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Book Review of Soft Power by Joseph Nye’s

by Suleman

“Soft power is not a new reality, but a new word for power’s most efficient form.” (Purdy, 2001)

Before seeking to establish if ‘soft power’ can help reduce anti-Americanism or not we must clearly understand what is referred to when we talk about soft power. It was in Joseph Nye’s work, ‘Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power’ that Nye came up with the term of soft power for the first time. Nye suggested the notion of soft power or co-optive power when analysing the fact that power today is becoming increasingly more dynamic in nature and a notion less tangible than before. Soft power is the ability to shape what others want,” in Nye’s terms, while hard power is the ability to change what others do.” Hard power depends on variables such as military might and economic might and is thus authoritarian in nature, while soft power banks on cultural appeal and affects others by means such as institutions and ideological principles and norms.

Following the episode of the 9/11 terror attacks and the US attacks on Afghanistan and then Iraq in response to the terrorist attacks, the rise in anti-American sentiment in the world gave rise to the idea that soft power would help American foreign policymakers cope with the issue. But even before deciding how much soft power the US can take to improve its reputation in the world, we must first examine how bad the current image of America is in the world and which areas of the world are those where anti-Americanism needs to be battled if at all.

Book Review of Soft Power by Joseph Nye’s

Roots and Prevalence of Anti-Americanism

The United States of America stood as the only strong state after the disintegration of the Soviet Union that brought an end to the Cold War, giving power in almost all domains, including political, economic, technological, cultural, etc., so much so that there was no other prospective competitor in the world that could challenge the might of the United States. In the 1990s, this turn of circumstances meant that the planet was now uni-polar, and that the U.S. was the only power pole. However with the beginning of the 21st century, it is assumed that the USA will not be able to retain this role as the world’s sole superpower for long, and as we speak at this moment, the world’s power dynamics are experiencing a significant shift and reorientation. “Some observers believe that the American era is coming to an end, as one increasingly dominated by the East replaces the Western-oriented world order” (Ikenberry, 2002). For some, China’s rising power in the economic and diplomatic spheres is an indicator of a possible power struggle between the US and China that will soon follow as a result of the challenge that China will soon pose to the US. Therefore, among the many other problems facing the US today, the more uneasiness of not being the only prospective world affairs chief for a long time is added. Such developments are undoubtedly taking a toll on the pursuits of American foreign policy and are not helping its cause of dissipating anti-Americanism in the world as a whole because the world today seems to be anxiously looking forward to a competitor of the might of the United States.

“The traditional goal of America’s foreign policy has been to prevent the rise of a peer competitor. Washington sends troops abroad only when a potential hegemon arises that others cannot contain. Europe and Northeast Asia are quiet now, so the United States will likely withdraw its forces over the next decade or so, throwing those regions back into familiar great-power rivalry. Over time, however, China could become the most powerful rival the United States has ever faced-and Washington’s policies since the end of the Cold War have been speeding Beijing’s rise rather than slowing it” (Mearsheimer, 2001)

China however, is not the only country which stands as a strong contender of the might of US. “French, German, and Russian opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought to the fore a question that has been a staple of scholarly and policy debate since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union: Is the international system on the cusp of a new balancing order”? (Brooks, 2005) While it is natural that any given power of the day, will attract competition and another power will soon arise that will try and take that prestige away, in the case of USA, what is most troublesome is that the weakening of USA is not because it is going militarily or economically weaker than other countries. On the contrary it is believed that even if China does come at par with the United States in economic and diplomatic terms in the near future, it can never hope to pose USA any threats with respect to technological, military or even political advances.  What is troublesome for the United States today is that, while the power dynamics are changing in the world, most of the world is in favour of the rising powers and do not wish to see USA continue as the sole super power of the world. This goes to show that somewhere in its handling of international affairs USA has erred deeply. What are these factors which are making much of the world anxious to see the end of USA’s rein is what we now will be analysing.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project Report of 2004, France is considered the safest contender for rivalling the United States of America.

It is interesting to note that only European countries are considered safe enough to match the power of the United States. Countries belonging to the Middle East and Asia are considered ‘dangerous’ as in the case of Pakistan and Morocco. Such studies only widen the drift between the East and the West since the East views the West as hostile to its expanding markets. Moreover, this also brings to mind the prejudices within the minds of the international community with regard to a particular nation as it has been portrayed in the media. Most people do not undergo the trouble to find out truth related to bad press for a country and instead choose to believe what the press is dictating to them. Another report by the Pew Research Centre provides the following data:

According to this table, it is obvious the direction in which most opinion is tilting is the way media and the government is manipulating that nation. Most Americans consider Iran as the biggest threat to world peace, regardless of the presence of their troops in Iraq and before that in Afghanistan. The same attitude holds true for the powerful European states as well, such as Great Britain, and Germany. Both nations consider Iran to be the biggest threat to world peace. The figures undergo fluctuations as we go down the table. In relation with its domestic and foreign policy every state has provided a relevant number to the countries and/or actions it feels threatened by. The Middle East and Asia rates Iran as the lowest threat to world peace: choosing to focus instead on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, India and China also feel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be the most dangerous one in regard to world peace.

“Who Believes America?” (Alhameri, 2003)

The anti-Americanism which afflicts the Arab and the Muslim world is of particular concern to USA especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which showed the extent to which this sentiment can harm the US security. What needs to be looked into here is that, is this anti-Americanism in the Arab world a result of the policies which America adopts or like in the case of Israel is it a hopeless state of mind which has embedded the hate so much in the minds and hearts of the people that what America ‘does’ from here onwards becomes irrelevant.

A report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies shows that, “There is remarkable dynamism in Arab attitudes toward the United States. Over a relatively short period they have shifted markedly, and we are confident that they can shift again”. (O’Connor, 2007) This indicates that while the anti-American sentiment is largely prevalent in the Arab world it is not a matter of hatred against the Americans as a nation or hatred against the very existence of America. Instead there are some factors which contribute greatly toward this hatred and can be, with time, undone (if not completely then at least to a large extent).

One major factor which fuels anti-Americanism in the Arab and even the Muslim world is the issue of Israel. Since the very inception of Israel, the Arabs and the Americans have not been able to settle this issue which grows deeper with every passing year. The inability of the United Sates to satisfy the Arabs on account of Israel has not only lead to open conflicts, including the oil embargo in 1973-74, but it continues to breed hatred for the United States in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Since the issue of Israel and Palestine remains unresolved to-date and America being the sole super power must take upon itself the responsibility for the outstanding issue. The issue of Israel further gives impetus to the fundamentalists as well as the Arab media to highlight and propagate anti-Americanism in the Muslim societies.

The general distrust which prevails in the Muslim societies with respect to American policies is of America’s own doing. Time and again United States has failed to live up to the expectations of the Muslim world when it comes to resolving the issue of Palestine.  Time and again the Muslim world has looked towards the influence of USA to prove beneficial for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and instead USA seems to be supporting the Israeli aggressive designs. On top of this issue came the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The unprecedented and blatant use of the pre-emptive strike doctrine by USA, despite opposition from all the other major powers of the world except UK, created unrest throughout the world with respect to America’s pursuit of foreign policy goals via unacceptable and aggressive means. This incident in itself was enough to warn the rest of the world about the capability of US to use its power without feeling the need to be accountable to the world in general. Here also, the point of the ineffectiveness of the United Nations as a world’s sole body which could bring about peace and security in the world was glaringly evident. The constant anxiety on account of USA manipulating the UN for its own benefit and the UN not yielding any powers when it comes to the United States was justified beyond doubt, since USA did not feel the need to wait for a resolution to be passed by the UN in order to attack and occupy Iraq.

“Arabs and Muslims do not hate the American people but rather American foreign policy, which relies on power and coercion, and imposes dictatorial and corrupt regimes upon them…. (better public relations) will not persuade Arabs and Muslims that (American) support for Israeli aggression is a good thing, or that the occupation of Iraq is the ideal model for the Iraqi people or for the region” (Albandian, 2006)

The above statement in the London-based Arab newspaper points out another important fact about inconsistency and contradictions within American policies. While America portrays itself as the champion of democratic values and seeks to promote them throughout the world, the support which the United States extends to the autocratic regimes in the Arab world to further its own objectives creates disillusionment. Throughout the history of American role as a super power it has been seen that as long as it serves the American interest to keep a dictatorial regime in place in any of the developing countries of the world, America extends all kinds of support in order to enable that regime to continue being in place. And it is only when the Americans find it not beneficial to their own interests that the legitimacy of these autocratic regimes is questioned and their over throwing is supported by US in the name of democratic ideals. This duplicity in the US foreign policy objectives is not lost upon the educated and informed people of the Muslim world and with the advent of a free and well received media; such issues are highlighted and go a long way in harbouring anti-Americanism.

This table is also indicative of the same idea. Within Asian and Middle Eastern countries, especially Muslim nations there have been a less than favourable opinion of the United States. Whereas, in European countries, opinion regarding United States’ involvement in world politics has been very favourable. According to the latest statists of the year 2006, there has been a decline in the United States’ popularity among the European nations as well. As figures indicate, Great Britain, France and Germany have seen a great decline in the US’s popularity as compared to the year 2000. This general decline holds true throughout the world. With the passage of time people have started becoming less receptive to the ideas being propagated by the United States and its inability to follow through on what it demands of other nations.

In fact the people of these Arab and Muslim countries feel disillusioned by the ways of life which their leaders adopt as well. The main motivation behind the Iranian Revolution was the pro-American attitude as well as the Western and modern outlook which the Shah of Iran professed. The Iranian revolution has played a huge role in creating awareness among the Muslim world with regard to the need of getting rid of pro-American governments in view of protecting the interests of the nation as well as the cultural values which the country possesses. The modern ways adopted by the rich and corrupt autocratic leaders in the Arab world as well has created great unrest in these regions and people feel that such leaders cannot possibly be representing the country in its true spirit. The assassination of King Faisal of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also a case in point.    

“Surveys indicate that the world admires American science and technology, loves the general values of democracy, freedom and human rights and likes the American version of them, though rather less strongly (reservations were commonest in Western Europe, Russia and Muslim countries). It likes ‘Americans’ more than the ‘United States’. It consumes American popular culture though many of the more educated and the Muslims complain about ‘cultural imperialism’” (Mann, 2005).

Here the role of Islamic fundamentalists can also be pointed out in aggravating anti-American sentiments within the Muslim societies. Because even though the general educated public in the Muslim world is not against the Americans or America per se, these radicals are increasingly propagating the notion that all Americans are bad and are against Islam. The idea of ‘Islamophobia’ has gained unprecedented popularity within the Muslim world and it is now being believed that the United States seeks to ensure that the Muslims as a nation do not prosper. The notion of a pan-Islamic state in the world which will unite all the Muslim nations in the world is now strengthening because the Muslims feel threatened and insecure after the attacks on Afghanistan ands Iraq. America’s arrogant defence of its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and its continued warning that if America feels threatened by any such country again it will not hesitate to take action is not helping the situation at all. The squabbles between Iran and USA today are only legitimising the feelings of the radical factions within the Islamic societies. While the Muslim media can be blamed for aggravating anti-American sentiments within the Muslim societies; the same can be said for the American media. The outright blaming of Muslim countries in harbouring terrorist designs against the US led many of the Muslim countries to be harassed.

The US government will do well to recognise these factors and seek to address them while the problem is still curable. “Polls indicate that most Americans want to bring peace, democracy, human rights and economic development to the world. Most say that US should give aid to help poor countries escape poverty and disease, that force should only be used sparingly and as a last resort, and that the US must only exercise a multilateral leadership role. A majority wants to strengthen the US, denies that Americans are engaged in a war against Islam, and agrees that the real message of Islam – like all religions – is peaceful”. (Mann, 2005)

This goes to show that both the people of America and as mentioned above, the people of the Arab or Muslim world are not yet disillusioned enough to feel hatred against each other. There is a realisation still that the problem is that of policies and therefore can still be cured. The sentiment of anti-Americanism therefore, even though widespread and based on multiple factors like analysed above, is after all a response to American policies. Thus, so far we can safely deduce that the hatred against America is based on what America is doing and not on what America is. People in the Muslim world and even elsewhere, respect American values and American people for what they represent in terms of modernity, but the contradiction between what America is within itself and what it does when it comes to the rest of the world is one the main aggravating factor behind anti-Americanism. People in the world realise that America projects its power in the world in contradiction with its norms and ideal which it holds within its country, which makes USA a poor super power to have.

Soft Power and Anti-Americanism

The connection between anti-Americanism and the use of soft power to overcome it is a relatively new notion which has taken root especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq by US. The height of anti-American sentiments is at a peak today and this realisation has set about the debate of how to deal with the issue if at all America hopes to remain the super power for the world in the future times to come. There have been instances of high anti-American sentiments in the world previously as well, like during the Vietnam war or during the Suez canal crisis of 1956 and after evaluating the possible causes for this phenomenon Nye suggested that, “unpopular [foreign] policies are the most volatile element of the overall image, and there seems to be more stability in the reservoir of goodwill that rests on culture and values”.

Now an interesting debate which has ensued from this notion that soft power elements like culture, values and norms can prove more stable and successful elements in the promotion of pro-American attitudes, is that, whether it is the decrease in soft power which causes a rise in increased anti-Americanism or is it that anti-Americanism is causing the soft power of America to weaken? It has been established time and again that the American values of democracy, human rights and liberties, and the American pop-culture like Mc Donald’s, Britney Spears, Baywatch, Hollywood movies etc are a major source of attraction among the general public throughout the world. And therefore even if American foreign policy creates a temporary disillusionment among the people of the developing world, America’s pop-culture has the power to ensure that these people do not continue being anti-American for long.

If we are to believe that soft power “arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies” (Nye, 2008)  then we must understand that American soft power has been a major influence in world affairs for a very long time now. The question here is however that, if power to attract the people of other nations is very strong in the American values, then how is it today that the societies which have been exposed to American values and have even incorporated Mc Donald’s, Starbucks and Hollywood in their daily lives, still continue to be anti-American? Richard Crockatt says that, “Anti-Americanism is the other side of the coin of the powerful attraction exerted by aspects of American culture on most other cultures”.

Today the increasing emphasis by the agents who propagate anti-Americanism like the Islamic fundamentalists is precisely in retaliation to the soft power of the United States which seems to be penetrating the societies of other countries so well.  “To be sure, the deepest source of anti-Americanism is not US foreign or domestic policies, but the ubiquitous power of American culture, the power to penetrate by incantation the fabric of different societies across the globe. So while some anti-Americans may be reacting to George W. Bush’s policies in the Middle East, others resent its power “to occupy the minds of non-Americans peacefully and win their hearts”, as Ignacio Ramonet once put it.” (Opelz, 2007)

It is this fact that makes us realise that exertion of soft power may not be the answer to the problems of United States as far as dealing with anti-Americanism is concerned. Because, not only are the Islamic fundamentalists striving against this very use of soft power by the United States, in fact the developed countries like France, Britain, Italy etc also object to the American influence on their cultural norms and values. No country or society likes to feel overcome by foreign values and culture and in trying to undo this influence some radical elements in societies might take extreme steps. Therefore to argue that soft power can help overcome anti-Americanism may not necessarily be true. Soft power in fact, may actually be one of the factors breeding anti-Americanism in the world today.

 “Indeed, the problem of anti-Americanism cannot simply be solved by changing American policies (at home or abroad). Although policies of soft power such as multilateralism and working with international institutions generate legitimacy and thus facilitate the US to achieve its goals, these same policies cannot change anti-Americanism which is home-grown. Where anti-Americanism has a long history; where it is intellectual; where, to use Roger’s words, it has its own “discourse” and has thus become nothing less than a “tradition”; where anti- Americanism has developed into a kind of “mental slavery”, into some sort of “masochistic sloth, a routine of resentment, a pavlovianism without passion”; where anti-Americanism clutches at these deeper roots of aversion, soft power will be useless. Worse, it may even accentuate repulsion” (Opelz, 2007)

It is important to understand that anti-Americanism is not a creation of a few policies here and there which of remedied will remove the sentiment all together. While it is true that a mending of policies might help reduce the intensity of this feeling among countries and societies, it is also true that fundamentalist factions like Al-Qaeda have gained a very strong hold on the hearts and minds of their like-minded people. The damage which has already been done is great enough and has the potential of fuelling these sentiments for a long time to come. Therefore while US sets out to achieve its foreign policy objectives it must take into account the impact of its soft power as well. To think that cultural penetration will help ease the way for American objectives in the world is a fallacy. The idea of ‘cultural imperialism’ has gained a lot of significance in the past few years and the United States is being held responsible for much of it. The popular culture which America proudly promotes in the rest of the world has caused societies to react in ways which harms even their own outlook. The extreme conservativeness in Afghanistan or Iran and the current conflict between Google and China are proof of the level of insecurity which countries feel from the soft power elements of the United States and also the level to which they are willing to go in order to protect their borders form such intervention.

“Nye wants to rein in the disorderly energies of intangible power, like culture and values, and thus use them as a new vector of power in order to foster US interests. But to use culture as a source of power is a very tricky matter, not least because cultural power has its own mysterious ways, combining forms of both attraction and repulsion which are not only difficult to perceive but which are also peculiar to each society. Power, it has often been said, breeds envy and fear, and it is tremendously difficult to formulate a policy which will satisfy the one and abate the other” (Opelz, 2007)


While we can by now understand that soft power cannot be the means of curing anti-Americanism in the world we must also keep in mind that in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives, USA must overcome this problem of anti-Americanism or else its own security and well-being will always be endangered. A projection of a better image of America can help pave the way for USA in world politics. But what’s more important is that America must mend its manner of pursuing its foreign policy objectives. An attack on Iraq for instance, while in accordance with USA’s foreign policy objectives, proved to be lethal for its image in the world.

The image of America can only improve, therefore, if the American policies in effect are a reflection of its ideals of liberty, democracy and human rights. The problem today of anti-Americanism is mainly a reaction to American policies and therefore the way ahead for reducing anti-Americanism will also have to be through favourable foreign policies. As to how important is it for America to project a favourable image of itself in the world in order to achieve foreign policy objectives, I believe that the incident of 9/11 proves that it is crucial for not just America’s foreign policy objectives but also for its own well-being. If the world does not accept America’s role as the super power then it will become very difficult for America to pursue its policies. The dent in American foreign policy objectives for the Middle Eastern region, which was caused by the Revolution of Iran goes to show the importance which the projection of a good image of itself holds for America.      

The United States cannot go about with its double standard policy and it is high time that this realization is made. With each passing moment, the charges levied against the United States’ government are building up and it won’t be long before the world demands answers to these charges. As Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharor has so vigorously implied the benefits of pursuing soft power to change the way people perceive a country, it is important that the United States also employ this practice to help soften its image on a global level.

  • Albandian, F. (2006). The Problem with America. London: Al-Quds al –Arabi.
  • Alhameri, D. (2003). Who Believes America. Baghdad: Al Jazeera Television.
  • Brooks, S. G. (2005). Hard Times for Soft Balancing. International Security , 30 (1), 72-108.
  • Ikenberry, G. J. (Ed.). (2002). America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power . Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Mann, M. (2005). Incoherent Empire. New York: Verso.
  • Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001). The Future of the American Pacifier. Foreign Affairs , 80 (5), 46-61.
  • Nye, J. S. (2008). The Powers to Lead. London: Oxford University Press.
  • O’Connor, B. (2007). Anti-Americanism: In the 21st century. London: Greenwood Publishing Group.
  • Opelz, H. (2007). Anti-Americanism and The Paradox of Soft Power. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group.
  • Purdy, J. (2001). Universal Nation. The American Prospect , 11-19.

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