Beyond Cultures of Command

Thoughts on Conviction 1:
"Dialogue and Mutual Understanding Are Inseparable and Needed Now More Than Ever"

By Joseph Nye

In the past, I have written about the importance of soft power, the ability to get what one wants through attraction and persuasion than coercion or payment. Soft power is a "two way street." It depends on what is going on in one's own mind as well as the minds of others. To be effective with soft power, one must listen and engage in dialogue, not merely give commands. To be credible in a century where power is diffusing from states to non-state actors, government efforts to project soft power will have to accept that power is less hierarchical in an information age, and social networks become more important.

To succeed in a networked world requires leaders to think in terms of attraction and co-option rather than command. Leaders need to think of themselves as being in a circle rather than atop a mountain. That means that two way communications are more effective than commands. As a young Czech participant at a Salzberg Seminar once observed “this is the best propaganda because it’s not propaganda.” In other words,  dialogue is essential.

Soft power is generated only in part by what the government does through its policies and public diplomacy. The generation of soft power is also affected in positive ways by a host of non-state actors within and outside a country. Those actors affect both the general public and governing elites in other countries, and create an enabling or disabling environment for government policies. In some cases, soft power will enhance the probability of other elites adopting policies that allow us to achieve our preferred outcomes. Even in instances where governments have strained relations, the interactions of civil societies and non-state actors may help to further general milieu goals such as democracy, liberty, and development. Dialogue and mutual understanding are needed now more than ever.


Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard University. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. In 2004, he published Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics; and Understanding International Conflict (5th edition). In 2008 he published The Powers to Lead and his latest book, published in 2011, is The Future of Power.

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