Soft Power, Hard Power and Public Diplomacy: Deputy Chief of Mission Robert B. Hilton’s Remarks at BIDTI

Thank you Pamela and congratulations to all of the cadets here on joining Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service.  I started my own diplomatic career 30 years ago and have enjoyed every minute of it, from my first assignment in Tunis to this posting as Deputy Chief of Mission in Colombo.  I wish you every success representing your country abroad, and welcome you to the work of foreign affairs.

Pamela assigned me the topic of soft power, hard power and public diplomacy.  It is a somewhat hard topic, if I may say so, because although much has been written about it, I find the definitions somewhat slippery, or elusive.  Nonetheless, I will spend some time on the textbook definitions of hard power and soft power.  Then, to help make it a little more substantial or easier to grasp, I will discuss soft power as exercised through public diplomacy and how our Embassy practices it in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Joseph S. Nye Jr., former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is credited with inventing the term soft power in an article entitled simply “Soft Power” published in the journal Foreign Policy in 1990.  I’ll quote from that article quite a bit, and of course you can find it online.  If you want to get deeper into the subject, I recommend Nye’s book Soft Power and American Foreign Policy.

Everyone is familiar with hard power. We know that military and economic might often influence, or force, others to change their position.  Hard power can rest on inducements (“carrots”) or threats (“sticks”).  In general, Nye defines power as the “ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants” and hard power as coercive power wielded through inducements or threats.  Hard power is based on military intervention, coercive diplomacy and economic sanctions and largely relies on tangible power resources such as armed forces or economic means.  It is the capacity to coerce another to act in ways in which that entity would not have acted otherwise.  A military invasion is hard power.  Economic sanctions are hard power.

In contrast, coopted or soft power is the capacity to persuade others to do what one wants. According to Nye, persuasive power is based on attraction and emulation.  He wrote, “The ability to affect what other countries want is associated with intangible power resources such as culture, ideology, and institutions.”  “A state may achieve the outcomes it prefers in world politics,” he said, “because other states want to follow it or have agreed to a situation that produces such effects.”

To put it in terms very familiar to me, and to anyone here who might be a parent, he also said, “Parents of teenagers have long known that if they have shaped their child’s beliefs and preferences, their power will be greater and more enduring than if they rely only on active control.”  That, to me, is a sensible way of expressing it.  Get others to share your views, your ideologies, and they are more likely to take the actions you want them to take.  To continue with the analogy of children:  after a certain age, it is impossible to punish or threaten your kids, or to deny them privileges, to make them do what they want.  They must have absorbed your values, the things you value, and want to behave as you want them to behave.  The same is true for nations.  At some point coercion is impossible, or has a tremendously high cost.  They have to want to change their behavior.

In U.S. foreign policy we often refer to a community of like-minded democracies, often meaning Europe, but which can also include Japan and Australia and yes, Sri Lanka.  We think that these countries largely think and act like the United States, and in ways that support our national objectives.  The Non-Aligned Movement might be viewed as a different, not necessarily competing, community of like-minded nations.  Nor is soft power limited to democracies.  Nye notes that the Soviet Union after World War II had the soft power of global communist ideology and the myth of inevitability, and transnational communist institutions to help the USSR in its quest for global domination.  At the same time, the dispersion of American culture within the Eastern bloc during the Cold War through Radio Free Europe and jazz performances are examples of America’s soft power, one might say subversive soft power, which helped undermine the solidity of the Soviet empire.  When Chinese President Xi Jinping was preparing to take power in 2012, the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party devoted a whole plenary session to the issue of culture, with the final Communiqué declaring that it was a national goal to “build our country into a socialist cultural superpower.” And in 2014, Xi announced, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world.”

That quote is particularly apt right now because the 29th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre just occurred on June 4.  What’s one thing most of us recall or know about that event, even if many of you were not alive when it happened?  Probably this photo of a man standing up to a column of tanks.  After that, it might the photo of protesters carrying a home-made replica of the Statue of Liberty, surely a great signal of American soft power at that time.  She was called “The Goddess of Democracy.”  The recirculation of those photos now, on the anniversary of Tiananmen, surely hampers President Xi’s attempts to present a new face of China to the world.

This brings me to an important aspect of the hard-soft-power continuum — time.  Hard power can be generated and deployed fairly quickly.  Spend money on the military, and use it.  In contrast, soft power takes relatively long to build.  It is the development of intangible resources over a long period of time.  Similarly, the temporal dimension of the gain of hard power and soft power strategies differs: while military or economic coercion tends to result in an immediate but short-duration outcome, attraction and persuasion have the tendency to cause long-term change. This is due to an inherent aspect of the concept: as hard power forces one to act in a way different to one’s usual behavior, one does so involuntarily.  On the contrary, soft power changes one’s attitude to the end that one acts voluntarily in a way different to one’s usual or former behavior.

Hard power evokes compelled action, whereas soft power induces voluntary action.  Furthermore, Nye notes that compulsion leads to conflict and voluntariness to consent, which explains why soft power solutions tend to last longer than hard power solutions.  For example, the repressive measures imposed on Germany after WWI were in part responsible for another World War, whereas the soft power used to construct the European Union has resulted in 70 years of Europe-wide peace.

Borders between hard and soft power can blur.  Armed forces may be pressed into service to participate in humanitarian assistance and community relations activities.  Just recently here in Sri Lanka, the U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy and her crew spent two weeks building schools, providing free medical care, and even playing rock concerts.  Sri Lankan and American physicians together performed the first-ever robot-assisted surgery on board a ship.  The visit generated a great deal of positive publicity and, we hope, made lasting and positive memories in Sri Lanka about American generosity and technical skill.

Hard power may also be easier to measure than soft power.  How many troops and tanks a country has, or how much economic influence a nation can exert, through sanctions, money-lending or other practices.  In contrast, how do you measure the “attractiveness” of a nation, or the idea or ideal of a nation?  Nevertheless, people do try to measure soft power.  According to the Soft Power 30, an annual index published by Portland Communications and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy for 2017, France topped the index in soft power.  The United States, Germany, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, and Netherlands, make up the rest of the top ten.  But according to the 2016/17 Monocle Soft Power Survey, the United States holds the top spot in soft power.  Obviously this is an imprecise science and there are various ways one might measure soft power.

Some skeptics object to the idea of soft power because they think of power narrowly in terms of commands or active control.  In their view, imitation or attraction do not add up to power.  It’s true that some imitation or attraction does not produce much power over policy outcomes, and neither does imitation always produce desirable outcomes.  But this is also true for hard power.  For example, armies frequently imitate and therefore nullify the successful tactics of their opponents and make it more difficult for them to achieve the outcomes they want.  But attraction does often does allow you to get what you want.  The skeptics who want to define power only as deliberate acts of command and control are ignoring the second or “structural” face of power—the ability to get the outcomes you want without having to force people to change their behavior through threats or payments.

At the same time, it is important to specify the conditions under which attraction is more likely to lead to desired outcomes, and those when it will not.  All power depends on context—who relates to whom under what circumstances—but soft power depends more than hard power upon the existence of willing interpreters and receivers.  Moreover, attraction often has a diffuse effect of creating general influence, rather than producing an easily observable specific action.  Just as money can be invested, politicians speak of storing up political capital to be drawn upon in future circumstances.  American exchange programs can be seen in this context.  We send a young “future leader” to the U.S. in the belief that someday that person will rise to a position of influence and make a positive difference in their country, hopefully sharing some of our values and way of doing things.

Of course, such goodwill may not ultimately be honored, and diffuse reciprocity is less tangible than an immediate exchange.  Nonetheless, the indirect effects of attraction and a diffuse influence can make a significant difference in obtaining favorable outcomes in bargaining situations. Otherwise leaders would insist only on immediate payoffs and specific reciprocity, and we know that is not always the way they behave.

This brings me to soft power by another name — public diplomacy.  The U.S. Government began what we would now refer to as public diplomacy during World War II to counteract German propaganda, particularly in Latin American.  After the war we continued to practice public diplomacy to counteract Soviet propaganda during the Cold War and to make America more attractive globally.  And after the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, we ramped up public diplomacy efforts to combat violent extremism and the ideology of radical Islam.

The mission of public diplomacy within the State Department is to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.  This is distinguished from traditional diplomacy which is the conduct by government officials of dialogue, negotiations and other relations between nations to achieve national objectives, usually behind closed doors.

Public diplomacy, for us, includes such activities as educational exchange programs for scholars and students; international visitor programs; language training; cultural events and exchanges; radio and television broadcasting; and social media.  Such activities usually focus on improving the “sending” country’s image or reputation as a way to shape the wider policy environment in the “receiving” country.

In our public diplomacy efforts in Sri Lanka and Maldives we use three principal tools: media and press outreach; youth outreach; and, international exchanges.

Our Public Affairs Section (PAS) produces several press and media products daily, often in as many as four languages, promoting our policy goals, values, image, and mission programs.  We write speeches, press releases and social media posts, produce photos and videos and maintain an old-fashioned website as well.  In the last couple of years we have, perhaps ironically, used U.S. Navy ship visits as instruments of soft power.  As I mentioned earlier, we took great advantage of the recent visit of the US Navy hospital ship Mercy.  That visit generated a great deal of positive publicity and enormous good will.  You may have also seen videos of the U.S.S. Nimitz when she visited Colombo, or crew members of the U.S.S. Lake Erie, who almost exactly one year ago came to Sri Lanka to assist in the aftermath of flooding and landslides.  Here they are cleaning and sterilizing a flooded well.

We make great use of American Centers in Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna, Matara and Male to reach youth in both countries.  In these attractive spaces we target young audiences and future leaders with dynamic programming on entrepreneurship, technology, leadership, public speaking, women’s empowerment, and English language.  We know that young people who speak English and have marketable skills are less attracted to extremist messaging.  We also know that educated independent women provide a stabilizing influence in societies.  This next generation of leaders will have had formative exposure to U.S. values and culture.

We send about 50 Sri Lankans and Maldivians on U.S. exchange programs annually, the majority for short stays.  For example, every year the Embassy chooses 30 Sri Lankans and five Maldivians to go on a program targeting young and up-and-coming future leaders in fields as varied as education, law, politics, and business (IVLP).  They are paired with their American counterparts and learn American best practices and values, and develop a rich database of contacts.  We also send 12 Lankans and two Maldivians annually on Fulbright graduate school scholarships to obtain Masters Degrees.

U.S. Embassies around the world have been very astute at selecting future leaders for these programs, as evidenced by the long list of alumni who subsequently rose to positions of authority in government, business and education in their countries.  In total, 485 alumni of our exchange programs are former or current heads of state.

We believe that bringing foreign students to the United States is an excellent way to expand our influence, our soft power.  Last year there were just over 1,043,839 international students (7% increase), studying in U.S. higher education institutions: 31% from China; 16% from India; 3,080 were from Sri Lanka (7% increase); and 37 from Maldives (9% increase).  Not incidentally, foreign students generate $30 billion annually for the U.S. economy.  To help in this effort, the State Department supports 400 EducationUSA student advising centers worldwide, which complement recruiting efforts undertaken by individual American colleges and universities.

Within our Foreign Service we have about 1,500 officers who specialize in Public Diplomacy.  Funding for core Public Diplomacy programs in FY17 was  $820 million.  That’s less than 2% of the 2017 State Department/USAID Budget of $50 billion.  That is equal to about 5.5 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor Fighter Jets ($150 million each).  We think this is money well spent, although we also recognize that official efforts to shape impressions of the United States and increase our soft power are minimal compared to the influence, good and bad, of Hollywood movies, Facebook, Google and YouTube, pop music, McDonalds and Coca-Cola, and the many other things that the world associates with the idea of “America.”

To conclude, then.  As we have discussed, hard power is the use of military and economic means to influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies. This form of political power is often most effective when imposed by one political body upon another of lesser military and/or economic power.

Soft power is the capacity to persuade others to do what one wants. According to Nye, persuasive power is based on attraction and emulation and “associated with intangible power resources such as culture, ideology, and institutions.”  Nye also emphasizes the importance of legitimacy for the concept of soft power.  State activities need to be perceived as legitimate and fair in order to enhance soft power.  Power flows from attraction.  The attractiveness of the United States, or of Sri Lanka, to other people, helps us as government officials achieve our nation’s objectives.

Thank you very much and I look forward to a discussion.