Soft Power Requires Humility

Soft Power Requires Humility

Nobody likes a show off. Sure, our society might appreciate the entertainment we derive from athletes and celebrities who continuously flex their wealth and success, but one can hardly say their actions are inspiring or motivating. I argue the same is true in the order of international relations: exercising humility and requesting help from allies will have a higher success rate than demanding cooperation from them. In other words, I argue that American soft power can only exist when the United States pushes its ego to the side and utilizes humbleness to request — rather than demand — the aid of its allies. In referring to “soft power,” I use Joseph Nye’s definition of the term: “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments … soft power is about mobilizing cooperation from others.” In the following essay, I will focus specifically on the second half of the soft power definition as it applies to the United States, soft power’s importance in mobilizing cooperation from American allies.

Whether the United States likes it or not, the country is dependent on its allies to secure its national interests around the globe. The more the United States denies this reality, the less effective its soft power becomes and the more difficult it is to strengthen it. As author Andrew Bacevich notes, “Rather than addressing the problem of our dependence, members of our political class seem hell-bent on exacerbating the problem. Rather than acknowledging that American power is not limitless, they pursue policies that actually accelerate the depletion of that power” (Bacevich. 174). The clearest example of the United States neglecting soft power when they need it most is President George W. Bush’s approach following the 9/11 attacks. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States declared war on Iraq and sent troops overseas; the administration was so confident it could ask its allies to aid in the war effort that they took the importance of humility for granted: “Certain that American power had become irresistible, [President Bush] showed little interest in seeking concurrence. Instead, he issued demands. No president had ever told so many other governments what they ‘must’ do with such unvarnished insistence” (Bacevich, 175). Following 9/11, President Bush was operating with almost the full support of the American people; his approval ratings skyrocketed. The country was so emotionally devastated with the attacks, so infatuated with seeking “revenge,” that they could not process and comprehend the consequences of waging war and fighting in Iraq without acting with humility toward their allies. And as a result of American demands for cooperation, rather than requests for backup, American soft power was depleted and several American allies refused to join the war effort.

Benjamin E. Goldsmith and Yusaku Horiuchi took a specific look at the strategic advantage in utilizing humility to mobilize ally cooperation and ultimately increase American soft power. Goldsmith and Horiuchi focused their study not only on what foreign leaders thought about American demands, but additionally on how the foreign public viewed American soft power. They hypothesized that “public opinion about US foreign policy in other countries affects the foreign policies of those countries toward the US” (Goldsmith and Horiuchi) and “that the role of public opinion as a meaningful factor in the dynamics of international relations deserves more general theoretical attention and empirical evaluation” (Goldsmith and Horiuchi). Goldsmith and Horiuchi’s study includes charts explaining how public opinion in foreign countries leads to specific United Nations votes and International Criminal Court decisions. But more importantly, they compared the responses of American allies to calls for aid in the Iraq War.

A closer look at specifically how Turkey and Bulgaria responded to American demands for backup in the Iraq War reveals the importance of humility and humbleness in utilizing soft power and the consequences of neglecting it. Goldsmith and Horiuchi note that both Turkey’s and Bulgaria’s leaders had strategic incentives to aid the United States: Bulgaria’s leadership hoped that participation in the Iraq conflict would translate into US support for its admission into NATO, and Turkey’s leaders hoped for a key role in determining postwar order in their region, especially regarding preventing Iraqi Kurds from moving toward independence. But despite both country’s leaders having strategic incentives for aiding the United States, only Bulgaria voted to support the United States’ war effort.

The explanation for this lies in soft power, specifically in the public opinion polls. In Sept. 2002 a Gallup Voice of the People survey revealed that only 28 percent of Bulgarians had negative views of the Iraq War. As a result, Bulgaria’s parliament voted 165-0 to support the US (Goldsmith and Horiuchi). In contrast, 66 percent of Turks expressed negative attitudes toward the United States’ war in Iraq. In an unprecedented move, the United States — after previously demanding Turkey’s obedience — offered Turkey a large financial package as an incentive for them to help in the war effort. But the bell of the condescending demand could not be unrung, and Turkey rejected the proposal. On March 1, 2003, “the Turkish Grand National Assembly surprised the United States and much of the world when it refused to ratify the Turkish cabinet’s decision to permit the United States to use Turkey as a base for its northern front as part of the US intervention into Iraq” (Goldsmith and Horiuchi). Based on these two examples, it is clear that mobilizing cooperation from allies requires a humble attitude and soft power influence. No matter how much hard power the United States may have, it will not coerce allies into helping the United States; only soft power can do that.

Certainly, there are those who disagree and believe the only approach to ensuring a world order is through hard power coercion and military force. Eliot A. Cohen, author of The Big Stick, argues that “The United States will need more and better military power in the future. Developing that sufficiency of force will be harder than in the past, and in particular considerably more difficult than when Ronald Reagan took the defense budget from 4.5 percent of GDP in 1979 to 6 percent in 1986. Perhaps most troubling, the chances are growing that the United States will find itself using military power chronically, and at varying levels of intensity, throughout the early decades of  the twenty-first century” (Cohen, xii). However, there is a difference between using soft power to mobilize ally cooperation and using soft power to fight terrorism. Indeed, soft power is appropriate for the former and not the latter.

The conflation of these issues is made clear in assessing recent presidential administrations’ use and valuing of soft power. While the George W. Bush’s administration and the current Donald J. Trump administration have neglected the importance of soft power, the difference between the two administrations is their level of dependence on American allies. The Trump Administration has not needed ally support for any of its endeavors. The implications of President Trump neglecting soft power may come into fruition should such a situation arise, but it has not yet come about. The Bush Administration, which also neglected the importance of soft power, faced a severe problem in doing so: they needed ally support, and did not receive it like they had hoped. Comparing these two administrations with the Barack H. Obama Administration, which placed greater importance on soft power, reveals how soft power can be misapplied and misused. The Obama Administration appreciated the importance of soft power, but used it incorrectly: the Obama Administration tried to use soft power to fight terrorism in place of hard power. The correct use of soft power would have been to mobilize cooperation from allies in preparation for a hard power fight.

The United States has always been a patriotic country; it has always thought itself to be a world superpower and the only country in the world where the “American Dream” could come true. However, recent nationalism has overshadowed any humility the United States expresses toward its allies, and this has resulted in a decrease in the country’s soft power. Bacevich sums up this phenomenon best in saying, “acknowledging the limit of American power is a precondition for stanching the losses of recent decades and for preserving the hard-won gains of earlier generations going back to the founding of the Republic” (Bacevich, 174). There is no doubt, however, that it is difficult for American politicians to acknowledge the limits of American power, especially in the patriotic era we are in today. But the reality is “the desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If [the United States] recognize[s] this fact, they usually recognize it too late” (Bacevich, 182). With some hope, perhaps our leaders can acknowledge this reality — before it is too late.


Works Cited

Bacevich, Andrew J. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Holt

Paperbacks, 2009.

Cohen, Eliot A. The Big Stick: the Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force. Basic

Books, 2018.

Goldsmith, Benjamin E., and Yusaku Horiuchi. “In Search of Soft Power: Does Foreign Public

Opinion Matter for U.S. Foreign Policy?” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2012, doi:10.2139/ssrn.1932478.





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