Review: Soft Power–The Means To Success In World Politics

4 Star, Diplomacy, Strategy

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

4.0 out of 5 stars Dumbed Down, Inexplicit, Good for the General Reader,

April 29, 2004
Joseph S. Nye Jr.
If you don’t read a lot, and especially if you did not read the author’s two extraordinary works on “Understanding International Relations” and “The Paradox of American Power,”, this is the book for you. This is a dumbed down inexplicit version of his more carefully documented ideas from the earlier books, and especially the second one.I do want to emphasize that this book is worth reading if you only have time for one book (or you could read all my reviews instead–they are free), because I am going to be severely critical of the book in a professional sense.

First, this book does not focus at all on the most important soft power of all, that of a strategic culture. Others have documented how North Vietnam whipped the United States, not with firepower, but with political will deeply rooted in a strategic culture that was superior to that of the United States of America.

Second, despite the author’s earlier service as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the book gives cursory attention to intelligence reform, and does not mention, at all, open source intelligence (disclosure: my pet rock). It is especially weak in failing to point out that the Department of State’s one chance to be effective within US politics and the US policy arena lies with its potential dominance of legally and ethically available information in 29+ languages. The Department of State has chosen to be ineffective and ignorant in this area of collecting, translating, and interpreting to the American public all that we need to know about the real world, and if and when Colin Powell goes to the World Bank, which has transformed itself into a knowledge organization (see Stephen Denning, World Bank KM manager before he became world-famous story-teller, “The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations”, he is going to rue the day he failed to kick off a $125M budget for OSINT under State control.

Third, the book lacks substance in the sense of effective examples. A simple illustration: $100M can buy a Navy ship of war or an Army brigade with tanks and artillery (two forms of hard power) or it can buy 1,000 diplomats or 10,000 Peace Corps volunteers or a water desalination plant capable of distilling 100M cubic meters of fresh water a year (three forms of soft power), or it can buy one day of war over water (the typical failure cost of hard power).

The book has exactly one paragraph on corporate misbehavior, which as William Greider has documented in “The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy”, is the most evil and destructive form of “soft power.” This is a severe oversight.

The book neglects foreign aid in a strategic context, and shows no appreciation for open spectrum, open source software, and open source intelligence, the triad of the new global open society. There is no hint of how a Digital Marshall Plan might be the most powerful “soft power” device every conceived.

The book neglects non-governmental organizations, with no mention of the organizations that are giving soft power a whole new dimension today (the European Centre for Conflict Prevention or ECCP, for example) and the book makes no mention of the “good” side of religious activism, the soft power so ably articulated by Dr. Doug Johnson in his two seminal works on faith-based diplomacy and religion as the missing dimension in statecraft.

Finally, while the book makes useful reference to some Pew polls on global attitudes, they struck me more as space fillers than core reference material–four pages where one would do–and do not reflect the more valued-based and multi-dimensional near-real-time direct citizen surveying such as characterizes the next generation of surveying instruments (e.g. Zarca Interactive, whose DC area chief describes it as a tool for real time democracy).

This leads to my last comment: this book, perhaps deliberately so, but I suspect not, is out of touch with mainstream scholarship such as the last 50 books I have reviewed for Amazon. It is one massive “Op-Ed”, and its sources are virtually all “Op-Eds” (a number of them not written by the purported authors), with the result that this book gets an A for a good idea and a C-, at best, for scholarship. One simple example: the sum total of the author’s references on “virtual communities”, one of the most important ideas of this century, is one Op-Ed from the Baltimore Sun. There is no mention of the book by the same title written by Howard Rheingold, arguably the most talented chronicler in America if not the world of how this non-state communitas is changing the world.

Joe Nye has my vote as the new voice of reason within the Democratic circles, but he needs to be balanced by the Jonathan Schell, William Greider, Herman Daly, Paul Ray, and other European and Asian scholars. The world has gotten too complicated to be addressed by Op-Eds out of Harvard. It is time we got serious about harnessing the distributed intelligence of the Whole Earth, and we can start right here at Amazon, where most of the books not cited by this book have been reviewed by many people whose views, in the aggregate, are vastly more informed than the views of either the White House or its intelligence purveyors.

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