By Ambassador András Simonyi
The United States has spent too much on it while Europeans have long dragged their feet. Both are now looking for ‘smarter’ ways to maintain it: the capacity to project power. The Mars vs. Venus dichotomy remains a tempting analogy for the relationship between the United States and its European partners. This is the case in spite of broad recognition that the twenty-first century confronts the transatlantic community with common basic challenges that require a sophisticated understanding of power by both, which is at once more holistic and more nuanced. The traditional ‘toolbox’ of the state – not only its institutions but also the means of delivery – falls short of providing leaders with sufficient agility to respond to multifaceted problems or take advantage of opportunities that an increasingly complex and interdependent world produces.
The issue of institutional reform pops up on each summit agenda and has become a regular feature of policy recommendations and analyses. However, effective strategies for dealing with this complex world require more than a reshuffle of the institutional architecture in Washington or Brussels. What is also needed is visionary leadership supported by in-depth knowledge on the impact of this apparent inadequacy of power resources on states’ ability to confront today’s security environment and prepare for the future. More important yet, but harder to achieve, is an overhaul of mindsets on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans have been quick in the past to criticize American foreign policy for lack of nuance, a penchant for blunt measures, and over-reliance on the military instrument. On the other side of the Atlantic, European nations’ unwillingness to spend more on military capabilities and the reluctance to use those, in most cases, has exasperated American officials. Neither of these positions is either fully correct or totally unfounded. They certainly do not provide a basis for vital and meaningful cooperation, however. The concern that emerges beneath this political rhetoric is threefold. First, securing transatlantic consensus on values to defend and threats and challenges to fight; second, gathering sufficient political will to act when needed; and third, gaining clarity on the tools in the toolbox. In light of these challenges, a division of labor between the United States and Europe along the seams of hard and soft power is not only untenable politically, it is strategically unwise.
The influence of the United States as the world’s remaining superpower is shrinking, at least in relative terms, and the European Union is going through profound crisis. Together, these trends raise uncomfortable questions about the resilience and vitality of the transatlantic partnership. The material dimension of the crisis has dominated media headlines and talks among leaders. Budgetary constraints and austerity measures undoubtedly affect capabilities to project power across the spectrum both in the United States and in Europe. But the challenge to the transatlantic community’s continued influence and relevance goes deeper. The enduring attraction of the democratic principles at its core, while sometimes contested, is hard to deny. Compelling alternatives to a liberal international order built on free markets and the rule of law have yet to emerge in spite of powerful competitors that occasionally push back against the current system or seek to distort it. Yet the rules of the game have changed with regard to how ideas are communicated, exchanged, and received by various stakeholders across the globe. Growing competition for global influence and power within the international system, as well as hitherto unprecedented diversification of the means of communication to reach an ever increasing number of parallel audiences, have turned the global marketplace of values and ideas into a much more competitive space. The use of power in this global, hyper-connected arena is inherently complex. It requires not only a broader array of tools but also more sophisticated concepts to anticipate costs and consequences and evaluate tradeoffs when applying a given combination of tools.
Grasping complexity through the “spectral power” framework
Unlike during the East-West confrontation of the Cold War, in the current system no single threat or enemy acts as focus for the formulation of strategy, the (re-) organization of state institutions, and the concurrent prioritization of resources. A natural consequence of this predicament has been a search for models that cover the full spectrum of anticipated threats. Such models would provide decision-makers with a toolbox that is at once comprehensive and flexible. In this context, the popular notions of hard and soft power have provided a convenient blueprint for proposals to embrace the widest possible range of actors and scenarios by combining military and non-military tools.
The policy buzzwords of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power have travelled widely, including in their popular combination as ‘smart power’. Yet the terminology has its pitfalls. Contrary to the purported aim of shedding light on different forms and variants of power, the binary distinction between hard and soft power has sometimes induced a simplistic understanding of soft power as ‘everything but military force’. In spite of growing attention for the essence of soft power, it is still often simply equated with public diplomacy, or flagged as an alternative to military means without further precision or differentiation among tools and methods.
As an alternative, the concept of ‘spectral power’ offers a holistic framework to understand power. It encompasses hard and soft power capabilities from the ‘red’ end of the spectrum (so-called hard-hard capabilities like nuclear weapons) to the ‘blue’ end (soft-soft means like student exchange programs) while providing room for an array of combinations and variants in-between. Within the spectral power framework, tools can further be distinguished with the help of a cylindrical coordinate system that not only describes the quality of a given tool (i.e. degree of hard/soft) but also the context within which it is employed, including the timing and circumstances of its delivery, which may encompass geographical, political, cultural and societal variables. This variegated concept thus draws attention to the fact that the impact of a given tool can vary considerably depending on when and where it is used.
Soft power is prone to become the subject of easy assumptions that, due to frequent repetition in policy forums, enter the realm of conventional wisdom regardless of rather scarce empirical evidence. Perhaps the most prominent of these myths is that soft power is cheap, especially if used in a preventive manner that renders the use of military force unnecessary. It is therefore important to critically evaluate claims that softer variants of power are invariably easier to use and more cost-effective than harder ones. Hard and soft power should not be viewed as opposites or tilted against one another. It is imperative that the ‘power toolbox’ be assessed in its entirety in the policy-making process, in other words, by viewing it as a spectrum rather than in a binary logic. Thereby, leaders may choose from the most effective combination of tools as crises erupt and adapt their course of action appropriately as they evolve.
A case in point is the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the initially successful military operation should have been accompanied by the application of ever softening tools of power from the outset — yet without losing sight of the military dimension. It is hard not to imagine the difference it would have made had the US-led coalition of the willing used the military to carry out soft power tasks like the protection of museums, schools and hospitals from the very beginning of the operation. Hence, the term ‘soft power’ is perhaps a misnomer, as it is at times neither ‘soft’ in its long-term impact nor in its strategic effect. Taking soft power seriously requires investment across the spectrum of power, including in so-called hard instruments or means of delivery. At times hard power acts as the enabler, the indispensable means to deliver soft power, like in the case of military-assisted support to the Asian countries struck by the 2004 tsunami or after the earthquake in Haiti.
There is insufficient insight still into the costs and tradeoffs associated with soft power within a combined or ‘spectral power’ strategy. Think of the ultimate soft power tools, the effect of Voice of America, Rock’n’Roll music, and Levi’s jeans during the Cold War, or the role of social media in the Arab Spring more recently. If spectral power is to move from concept to practice, better research on the use made by various actors of these tools, and the consequences (whether intended or not) of their application is required. Indeed, cost-benefit analyses and impact studies on the softer elements of power should be as thorough and careful as with respect to hard power. Coherence and credibility become paramount strategic objectives, which in turn require a deep understanding of the tools employed. Unintended side effects, such as intruding on local traditions, must be avoided. State-enabled ‘tools’ (e.g. Voice of America) must moreover take into account the role and impact of non-state actors – including the private sector (e.g. Levi’s jeans, and more recently, Apple), NGOs (e.g. Amnesty International), and influential individuals – as well as that of cultural trends (e.g. Rock’n’Roll). At times, governments may seek to cooperate or co-opt these actors, while in other circumstances it may be preferable to use more discreet forms of engagement and support, or letting them act independently altogether.
From separate toolboxes to a shared mindset: institutional challenges
A spectral power framework raises the challenge for decision-makers to become smart customers of a wide set of methods – including ideas, mechanisms and technologies – in addition to the traditional toolbox of state power. Timing and context matter greatly when choosing from a spectrum of measures (hard, soft, or most likely a combination thereof). What works in one context may not work in another, and what worked in the past may be inappropriate or inadequate when circumstances change. Yet adopting new concepts alone will change little. A change in mindset must truly permeate the institutional architecture – it is not enough to set up or upgrade a public policy department in a given organization.
This much-needed change in mindsets will challenge the legacy of core institutions that have supported state power throughout the twentieth century. Bureaucracies, whether government agencies or international organizations, build a legacy and acquire an identity based on a set of beliefs and values about appropriate conduct that are shared and perpetuated by their members. The European Union, for instance, has built an identity based on civilian crisis management that is rooted in EU member countries’ reluctance to embrace the hard part of the power spectrum, and wrongly fueled by the notion that NATO, backed by the United States, will ultimately guarantee Europe’s security forever. New ways of doing business are likely to be rejected at first if they challenge such shared expectations. Moreover, organizations tend to cooperate better when roles are fixed and responsibilities clearly delineated. Policies derived from a spectral power framework, however, will rarely indicate a distinct set of tools but instead rely on flexible combinations of different variants of power. Established procedures for resource allocation and performance evaluation are thus likely to stand in the way of more agile and flexible approaches, at least initially.
Within a spectral power framework, some tools or means of delivery require direct state control and investment while others work better when government support is discrete and indirect. This uneven degree of control by the state leads to an additional institutional challenge. Towards the soft end of the spectrum, for instance, tools may actually lose their credibility when they are perceived as controlled by states. The global influence and reputation of organizations like Médécins Sans Frontières (MSF) or the International Committee of the Red Cross build on their explicit non-governmental identity (in the case of MSF) and strict adherence to neutrality and impartiality principles. Companies like Apple or Facebook may be emergent soft power giants whose influence or behavior in some cases resembles that of states. Their diffuse impact is incredibly difficult for governments to steer, let alone control, and thus require innovative forms of engagement. Bureaucracies, however, traditionally seek to retain control over resources and prefer forms of delivery that produce immediate and visible results that are directly attributable to them (not least to support their budget requests). The implementation of combined power strategies will force them to embrace counterintuitive approaches to resource allocation as well as to evaluating returns on investment. The same is true for institutional learning. The standard question ‘what worked?’ cannot be answered generically in a spectral power perspective, and will provide only limited guidance for the institutionalization of tools and practices. Institutions should thus be coached into cultivating a flexible mindset that enables quick learning and adaptation, instead of seeking to work on the basis of a fixed set of lessons.
A spectral power mindset will rarely match the institutional reality of a given government or organization. Changes to institutional roles, which affect identities (and bureaucratic interests) that are relatively sticky require decisive leadership from the top. Incentives for organizations, departments and bureaus to adopt flexible and sometimes counterintuitive approaches to policy-making and implementation may appear difficult to find in an era of budget cuts and resource constraints. At the same time, the imperative to use power more effectively and allocate resources more efficiently has never been higher and should therefore provide a powerful incentive in its own right. Providing greater clarity and insight on the costs and returns on investment of combined, innovative approaches to using power through serious research and analysis is crucial in that regard. Indeed, it is the recognition of stringent economic realities that drives the conversation over ‘smarter’ (read ‘more cost-effective’) uses of power. The current crisis should be used to push for new solutions rather than letting it curtail options, and ultimately increase, rather than reduce, the choice of tools at the hands of decision-makers.
At a time when the transatlantic relationship is undergoing considerable testing, the issue of combining hard and soft power tools effectively is of special relevance to Europe and America. The two pillars of the community will have to pool their resources in the future more than ever – partly because of the critically low appetite of free and democratic societies to support the use of military power, partly because of the questions being raised about the resilience of Western societies. There is skepticism whether Western liberal democracies remain the ultimate model for others to follow and concern over a potentially growing appetite for authoritarian concepts of power. The concept of spectral power is primarily one of capabilities at their disposal to project influence in support of their interests and in defense of their values. The seamless combination of hard and soft power must also be part of the intellectual renewal of the whole Atlantic community. The dividing line is not between Mars and Venus, as both America and Europe must invest in the entire spectrum of tools and resources. A new mindset should further strengthen cooperation between the United States and Europe and more broadly between like-minded democracies. It is exactly in times like this, that we need do go through the exercise. The result will be a more sophisticated and effective use of power.
Ambassador András Simonyi, Managing Director at the Center for Transatlantic Relations (CTR) at SAIS Johns Hopkins University and Dr Andrea Baumann, TAPIR Fellow at CTR.
 Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power – The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
 See Markos Kounalakis and Andras Simonyi, ‘The Hard Truth About Soft Power’, CDP Perspectives on Public Diplomacy Paper 5 (Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2011).
 See Kounalakis and Simonyi, p. 31.