Stop Getting Mad, America. Get Smart.

By Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Sunday, December 9, 2007

The world is dissatisfied with American leadership. Shocked and frightened after 9/11, we put forward an angry face to the globe, not one that reflected the more traditional American values of hope and optimism, tolerance and opportunity.

This fearful approach has hurt the United States' ability to bring allies to its cause, but it is not too late to change. The nation should embrace a smarter strategy that blends our "hard" and "soft" power -- our ability to attract and persuade, as well as our ability to use economic and military might. Whether it is ending the crisis in Pakistan, winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deterring Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions, managing China's rise or improving the lives of those left behind by globalization, the United States needs a broader, more balanced approach.

Lest anyone think that this approach is weak or naive, remember that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates used a major speech on Nov. 26 "to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use 'soft' power and for better integrating it with 'hard' power." We -- one Republican, one Democrat -- have devoted our lives to promoting American preeminence as a force for good in the world. But the United States cannot stay on top without strong and willing allies and partners. Over the past six years, too many people have confused sharing the burden with relinquishing power. In fact, when we let others help, we are extending U.S. influence, not diminishing it.

Since 9/11, the war on terrorism has shaped this isolating outlook, becoming the central focus of U.S. engagement with the world. The threat from terrorists with global reach is likely to be with us for decades. But unless they have weapons of mass destruction, groups such as al-Qaeda pose no existential threat to the United States -- unlike our old foes Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

In fact, al-Qaeda and its ilk hope to defeat us by using our own strength against us. They hope that we will blunder, overreact and turn world opinion against us. This is a deliberately set trap, and one whose grave strategic consequences extend far beyond the costs this nation would suffer from any small-scale terrorist attack, no matter how individually tragic and collectively painful. We cannot return to a nearsighted pre-9/11 mindset that underestimated the al-Qaeda threat, but neither can we remain stuck in a narrow post-9/11 mindset that alienates much of the world.

More broadly, when our words do not match our actions, we demean our character and moral standing. We cannot lecture others about democracy while we back dictators. We cannot denounce torture and waterboarding in other countries and condone it at home. We cannot allow Cuba's Guantanamo Bay or Iraq's Abu Ghraib to become the symbols of American power.

The United States has long been the big kid on the block, and it will probably remain so for years to come. But its staying power has a great deal to do with whether it is perceived as a bully or a friend. States and non-state actors can better address today's challenges when they can draw in allies; those who alienate potential friends stand at greater risk.

The past six years have demonstrated that hard power alone cannot secure the nation's long-term goals. The U.S. military remains the best in the world, even after having been worn down from years of war. We will have to invest in people and materiel to maintain current levels of readiness; as a percentage of gross domestic product, U.S. defense spending is actually well below Cold War levels. But an extra dollar spent on hard power will not necessarily bring an extra dollar's worth of security.

After all, security threats are no longer simply military threats. China is building two coal-fired power plants each week. U.S. hard power will do little to curb this trend, but U.S.-developed technology can make Chinese coal cleaner, which helps the environment and opens new markets for American industry.

In a changing world, the United States should become a smarter power by once again investing in the global good -- by providing things that people and governments want but cannot attain without U.S. leadership. By complementing U.S. military and economic strength with greater investments in soft power, Washington can build the framework to tackle tough global challenges. We call this smart power.

Smart power is not about getting the world to like us. It is about developing a strategy that balances our hard (coercive) power with our soft (attractive) power. During the Cold War, the United States deterred Soviet aggression through investments in hard power. But as Gates noted late last month, U.S. leaders also realized that "the nature of the conflict required us to develop key capabilities and institutions -- many of them non-military." So the United States used its soft power to rebuild Europe and Japan and to establish the norms and institutions that became the core of the international order for the past half-century. The Cold War ended under a barrage of hammers on the Berlin Wall rather than a barrage of artillery across the Fulda Gap precisely because of this integrated approach.

Specifically, the United States should renew its focus on five critical areas:

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company