The new direction in US policy with respect to Cuba brings to mind the concept of “soft power.” The term was coined by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., in 1990, and he further developed and explored the concept in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, published in 2004. Nye was former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and he was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration.
Nye defines soft power as the ability to influence the behavior of others and get want you want through attraction and cooptation rather than by coercing with threats or inducing with payments. A country possesses soft power when people are attracted to it because of its values, political institutions, cultural products, exemplary conduct, advanced technology, prosperity, openness, and far-sighted foreign policies. A country with soft power can coopt people and institutions in other countries, getting them to do want it wants, because they find it attractive (Nye 2004:x, 2, 5-8, 14, 44-62).
In contrast to soft power, hard power attains the interests of a country through coercion, which can be military or economic, and economic inducement. In Nye’s formulation, economic hard power includes coercing through economic sanctions or inducing through economic aid and bribes (Nye 2004:5, 8, 31).
Nye criticizes the overreliance on hard power in the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. He contrasts the policy of the Bush administration with the Cold War era balance of hard and soft power in the formulation of “smart policies,” enabling the United States to prevail in that conflict and to maintain its global primacy. He calls for a return to a balance of hard and soft power in US foreign policy (Nye 2004:128-35, 144-47).
Although Nye criticizes the strategies and policies of the Bush administration, his objectives are the same. He assumes that the purpose of US foreign policy is to promote and defend the power and economic interests of the United States. For Nye, the purpose of US foreign policy is not to contribute to the development of a more just and sustainable world-system, cooperating with other governments toward this end. He sees cooperation with other governments as a smart strategy for attaining US political and economic interests.
The new direction of the Obama administration with respect to Cuba is fully consistent with Nye’s recommendations. Essentially, the new policy, as announced, is a move from hard power to soft power, which goes beyond what Nye proposes. However, as implemented, it is a mixture of hard and soft power, crafted to attain US interest in change in Cuba. To date, the changes that have been announced remove those aspects of the blockade that are seen as the greatest obstacles to the new US strategy of strengthening small private entrepreneurship. The expectation is that this sector, attracted to US values and institutions, will have the interest and capacity to promote change in Cuba, making the Cuban system more compatible with US economic interests. But the many dimensions of the blockade that damage several important economic sectors in the Cuban socialist system remain intact. So economic hard power remains in place. Moreover, during his visit to Cuba in March, Obama indicated that the Congress likely would eliminate the blockade more rapidly if Cuba were to initiate reforms. Thus, the policy continues to be the use of economic hard power in order to induce change, even though it has announced that it desires the elimination of economic coercion.
In addition, the Obama directive of October 14 declared the future continuation of subversive radio and television programs, which violate international and Cuban broadcasting laws; and of programs that are designed to “promote democracy,” which violate international diplomatic regulations concerning non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. The continuation of these programs could be considered as the implementation of political hard power, because only a superpower can get ignore international laws and regulations with impunity.
The move toward soft power with respect to Cuba is necessary. The United States has little choice, as a result of the capacity of the Cuban Revolution to endure. The blockade has been condemned by the nations of the world, and it undermines the attainment of its objectives in Latin America, without producing any benefit to the United States.
Although the United States is compelled to move a balance of hard and soft power in the particular case of Cuba, the United States will find this approach increasingly difficult as a general guideline for US foreign policy, inasmuch as US soft power and economic hard power have deteriorated in recent decades. Nye recognizes that rejection by the peoples of the world of US wars in the Middle East has provoked anti-Americanism and a decline in US soft power. But he completely overlooks the negative reaction of the peoples of the Third World to the US imposition of the neoliberal project, causing him to underestimate the profound loss of US soft power. Moreover, he does not take into account the commercial decline of the United States since the 1960s, so that he does not discern the declining capacity of the United States to exercise economic hard power. Nye does not see that the United States, with its soft power and economic hard power in decline, will have to increasingly resort to unilateral military action, if its goal is to preserve the structures of superexploitation of the Third World. His proposal for a balance of hard and soft power is idealistic, inasmuch as it is not informed by the real economic, political and social conditions that establish limited possibilities for the United States as well as the world-system. Given these conditions, if the United States wants to maintain its power and wealth, accumulated during its ascent to hegemony in a world-system in transition to neocolonialism and during its hegemonic dominance in a neocolonial world-system, it will have to increasingly resort to unilateral military action and unilateral wars of aggression, ultimately culminating in a US-directed global military dictatorship.
But a more dignified road is possible for the United States. It could base its foreign policy on the recognition that US hegemony is no longer possible, that the world-system is no longer sustainable as a neocolonial world-system, and that a more just and sustainable world-system is possible through the cooperation of all the nations and peoples of the world. Since 1973, the US elite has demonstrated that it is incapable of recognizing these realities. Therefore, the future of humanity and the good of the nation require the taking of power by the people, taking political power from the hands of the corporations and their political representatives. The changed political reality in Latin America teaches us that the people take power by forming alternative political parties that patiently and effectively organize and educate the people to defend their interests and the dignity of the nation.
Nye, Joseph S., Jr. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.