soon come to an end. Ceding a new high-tech industry to competitors will result in a decline in America’s competitive edge, and its best and brightest scientists will be lured by more advanced facilities abroad.

If America wants to maintain its competitive edge in soft power, it needs to take the action necessary to do it. That means continuing to make those scientific breakthroughs that so many admire this nation for. That means continuing to uphold the principles enshrined in our founding documents.

Thus, it is in our interest to attract the best and brightest from overseas. Historically, those minds have contributed greatly to all aspects of American society. And is it their contribution to building this country through their intellect and hard work in a framework of economic and cultural freedom that forms the basis of American soft power.

Are we in danger of losing our soft power edge to Russia and China? At this point, the answer is no. Should we be frightened by their efforts to augment and enhance their soft power? The answer is also no. Soft power is not a zero-sum game—one country cannot attack and weaken another’s soft power. The only way America risks losing its soft power edge is by pursuing negative actions and neglecting the very things that make it so strong.