Soft Power, the USSR and the Cold War

In 1990, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a Professor at Harvard University, published a book entitled Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. In this book, Nye took sharp issue with scholars who were writing about the decline of American power. He argued, in fact, that the United States remained the dominant power in the world – and that there were no challengers in sight.

Nye also offered some new insights into the nature of power itself and how, in an increasingly interdependent world, smaller nations and private actors have acquired more power. After describing the sources of power exercised by major nations, including both military power and economic power, Nye introduced the concept of the “second face of power,” or “soft power.” He defined “soft power” as power that is “co-optive” and that rests on the attractiveness of one’s ideas or culture.

Nye’s concept was new to the discussion of international relations, and the idea stuck. Since then, discussions of “soft power” have become commonplace and others have added to this exchange of ideas. For example, some analysts now write about “sharp power” (military force), “sticky power” (economic leverage), and “soft power” (the attraction of ideas and culture).

“Soft Power” and High Culture

In a new book entitled Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Professor Nye further develops his thinking on this subject and argues that too heavy a reliance on “hard power” is self-defeating in today’s world. He encourages U. S. government leaders to take full advantage of America’s “soft power” and to couple this co-optive power with the country’s military and economic strength.

I found it fascinating to read Nye’s analysis of the impact of America’s culture on the Communist Bloc during the height of the Cold War. Nye described the way in which leading cultural institutions in the United States, such as museums, theaters and opera companies, affected citizens in the USSR. One Soviet musician observed that he and his colleagues had been trained to believe that the West was decadent, yet year after year great symphony orchestras from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland and San Francisco came to the Soviet Union and performed concerts. His conclusion: “How could the decadent West produce such great orchestras?”

In a similar way, academic and scientific exchanges played a significant role in enhancing America’s soft power. While some Americans were fearful that visiting Soviet scientists would steal our country’s scientific secrets, they failed to notice that these visitors also absorbed our country’s political ideals. Many of these scientists went back home and later became leading proponents of human rights and democratization in their own country. The most outstanding example of this is Aleksandr Yakovlev, who studied at Columbia University and later became the head of a significant research institute in the USSR, a Politburo member, and a key democratically minded advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Soft Power” and Popular Culture

Nye also points out the persuasive impact of America’s popular culture worldwide. For example, major league baseball is broadcast to 224 countries in 11 languages; the Super Bowl was watched by 800 million viewers in 2003. During the Cold War, this cultural penetration also occurred, despite the efforts of the Soviet regime to stop it. Rock-and-roll music was one such vehicle.

Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter described this phenomena when he wrote: “I have witnessed first-hand the amazing effects of soft power. In 1987, I played at the first outdoor rock concert in the Soviet Union. Every one of the 40,000 people in the crowd knew all the words of every song we played, despite the fact that our records were illegal.” Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe also tried to stop the impact of America’s “soft power” but to no avail. In the 1950s, the Czech government imprisoned a number of young people for listening to “decadent American music,” but the effort was counter-productive. One Czech leader later observed that they listened to Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and loved it, but when stern-faced government leaders came on television to attack these musicians, “they lost total, total, you know, respect.”

Nye highlights this point by describing how the Czechs built a monument in Prague to John Lennon when he died in 1980. Every year on the anniversary of his death, there were demonstrations at the monument for “peace and democracy.” As Nye notes, over a number of years, Lennon trumped Lenin.

“Soft Power” and Education

Nye’s insights encouraged me as I thought about the possible long-term impact of the educational program at the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) in Moscow. Introducing young Russians to democratic and free market values and institutions, giving them computer competency, and grounding them ethically in Judeo-Christian values are three of the educational goals of RACU. The impact of these goals, combined with exposure to both Russian and American faculty members and staff, are examples of “soft power” and, in today’s world, their influence may be more long-lasting than that of “sharp” or “sticky” power.