Focus on Influence, Not Power, in the Middle East

People talk about U.S. power and influence as if they’re the same thing. That’s a mistake.

This article was originally published in Defense One on March 25, 2021.

Among the most enduring of Joe Nye’s contributions to strategy is one he popularized 30 years ago: his concept of “soft power.” Power was about countries’ ability to “do things and control others,” Nye wrote, and so called “hard power” instruments such as military strength were of diminishing importance. The role of “soft power” instruments such as technological, economic, and educational strength were rising.

The U.S. experience in the Middle East for the last two decades presents a checkered record for hard and soft power alike, and part of the problem is focusing too narrowly on the issue of “power” itself.

People speak about U.S. power and influence in the Middle East as if they’re the same thing, but in fact, they’re not. Because the U.S. government has seen them as synonymous, two decades of U.S. government efforts to project power in order to build influence has diminished both. The United States still retains tremendous influence in the Middle East, and a greater focus on building influence rather than preserving power would do more than merely bolster U.S. interests there. It would also benefit the United States in a world of rising great power tensions.

Read the full article in Defense One.


Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program