Dan Drezner posts an important question on his eponymous blog: "Can a government consciously generate soft power?" Soft power is a concept most closely associated with Joseph Nye, a professor of international relations at Harvard University. It refers to the ability of states and societies to attract others by means of culture and ideology.
Drezner's query was prompted by a much-discussed speech that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered last week at Kansas State University. In his remarks, Gates lamented how during the 1990s -- "with the complicity of both the Congress and the White House" -- the soft-power instruments of American power were neglected or abandoned all together. That short-sighted approach to national security gutted "America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world -- the 'soft power,' which had been so important throughout the cold war." Gates called for a dramatic increase in spending on diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development.
As Drezner points out, Gates's comments make for a sharp contrast with his predecessor at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2004, Nye decried the erosion of America's soft power, noting that Rumsfeld "professes not even to understand the term."
All of which brings us back to Drezner's underlying question: Can the American government consciously cultivate and exercise soft power?