It's Time to Stop Talking About Soft Power

If it's an election year, it must be time for Republicans to pull out the old playbook and again paint Democrats as too weak to protect America. Responding to these attacks is complicated, but there is one simple thing that all progressives can do to help the cause -- permanently and completely abolish "Soft Power" from the progressive vocabulary.

Soft Power is one of the most popular and influential concepts in progressive foreign-policy circles. Coined by Harvard professor and former senior Pentagon official Joseph Nye, in 1990 the term is defined as "the ability to achieve desired outcomes through attraction rather than coercion." Or in other words: it's a country's ability to convince others that its cause is their cause without having to resort to economic or military threats. Nye does not argue that these influences replace military and economic power (Hard Power), but they undoubtedly make it easier for a country to achieve its interests.

Soft Power is not easily quantifiable and there are numerous approaches for obtaining and wielding it. America's system of democratic government and the appeal of its Western liberal values drew many European allies to its side during the Cold War. Building and utilizing international institutions such as NATO and the United Nations added further legitimacy to the exercise of American power. The ubiquity of American movies, television and pop culture have greatly expanded the United States' cultural influence around the world, including in many Muslim countries where populations are often sympathetic to the American people and culture even as they strongly disagree with American foreign policy. Humanitarian operations, such as the contributions the U.S. made to the relief effort after the Indian Ocean tsunami, dramatically increased goodwill toward the United States from the world's largest Muslim country -- Indonesia.

Moreover, while the concept may only be 20 years old, the ideas behind Soft Power have been around much longer and have historically enjoyed broad support across the foreign-policy spectrum. Former diplomat to the Soviet Union, George Kennan, writing in his 1946 Long Telegram -- a document which became the blueprint for the Cold War policy of containment -- stated that "We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of the sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in the past. It is not enough to urge people to develop political processes similar to our own." Kennan, a hard headed realist, was writing at a time when it wasn't at all clear if Western Europe would ally itself with the United States or the Soviet Union. He concluded that the power of American ideas was central to preventing the Soviets from attaining a sphere of influence over all of Western Europe.

Soft Power has become even more relevant during the past eight years, as the Bush administration's foreign policy has become a case study in how to destroy it. Under this administration's watch, global respect for the United States has plummeted. Only 30 percent of Germans now have a positive view of the United States, down from 78 percent in January 2001. In Turkey, a Muslim democracy and NATO ally, only 9 percent now have a favorable view, down from 52 percent in late 2001. Most alarming is that just 51 percent of Britons -- our partner in Iraq and our most reliable ally -- now hold favorable views of the United States, down from 75 percent before the Iraq invasion.

This unpopularity is a major impediment toward working with democratic allies, who must remain responsive to their own publics. For example, our inability to gain greater support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, a vital national security mission, comes from the fact that it has become extraordinarily unpopular in Europe because the population sees it as tied specifically to Iraq.

But despite its timeliness, its ability to accurately describe the world in which we live, and its natural liberal appeal, Soft Power has a catastrophic flaw. It is horribly named. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a term that more effectively plays into all the negative stereotypes that the American public has about Democrats and national security.

Since 1968, Democrats have faced a massive political disadvantage on national security. On average Republicans have held a 20- to 30-point advantage on the question of which party is more trusted to keep Americans safe. In every presidential election since 1968 where national security has played a major role Republicans have won. Republicans have consistently used their advantage to paint Democrats as feckless. In 2002, they ran an advertisement against Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee, comparing him to Osama Bin Laden. In 2004 they claimed that John Kerry wanted to subject the use of American power to a "global test." And just this past month, President Bush stood on the floor of the Knesset and compared Barack Obama's foreign policy to the appeasement of the late 1930s.

Every time a Democratic politician, a progressive intellectual or a foreign-policy expert talks about Soft Power, it simply reinforces all of these stereotypes. The implication is that they are uncomfortable with the use of traditional Hard Power and wish to use Soft Power as a substitute instead of a complement. This isn't necessarily an accurate or fair conclusion, but like it or not, it is the implication drawn by a public that for too long has thought of Democrats as weak.

Fortunately, eschewing the term does not mean disavowing the ideas behind it. Democrats have a rare opportunity in 2008 to finally erase their long-running deficit on security. The war in Iraq has undermined the public's confidence in conservative national-security policy and people are open to new ideas, although they are still waiting to see what Democrats will have to offer.

It's possible to build a compelling national security message by tying traditional progressive themes into the ideas of Soft Power: promoting a foreign policy that reflects our values and traditions; reestablishing our moral authority in the world; using all of our tools to tackle complex problems. All of these messages reflect the thinking behind Soft Power but do not connote weakness.

Even more important than the specific wording is the manner in which the message is delivered. Poll after poll has found that when Democrats respond aggressively to claims that they are not equipped to defend America they are able to offset Republican advantages. In the run up to the 2006 mid-term elections when Republicans began accusing Democrats of being soft on terrorism because of their opposition to warrantless wiretapping, a Democracy Corps study found that the best response was to take the argument head on. What mattered was less the substance of the argument than the fact that Democrats were unafraid to defend their ideas. Similarly, when Democrats stood up to the president in March 2007 and passed legislation to end the Iraq War, their poll numbers on security improved -- not because they were taking the traditionally "hard" position but because they were asserting themselves.

Perhaps the best lesson that Democrats can draw is from Barack Obama's forceful response to President Bush's claim that having a dialogue with Iran is the equivalent of appeasement. Obama did not try to prove his toughness with hawkish saber rattling about war. Instead, he couched his progressive, smart argument that there is a value to communicating with those we have strong disagreements with in the most assertive terms possible: "If George Bush and John McCain want to have a debate about protecting the United States of America that is a debate I am happy to have any time, any place."

In the long term, Democrats will only shed the "soft" label by effectively implementing policies that make America more secure. But in the short-term, what they say and how they say it matters. Reinforcing the public perception of weakness by talking about Soft Power is simply not helpful.