The End is Nye: Religion and Soft Power

Professor Joseph S. Nye (Harvard) spoke this morning at the Maxwell School (Syracuse), where I am currently a guest. Nye is famous for coining the phrases ‘soft power’ and ‘smart power’ – both of which have slipped into the political lexicon.

The idea of ‘soft power’ (originally touted in 1990 but which really caught on after 9/11) is simply that nations, and others, possess more than just ‘hard power’ – e.g. military and economic power – but also less tangible sources of influence such as institutional, cultural, ideological and other forms of attractiveness with which to influence others. ‘Soft power’ was meant as a corrective to US foreign policy that had become too fixated with American military supremacy in a post-communist world where the US is the only real superpower (in ‘hard power’ terms).

‘Smart power’ is, in Nye’s terms, simply the intelligent combination soft and hard power.

One interesting trans-Atlantic difference to note to start with: Nye recounted how many US politicians were in complete agreement with his idea of ‘soft-power’ but found it “impossible to use on the stump” (i.e. in elections). Americans didn’t like the idea of anything called ‘soft’ – especially after 9/11. ‘Couldn’t you’, they apparently asked Professor Nye, ‘come up with something more voter friendly?’ This is interesting because, of course, across the Pond European politicians have absolutely no problem talking about ‘soft power’.

The thing I was struck by – and which hadn’t occurred to me before today even though I have read Nye’s major books – is how much he avoids mention of the “R” word – religion. This is very surprising because one of the main – if not the main form – that soft power takes is ideology. And most the second half of the twentieth century was dominated by secular ideologies – democratic capitalism; communism; nationalism; etc. The Cold War was fought mainly between secular western liberal democracies and atheistic communism.

The end of the twentieth and start of the new century have been characterised above all by the rise of a new ‘soft power’: religion. This was predicted by hardly any political scientists, who generally adopted Stalin’s famous attitude when he asked “how many divisions has the Pope got?” Religion was the past, not the future.

Take one example: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which Nye was questioned on). Thirty or forty years ago this was mainly a contest between two largely secular nationalisms. Zionism was originally never really about religion but about identity – the pioneers of the Jewish state in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were mostly a pretty secular bunch. And their opponents in the PLO had as their objective a “democratic, secular, Palestine” not an Islamic state. Contrast that with today’s situation with Hamas on one side and the Zionist fundamentalists (and their American Christian fundamentalist friends) on the other? Yet Nye doesn’t mention this shift.

I am puzzled why professor Nye says next to nothing about this ‘800 pound (religious) gorilla in the room’ – after all it is staring us in the face and fits very well with his idea of ‘soft power’? Answers on an email to………

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