Culture is the way in which humans transmit knowledge and give meaning to our lives. Culture can also be an instrument of power. A Nazi leader is alleged to have said that when he heard the word culture, he reached for his gun. Stalin once asked derisively how many divisions the Pope had, but Catholic culture outlasted Soviet culture. In China, President Hu Jintao has told the 17th party congress that China needs to invest more in soft power. As a result, China has begun to establish Confucius Institutes around the world to promote appreciation of its culture. Here at home, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro recently said that smart power, the intelligent integration of hard and soft power tools, “is at the very heart of President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s foreign policy vision.” I will show that cultural diplomacy is an important soft power tool, but first let me discuss what soft power means.
Power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want. One can affect their behavior in three main ways: threats of coercion (“sticks”); inducements and payments (“carrots”); and attraction that makes others want what you want. A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries want to follow it. It is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only force them to change through the threat or use of military or economic weapons. Soft power—getting others to want the outcomes that you want— co-opts people rather than coerces them. Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.
At the personal level, it is the power of attraction and seduction. Political leaders have long understood the power that comes from setting the agenda and determining the framework of a debate. Soft power is a staple of daily democratic politics. The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority.
Culture is a soft power resource that produces attraction that can be measured by asking people through polls or focus groups. Whether that attraction in turn produces desired policy outcomes has to be judged in particular cases. The gap between power measured as resources and power judged as the outcomes of behavior is not unique to soft power. It occurs with all forms of power.
The distinction between power measured in behavioral outcomes and power measured in terms of resources is important for understanding the relationship between soft power and cultural diplomacy. In international politics, the resources that produce soft power arise from the values an organization or country expresses in its culture, in the examples it sets by its internal practices and policies, and in the way it handles its relations with others. Cultural diplomacy is one of the public diplomacy instruments that governments use to mobilize these resources to produce attraction by communicating with the publics rather then merely the governments of other countries. If the content of a country’s culture, values and policies are not attractive, public diplomacy that “broadcasts” them cannot produce soft power. It may produce just the opposite.
Diplomacy in the Global Information Age
Promoting positive images of one’s country is not new, but the conditions for projecting soft power have transformed dramatically in recent years. Information is power and today a much larger part of the world’s population has access to that power. Technological advances have led to dramatic reduction in the cost of processing and transmitting information. The result is an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty.” Plenty of information leads to scarcity of attention. Therefore, attention rather than information becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable information from background clutter gain power. Editors and cue-givers become more in demand, and this is a source of power for those who can tell us where to focus our attention.
Among editors and cue-givers, credibility is the crucial resource. Governments compete for credibility not only with other governments, but with a broad range of alternatives including news media, corporations, non- governmental organizations, inter-governmental organizations, and networks of scientific communities. Under the new conditions of the information age, the soft sell may prove more effective than a hard sell. Without underlying national credibility, the instruments of public diplomacy cannot translate cultural resources into the soft power of attraction. The effectiveness of public diplomacy is measured by minds changed not dollars spent.
Prospects for Public and Cultural Diplomacy
Skeptics who treat the term “public diplomacy” as a mere euphemism for propaganda miss the point. Simple propaganda often lacks credibility, and thus is counterproductive as public diplomacy.
The mix of direct government information to long-term cultural relationships varies with three dimensions of public diplomacy. The first and most immediate dimension is daily communications. The second dimension is strategic communication, which develops a set of simple themes much as a political or advertising campaign does. The third dimension of public diplomacy is the development of lasting relationships with key individuals over many years through scholarships, exchanges, training, seminars, conferences, and access to media channels.
Each of these dimensions of public diplomacy plays an important role in helping create an attractive image of a country that can improve its prospects for obtaining its desired outcomes. But policies that appear narrowly self-serving or arrogantly presented are likely to consume rather produce soft power. At best, long-standing friendly relationships may lead others to be slightly more tolerant in their responses. Sometimes friends will give you the benefit of the doubt or forgive more willingly. This is what is meant by an enabling or a disabling environment for policy.
Effective public diplomacy is a two-way street that involves listening as well as talking. In order to get others to want the same outcomes you want, you have to understand how they are hearing your messages and adapt accordingly. Preaching at foreigners is not the best way to convert them. Too often political leaders think that the problem is simply that others lack information, and that if they simply knew what we know, they will see things our way. All information goes through cultural filters, and declamatory statements are rarely heard as intended.
Even when policy and communications are “in sync,” wielding soft power resources in an information age is difficult. For one thing, government communications are only a small fraction of the total communications among societies in an age that is awash in information. Developing long- term relationships is not always profitable in the short term, and thus leaving it simply to the market may lead to under-investment. While higher education may pay for itself, and non-profit organizations can help, many exchange programs would shrink without government support. At the same time, post-modern publics are generally skeptical of authority, and governments are often mistrusted. It often behooves governments to keep in the background and to work with private actors. Some NGOs enjoy more trust than governments do, and though they are difficult to control, they can be useful channels of communication. Companies can also take the lead in sponsoring specific public diplomacy projects.
Another benefit to indirect citizen diplomacy is that it is often able to take more risks in presenting a range of views. It is sometimes domestically difficult for the government to support presentation of views that are critical of its own policies. Yet such criticism is often the most effective way of establishing credibility. Part of America’s soft power grows out of the openness of its society and polity and the fact that a free press, Congress and courts can criticize and correct policies. When the government instruments avoid such criticism, they not only diminish their own credibility but also fail to capitalize on an important source of attraction for foreign elites.
Finally, it is a mistake to see public diplomacy simply in adversarial terms. Sometimes there is a competition of “my information” versus “your information,” but often there can be gains for both sides. Political leaders may share mutual and similar objectives—for example the promotion of democracy and human rights. In such circumstances, there can be joint gains from public and cultural diplomacy programs. Cooperative public diplomacy can also help take the edge off suspicions of narrow national motives.
Cultural diplomacy is an important tool in the arsenal of smart power, but smart public diplomacy requires an understanding of the role of credibility, self-criticism, and the role of civil society in generating soft power. Public diplomacy that degenerates into propaganda not only fails to convince, but can undercut soft power. Soft power depends upon an understanding of the minds of others. The best public and cultural diplomacy is a two way street.
This article is adapted from a speech delivered at Syracuse University Cultural Diplomacy Symposium, New York, Sept. 20, 2009
By Joseph S. Nye
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. was Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University from 1995 to 2004. From 1977 to 1979, he was Deputy to the Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. He also chaired the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In 1993 and 1994, he was chairman of the National Intelligence Council. In 1994 and 1995, he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He has written extensively about the role of soft power.