Against Soft Power


Via Michael Crowley, Michael Chertoff is making sense:

The Bush administration’s point man in protecting America against terrorism says U.S. investments in safety should not be restricted to airport screening machines or border fences. Michael Chertoff says the U.S. also should spend more on foreign-aid programs, scholarships for foreign students and other tools of so-called soft power. […]

Mr. Chertoff said he came to his views over the past six months or so, when he finally had time to think about big-picture challenges. Now, he said, “a lasting victory in the safeguarding of the country” can be achieved only by marrying traditional security with winning “a contest of ideas, and a battle for the allegiance of men and women around the world.”

It is a case that President George W. Bush’s critics have pressed for years, although Mr. Chertoff is careful not to criticize his boss. The term “soft power” was coined and popularized in the 1990s by one such critic, Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who is among the nation’s pre-eminent liberal thinkers on foreign policy.

I might note that draconian security rules and visa policies are not helpful in this regard, something Chertoff might want to consider. Foreigners don’t like being treated as if there’s a presumption that citizens of all foreign countries are terrorists until proven innocent.

That said, can we retire the term “soft power” already? I always feel that it’s been popularized not so much by Professor Nye as by deranged warmongers who like the idea of terming every alternative to militarism as somehow “soft,” fluffy, and weak. Soft Power is a good book, but it’s a bad coinage for an era in which national security issues have returned as a partisan political topic, and I don’t think it’s an especially great label for what Nye’s talking about.