Go ‘soft’ to turn tide against Islamic extremism


Military might alone is not enough, says Harvard professor.

“SOFT power” will be more important than ever to defeat Islamic extremism in the world in 2020 and beyond.

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, one of the world’s leading international relations scholars and a Democrat, told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview that radicalism would be one of three drivers that will influence the world in the next 20 to 30 years.

The other two would be the future of American power and its use, and the future of Chinese power and its use.

It was Prof Nye who, in the late 1980s, coined the phrase “soft power” which, as he puts it, is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion”.

Unlike “hard power” that centres on a country’s military might, “soft power” relies more on the persuasive aspects of policy, including diplomacy, economic assistance and cultural exchanges.

He argued that in the face of the Iraq quagmire, the spread of global jihadism and the rise of China, Washington needed a “smart strategy” that mixes both “soft” and “hard” power.

The soft-spoken professor, who is recognised as one of the world’s foremost liberal thinkers on foreign policy and seen by some as the counter to renowned Harvard conservative Samuel Huntington, made it clear that going it alone would not work for the United States.

It had left the US overstretched in Iraq and, significantly, spawned more terrorists worldwide.

He noted: “If you look at the estimates that have been made by intelligence agencies, the number of terrorists has been going up and not going down.” He said “soft power” would be crucial if Washington was to prevent the “Al-Qaedaisation of the Muslim world”.

“If you think of the struggle against terrorism, it’s really that between a small minority of Muslims who are trying to force their view onto others,” he said.

“We cannot solve that with hard power alone. If they are able to recruit two people for every one killed or deterred, we will lose.”

But the Bush administration might have left it too late. “They have overdone the use of hard power, particularly in the first term,” he said. “The danger now may be that President Bush has lost so much credibility that it would be hard for him to regain his soft power.”

Prof Nye, who was assistant secretary of defence in the Clinton administration, is likely to be a key player should the Democrats take the White House in 2008.

Pictures of the 69-year-old lanky, grey-haired professor fly-fishing hung neatly on the walls of his office at the Kennedy School of Government where he was once the dean.

Also displayed were several framed photographs of him shaking hands with world leaders, including outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

During the hour-long interview, Prof Nye provided a glimpse of how the Democrats would deal with other foreign policy issues, especially towards China and Asia.

He noted that US policy towards Asia had thus far been bipartisan and insisted that its broad outlines would not alter even if some Democrats were protectionist.

Washington, he said, would continue to “embrace and hedge” China. Prof Nye made it clear that the US had nothing to fear from China’s growing economic and military clout.

“If you look at the numbers, it’s very hard to see China replacing America as the largest economy in per capita income, or the largest military, or military in terms of sophistication of technology, in the first half of this century.”

He described US-China relations as “even-keeled” today, adding that containing Beijing – as some were suggesting – was not a practical option.

He said: “If we look back at the Cold War, containment of the Soviet Union meant very little trade and very little contact. We have an enormous amount of trade and contact with China, as China has with its neighbours.

“I don’t think it’s possible to organise the containment of China unless China turns into an aggressive state. So, the only country that can contain China is China itself.”

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