Joseph S. Nye Jr. has turned upside down Machiavelli’s infamous recommendation to the Prince: it is safer when people fear you than when they love you… Whether or not that recommendation was right for the Princes, remains a moot question; but it no longer makes sense for presidents and prime ministers.
Nye would agree that because of its eminently flickery habits love is not particularly fit for a foundation on which long-term confidence could be built and rest; but so is, he adds, the state of being frightened – and especially if not reconfirmed by the Prince continuing to deliver on his threat to punish: to be as cruel, ruthless, bestial – and above all as indomitable and irresistible – as he pretended and/or was believed to be.
Yet more unreliable and frustrating that recommendation turns out to be, if love (complete with awe, respect, trust and readiness to forgive occasional faux pas, misdeeds and improprieties) is absent or not strong enough to compensate for the display of incompetence or impotence… In short: presidents and prime ministers beware: all said, it is safer to be loved than to be feared. If you have to resort to overt hostilities, don’t measure your success by the numbers of enemies killed, but by the quantity of friends, admirers and allies you’ve managed to summon, acquire and/or reassure.
You don’t believe this to be true? Just look at what happened to the Soviet Union, when it emerged from the battlefields of the Second World War with an astonishing capital of admiration and respect among the world-wide opinion-makers – only to squander it by drowning the Hungarian uprising in rivers of blood and then crushing and strangling the Czechoslovak experiment with the “socialism with a human face”, and topping up its ignominy with a disastrous economic performance and the misery produced and reproduced at home under the aegis of the planned economy.
Or look at the United States of America, revered world-wide and looked up to once having emerged triumphant from two successive wars against totalitarian powers – only to fritter away an unprecedentedly huge, seemingly inexhaustible supply of trust, hope, adoration and love by invading Iraq and Afghanistan for fraudulent reasons and on false premises: whereas its weapons meant to frighten proved to be superbly effective and as murderous as one was made to expect (Saddam Hussein’s awesome army was swept away in a Blitzkrieg fashion, and the Taliban fortresses needing but a few days to fall apart and drawn into ground in a manner of cardboard boxes), the US lost one by one almost all members of the initial coalition and all its potential allies in the Arabic world. What does that amount to? The US killed about one hundred thousand uniformed and un-uniformed Iraqis, but lost millions of sympathizers.
“The military-manufacturing model of leadership”, Nye concludes, has nowadays fallen decidedly out of fashion; perhaps the idea of leadership as we know it has followed its suit. At least this is what the spokesmen of the “Wall Street Occupiers” insist, making merit out of its absence of leaders. Or this is what two Americans in every three, reporting their lack of trust in the powers that be, confirm. Or what the recent research commissioned by Xerox Company, and showing that success in collective undertakings depends in 42% on team work, but only in 10% on the quality of leaders, suggest.
People are no longer as meekly submissive as they used to be or used to be believed to be, and people are getting less prone than previously reckoned to fear the punishment for disobedience. It gets tougher to coerce them into doing what the powers that be wish them to be doing. On the other hand, though, they become more amenable to be seduced as the temptations gain in their amplitude and technical sophistication. Present and future presidents and prime ministers pay note: Joseph S. Nye Jr., seasoned and battle-tested counselor of presidents and member of many brain trusts of the highest-rank, recommends to all current and prospective power holders to rely less on hard power (whether military or economic), and more on its soft alternative/complement. All in all, on smart power: the golden mean of the two, an optimal mixture utterly difficult thus far to be found yet imperative to be sought with an eye on the right dose of each of the two ingredients: an ideal combination of the threat of breaking necks and the effort of winning hearts.
Among the military and the political elites alike, Nye’s is an authoritative – widely and attentively listened to – voice. It shows a way out from the long and lengthening series of failed military adventures and only thinly masked defeats. I guess that what his voice signals/reflects is a sort of the end of an era: era of wars as we knew them, wars understood as a principally symmetrical affair – a combat. Coercive instruments of “hard power” are by no means abandoned; nor are such weapons likely to fall out of favour and use. But they are increasingly designed with an idea of making reciprocation, and so the combat-style symmetry, all but impossible. Regular armies hardly ever meet face to face; weapons are hardly ever discharged point-blank. In the terrorist activities, as much in the “war against terrorism” (the terminological distinction reflecting the new asymmetry of hostilities) total avoidance of direct confrontation with the enemy is attempted by both sides with growing success. On the two sides of the frontline, two starkly different strategies and tactics of hostilities develop. Each side has its own limitations – but also its advantages, to which the other side has no effective response. In the result, the present-day hostility replacing the combat of yesteryear consists of two unilateral blatantly un-symmetrical actions, aiming at rendering the very possibility of symmetry null and void.
On one side, the tendency to reduce hostility to actions at-a-distance large enough to deny the enemy the chance to reply or indeed prevent, let alone preempt, a response in kind; such actions are conducted with the help of smart missiles or ever more sophisticated drones, difficult to locate and divert. On the other side, the tendency is towards simplification of weaponry: its reduction in costs, size and complexity of its assembly and use. The costs of hijacking a plane and using it to devastating material, yet even more disastrous psychological effects, is but a few dollars higher than the price of an air-flight ticket.
If measured by the standards of the first side, the effects tend to be disproportionably huge in proportion to expenditures; but this is not the whole story of the asymmetry of costliness. Simplicity and easy accessibility of materials from which their weapons are constructed makes the detection of planned terrorists acts in their early stages, and so their prevention, exceedingly difficult; but the crucial point that follows from that is that the costs of the attempts to preempt the innumerable anticipated terrorist acts (based almost entirely on guesswork and “playing it safe”), tends to leave far behind the costs of dealing with the damages perpetrated by the few acts already accomplished; having to be met entirely by the financial capacities of the assaulted side, they may well turn in the long term into the terrorists’ most effective and most devastating weapon (just think how much does it cost to spy out, spot and confiscate day in, day out, millions of water bottles on thousands of airports around the world, just because someone, somewhere, some time had been caught or perhaps just suspected to compose a cottage-industry or home-baked bomb by mixing small quantities of two liquids).
Some people reckon that the collapse of the Soviet Union was triggered by Reagan involving Gorbachev in an arms chase the Soviet economy couldn’t enter without becoming bankrupt. Watching the already exorbitant yet still fast rising federal debt of the US, one may feel excused if wondering whether Bin Laden and his successors might have managed to take a hint and learn the lesson, and are set to repeat Reagan’s feat.