Soft Power: Then and Now

After attending this summer's Primary Source institute in July, I was in a bit of a conundrum.  I wanted to introduce the idea of soft power to ALL of my students, but my freshmen do not study the era that we focused on in the institute, which was after 1898.  So, after much thought, some research, and one proposal submission, I managed to come up with a way to integrate soft power into the discussion of the United States government's first attempts at foreign relations in the late 18th century.

The entire lesson can be found at Soft Power in the Early Republic: The U.S. and France.

First of all, what is soft power?  Since most adults have not heard of the term, it is even less likely that the average teenager in my classroom is familiar with it.  It was coined by Joseph Nye in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  Rather than ask the students to read  the book, I plan to show them a clip of the beginning of this interview in which Nye explains the theory.

Then, I will challenge students to come up with a definition of the term in their own words.  To further prove that they understand the concept, I plan to ask them to find current event examples of the attempted use of soft power within the past 6 months.

Now for the historical application.  When I think of soft power in the early United States, I think of a few situations: 

First, I think the the intense efforts to form an alliance with France out of fear that the British would out-muscle the inexperienced and new American military.  So, I chose to have students read and analyze the Treaty of Alliance with France, February 6, 1778.

Next, when I think of soft power I think about President Washington's strong desire to stay out of the European conflict and allow his new nation to get up on its own two feet.  So, the obvious choice was the Proclamation of Neutrality, April 22, 1793.

Of course, when discussing soft power around this time period of revolutions, one cannot ignore the great debate among Americans about whether the U.S. government should officially support the French Revolution.  One either side of this debate were Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Therefore, I chose to have students analyze the Letter to William Short, Thomas Jefferson on the French Revolution, January 3, 1793 and the Memorandum on the French Revolution, Alexander Hamilton, 1794.

Finally, as he retired after two four year terms as President of the United States, Washington warned Americans against forming strong alliances with other nations that could force the young country into war.  In his Farewell Address, September 17, 1796 Washington was trying to convince Americans to avoid using hard power and to use soft power whenever possible.

The culminating activity is for students to stage their own interview, much like the one they watched of Joseph Nye at the beginning of the lesson.  The interview subject will instead be the author of their document.  They will ask about the author's intent and how he used soft power to accomplish his goals.

My hope is that students will gain an understanding of how goals can be reached on the international stage without threats and bribes.  I also hope they learn that these soft power tactics may have recently been renamed, but they have been used my leaders for a long long time.


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