Donald Rumsfeld and Smart Power

Donald Rumsfeld, America’s Secretary of Defense, recently spoke about the Bush administration’s global war on terror. “In this war, some of the most critical battles may not be in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in newsrooms in New York, London, Cairo, and elsewhere. Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in the media age, but for the most part we have not.”

The good news is that Rumsfeld is beginning to realize that the struggle against terrorism cannot be won by hard military power alone. The bad news is that he still does not understand soft power – the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion. As The Economist commented about Rumsfeld’s speech, “until recently he plainly regarded such a focus on ‘soft power’ as, well, soft – part of ‘Old Europe’s’ appeasement of terrorism.”

Now Rumsfeld finally realizes the importance of winning hearts and minds, but, as The Economist put it, “a good part of his speech was focused on how with slicker PR America could win the propaganda war.” In other words, in blaming the media for America’s problems, Rumsfeld forgot the first rule of marketing: if you have a poor product, not even the best advertising will sell it.

Rumsfeld’s mistrust of the European approach contains a grain of truth. Europe has used the attractiveness of its Union to obtain outcomes it wants, just as the US has acted as though its military pre-eminence could solve all problems. But it is a mistake to count too much on hard or soft power alone. The ability to combine them effectively is “smart power.”