Leslie Gelb Critiques Soft Power and Military Force

The author compares the failures of liberals and neoconservatives to understand power and use it effectively.
  • Transcript


Question: How did the Left and the Right misunderstand power?


Leslie Gelb: At the end of the Cold War, there we were, United States, alone on top of the mountain and we thought we could do anything. There wasn't another power in effect to balance this. Cold War was over. The other superpower was gone. And the left thought that meant, finally, we could deal with the world the way they also wanted to, through love. And so, you had this idea of soft power being conceived. And soft power was understanding and leadership and morals and the like, all good things. But these are, to me, foreplay and not the real thing.

But frankly, as I've ask all the soft power advocates over the years, show me one example where leaders of a country change their position on a major interest to them because we persuaded them that we understood their interest better than they did. It just doesn't happen. That's what happened on the liberal side, or the left side.

On the other side, on the right side, were the neoconservatives who said, hey, we're on the top of the mountain, we're now the sole superpower. We can threaten military force to get our way. Or if they don't observe our threats, we can actually use military force. They thought that this would solve all the problems. But what they failed to understand was that in the modern age, in the 21st century, in fact for a good deal of the end of the 20th century, our superior military force would be sufficient to conquer capitals, to get rid of dictators, but not to conquer countries. So here was the situation. On the left, they confused power with a rational act, with reason, with persuasion. And on the right, they confused it with force, which is the kind of thing you do when your power fails. And I wanted to restore the meaning of power because, as I said, that's the key way to get things done in the world.


Recorded on 5/1/09.