Joseph Nye is as gifted at branding as he is at thinking, teaching, and serving the public. He turned "soft power" (essential to "smart power") into a golden brand. In Washington, you know something has reached gold when the secretary of state wraps a "strategy" around it, as when Hillary Clinton, days before taking office, announced a "smart power" strategy with regard to the Middle East at her confirmation hearing on Jan. 13, 2009. Even higher is when a full-blown bipartisan commission is formed, as in the "Smart Power Commission" that Nye co-chaired back in 2007.
It has apparently now ascended high enough to provoke a war against it. So Nye contends in his recent article for Foreign Policy, "The War on Soft Power."
If there's indeed a war on soft power, allow me to fire another salvo. There's no question that important aspects of U.S. foreign policy -- development aid, exchange programs, diplomacy -- are "soft." But are they a part of "power"? If not, are they all that "smart"?
Cutting the budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) does "serious damage to U.S. foreign policy" and can gravely "dent ... the United States' ability to positively influence events abroad," wrote Nye in his article. "The result is a foreign policy that rests on a defense giant and a number of pygmy departments."
Sounds right, even profound. But the deeper you consider it, the shallower it gets.
Early in 1981, as a new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I launched a computer tabulation to show the correlation between others' receipt of U.S. foreign aid and their foreign- policy stances. I wanted to know: Did all that money buy America any love? The Neanderthal-era computer spewed its result: Nope.
Huge recipients of U.S. foreign aid -- Egypt, Pakistan, and the like -- voted no more in tune with American values than similar countries that received no, or less, U.S. foreign aid. Instead, their votes correlated closely with those of Cuba, which wasn't a big foreign-aid donor.
That finding, surprising at the time, remains true. Four of the largest U.S. foreign-aid recipients today -- Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, and Afghanistan -- all take contrary positions on issues of critical importance to the White House. South Vietnam once got gobs -- gobs upon gobs -- of U.S. foreign aid. That didn't help much. Likewise with Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Zaire (now the "Democratic" Republic of the Congo), and other "friendly" (read: graciously willing to take U.S. money) countries.
The conclusion seems clear: The relationship between "the United States' ability to positively influence events abroad," as Nye puts it, and the amount of U.S. foreign aid a country receives is unclear at best. For decades now, the United States has been the No. 1 foreign-aid donor -- it has given the most money to poor countries -- so it can't move up any on that scale. But this hasn't translated in making America the most popular or most influential country around the world. Quite the contrary.
Even the all-time No. 1 recipient of U.S. aid, Israel, rebuffs Washington constantly, on momentous issues of peace. Moreover, Israeli polls show the lowest approval for the U.S. president of nearly anywhere in the world.
Hence it's hard to see what a "dent" in "the United States' ability to positively influence events abroad" would look like if Republicans in Congress did slice these countries' foreign aid, as Joe Nye dreads. It might look like, well, much like it does today. Put bluntly, this aspect of soft power -- foreign aid, by far the biggest in dollar terms, amounting to some $30 billion* a year -- may not constitute much power at all.
The reason has to do with peculiar aspects of human nature. Giving someone a gift generates initial gratitude (often along with quiet gripes about why it wasn't bigger). The second time, the gift generates less gratitude (and more such griping). By the third iteration, it has become an entitlement. The slightest decline engenders resentment, downing out any lingering gratitude.