Charles Collingwood, CBS News Correspondent
November 3, 1978
Reflections on Power (and Influence)
"I regard it as a signal honor to be invited to deliver some remarks in a series named for and in honor of Governor Alf M. Landon, for he has long been for me an example of those qualities which are most admirable in American life and the American spirit. Moreover, his whole career is a sort of parable of the thesis I will put forward to you today.
Part of my subject is POWER, but you will be glad to know that I am not addressing myself to the energy crisis. Rather, I want to talk about power, and its alternatives, in the context of international affairs. International affairs and foreign policy are things I know occupy Governor Landon very much and are things on which he is very knowledgeable. It also conforms to the bent of my own interests, having been a foreign correspondent and analyst for most of my working life.
"Power" is one of the strongest and in some ways one of the most ambiguous words in our language. We can speak of "solar power" and "occult power." The word can connote both physical force and mystical effects. I want to talk about power in the specialized sphere of international relations power as a nation's capacity, usually by military means, to bend other nations to its will . . . that capacity which causes some countries to be labeled "super-powers" or "great powers," and others "minor powers."
And I want to contrast that with something called "influence."
Power and influence are often confused, both in theoretical discourse and common parlance, but there is a difference. As one whose trade is in words, I make frequent recourse to dictionaries. Let me quote excerpts from the Oxford English Dictionary. It defines power as, among other things, "The ability to act upon or affect something strongly . . . physical strength, might, vigor, telling force."
Now of "influence," it says, "The capacity of producing effects . . . WITHOUT the employment of physical force or the exercise of formal authority . . . sway, control or authority not formally or overtly expressed."
It is a crucial difference. The exercise of power in international affairs is a highly visible, overt act. The exercise of influence often is unseen. Power depends upon physical strength; influence upon moral, intellectual, economic, and other forms of persuasion. Quite often, especially in international terms, a nation's influence also depends upon the possession of power and the possibility that in some circumstances it might be employed. That is certainly the case with the United States. The fact of our military power has a great deal to do with our ability to exercise influence. This is also true of the Soviet Union. But a nation's influence does not increase in direct relation to its power.
Thus, if we accept for purposes of argument and it's an argument I certainly don't want to get in to in this context that the United States and the Soviet Union are roughly equivalent in terms of military power, there is little doubt that the United States has more influence in the world than the Soviet Union. An instance in point is the Middle East, where, in spite of our long-standing commitment to Israel, one of the contestants, it is the United States and not Russia which is influential enough with both sides to act as mediator.
It can be argued that Russia has great influence in the Third World, but that influence has proved remarkably transitory and has often depended upon acts of power, such as the introduction of Cuban forces into Angola and Somalia. Incidentally, it is also true that China, which is not in the same league in power terms with Russia and the U.S., also has widespread influence in the Third World and, of course, so does the United States.
The distinction between power and influence as instruments of foreign policy is becoming increasingly important and is likely to become more important still. The reason for this is straightforward; given the vast nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers, resorts to the exercise of naked power have become increasingly risky for each and such resorts are apt to be much fewer than in the past and on a more limited scale.
If this is so, it follows that the achievement of our foreign policy objectives will depend more on the exercise of our influence to encourage the developments we wish than on intervening with military power to bring them about. The difficulty with this is that much of our doctrine, and the accepted view of our role, indeed, our whole national mind-set has been based on a willingness to use our military power as a last, or even next to last, resort.
But today, even without the deterring effects of the nuclear balance of terror, we have the profound psychological deterrent of the Vietnam experience. We are now most reluctant to use our military power. So is the Soviet Union, but not as reluctant as we. The Russians will use their power by proxy as we have seen in Africa, or directly, as we saw 10 years ago in Czechoslovakia. Doctrinally, they have by no means ruled out the use of force as completely as we/you can read that in their technical military journals. And how else can you interpret their extraordinary military build-up, across the board from nuclear weapons to conventional ones? Nevertheless, the Russians are very prudent about exercising their power in ways which might bring them into irrevocable conflict with us involving the likelihood of a nuclear exchange.
So, in the short and perhaps middle-term, at least, we are entering an era in which the application of influence, backed, of course, by our military and economic strength, will be more important in the day-to-day conduct of diplomacy than the application of force. This inevitably sharply reduces some of our options and greatly increases others.
A case in point: 20 years ago, the delicately-balanced Christian and Moslem government of Lebanon began to come apart at the seams. Civil war threatened. President Eisenhower sent in the Marines and re-established equilibrium. For, say, 15 years thereafter, Lebanon was an oasis of tranquillity in the Middle East. But when in 1975, caught in the tensions of the Middle East turmoil, Lebanon began to disintegrate again into the civil war which is still raging, the American option of sending in the Marines no longer existed. It was the Syrians from one end and the Israelis from the other who sent in forces with decidedly mixed results. All the United States could do, and can do yet, is to try to exercise its influence and the results of that effort have been mixed, too.
I will go further and say that in considerable measure, the difficulties the present administration has encountered in our relations with other countries stems from a failure clearly to understand of what our influence consists and how to bring it to bear in order to further our interests and achieve the ends we seek.
The fact is that the United States influences other nations whether it wants to or not. Influence is inherent in us because of our size, strength, and resources, physical, technological, and of national character. The United States gives off influence the way plutonium gives off radiation. We could not be without influence if we tried. We exert influence when we DON'T do something, as well as when we do. It's in the nature of our whole position in the world. It behooves us then, to understand more clearly how influence works.
Over the centuries, we have learned something about the techniques of the exercise of power. Even when our strategy has been mistaken, our tactics in the application of power have been relatively sophisticated. That is not true of our use of influence, of which we have only a rough and ready comprehension. We have not always used our influence wisely or well.
I am reluctant further to belabor the Central Intelligence Agency, an essential institution whose effectiveness has been much impaired by attacks from both within and without, but the fact is that the CIA has often been a clumsy instrument with which we attempted to exert our influence. Its various "destabilizing" programs, of which Chile has been the most publicized, but which also were instituted against governments we thought, rightly or wrongly, to be inimical to our interests elsewhere in Latin America, in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world, have not only misled few, but have more often than not resulted in solutions quite at variance with what we wished to achieve.
These were covert uses of INFLUENCE arms, money, bribery, encouragement but not military operations. And one result of the failures has been to encourage a feeling of guilt on the part of our leaders and our people which has pretty effectively denied us the option of the clandestine use of influence by the CIA on any considerable scale . . . which may be dangerous self-denial, because it is not at all difficult to imagine situations in which the covert use of influence, PROPERLY APPLIED, as it has sometimes been, can be useful.
The open exertion of influence now seems to us somehow nobler and cleaner than covert operations, and perhaps it is, but that does not mean that it is automatically more successful.
A case in point is the administration's emphasis on human rights in other countries. On the face of it, nothing is more laudable or more consistent with the best of our traditions, but as a component of foreign policy it is a very ticklish matter. To use our influence to try to rectify or prevent human rights violations in other countries can involve us in many contradictions and unwanted distractions from other policy goals. The most obvious is that we may appear (and I might say we often have appeared) to be inconsistent and hypocritical if we apply an ideal human rights yardstick more severely toward our antagonists than toward our friends.
Our leaders do not say much about human rights in Iran, for instance, for perfectly understandable reasons we think the Shah's regime, for all its faults, is a stabilizing influence in the area, also the country has a lot of oil. On the other hand, we talk a great deal about human rights in the Soviet Union and have even toyed with the idea of making our trade arrangements and even the SALT negotiations contingent upon Soviet acceptance of the kind of human rights standards we approve. This is not just the administration's policy, it is Congress' as well. In 1974, the Jackson-Vanik amendment linked U.S. trade with the Russians to a more lenient Soviet policy toward would be Jewish immigrants. The immediate result was that the Soviet authorities cut back still further on Jewish immigration.
The fact is that to try to tell other countries how to manage their human rights policies invites, and has frequently produced, confrontation rather than compliance or cooperation. Naturally, this has been recognized by policy makers, and so we have tended to apply our influence in regard to human rights sporadically, selectively, and according to how it affects the realization of other goals in which we are interested. The result is that, as I have suggested, we have unnecessarily laid ourselves wide open to charges of hypocrisy and inconsistency. But the ultimate flexibility was all to the good.
There are other worthy ends to which we have bent our influence. One is to curtail the dangerous international traffic in arms. Yet while deploring it, and antagonizing some countries who sought in vain our weapons, we remain the biggest arms merchant in the world especially to those countries who, for the moment at least, seem congenial to us, thus producing more charges of hypocrisy.
Again, the Congress is often as much to blame, if that is the word, as the administration. The logic of the Congressional decision to cut off arms supplies to Turkey as punishment for its invasion of Cyprus was based on dubious logic at best, since the same case could have been made against Greece as was made against Turkey. The result was to embitter our relations with Turkey, weaken the southern flank of NATO, push Turkey toward the Russians, and damage the chances for a settlement in Cyprus. I would call it an instance of misapplied influence. The Congress obviously agreed, for it repealed the Turkish arms ban last summer after three years.
There are many other examples which leap to mind, but it is not my purpose to offer a catalog of squandered influence, but rather to underline the importance of influence and the delicacy with which it must be employed to further our purposes.
What is it that gives a country influence? One thing, as I have suggested, is its military strength the possession of potential coercive power, held in abeyance, perhaps, but there as a last resort. Thus power and influence ARE linked, although they are different.
Who would argue that Israel's military power and its demonstrated willingness to use it, does not contribute greatly to its influence in the Middle East arena? Russia's influence clearly stems in large measure from its military power much more than from its ideology. The influence of the United States, and particularly vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, also derives to a considerable extent from our military power.
But if power and influence are connected, power is by no means the only component of influence. When Stalin contemptuously asked how many divisions the Pope had, he was talking about power. But not even the Communists would deny the influence which the Catholic Church can bring to bear on a broad array of situations.
Religious influence is also a powerful force in the Islamic world. The most dramatic example is the challenge mounted to the Shah's regime in Iran, led by fundamentalist mullahs. But many another Moslem country from Mauritania to Malaysia must contend with the growing opposition of orthodox religious leaders most prominently, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey.
But next to military power, a nation's influence in the world depends most conspicuously on its economic strength. Much of America's influence derives from our economy with its high technology and huge agricultural surpluses. In many fields of international relations, you can watch our influence wax and wane with the economic statistics, and it is still true that when the American economy coughs, the economies of many other countries develop symptoms of flu.
It is West Germany's economic strength which has made it the dominant influence in Western Europe, and it is Britain's economic decline which has been a major factor in its comparative loss of influence. It is the economic performance of industrious, ingenious, protectionist Japan, a negligible military power, which has raised it into the first rank of nations in terms of influence (which it is often reluctant to employ except in the economic sphere; but it is there). And of course, there is no more obvious example of influence derived from economic strength than that of the oil producing countries, who can hold the whole world at ransom.
Another kind of influence is cultural. The Russians and Chinese are very conscious of this. Denied (or self-denied) many of the continuous contacts with other countries, they make great play with traveling shows of art, archaeology, ballet and so forth expedited to the far corners of the earth as a kind of exertion of influence. Sports is a part of it, as witness the Olympics and don't forget that it was "ping-pong" diplomacy that paved the way for the Sino-American reconciliation.
The influence of American culture, in the broadest sense, is very pervasive. Our literature, theater, films and graphic and plastic arts, indeed our television programs, are widely disseminated and highly influential in the sense that they, like the dollar, however depreciated, are the contemporary standards by which the currency of other cultures is measured. Indeed, the whole American life-style, from fast food chains, to motels, supermarkets, popular music, fashions in dress and attitudes is, if not universally admired, at least widely imitated. The contagion of American culture is certainly influential in itself and a symbol of our overall influence.
The French may be the most successful exploiters of their culture. They have a certainty of their own intellectual superiority not unlike that of the Chinese, and they have convinced a great many people that they are right in this. Partly because of their assiduous cultural promotion, the French enjoy a kind of special standing and influence in all parts of the world out of all proportion to their actual power and size. (Incidentally, it should be said that the French are much less loath than we to use power as well as influence, especially by military intervention in the Francophone countries of Africa).
A nation's leadership has much to do with its influence. To the extent that the leadership is perceived by others to be wise, strong and stable, it commands respect and often adherence, which is part of what constitutes influence. De Gaulle was an example, as was Churchill, as was Kennedy, even Nixon was always much better thought of abroad than in his own country. When a country's leadership, as has sometimes happened in the present American administration, appears to other people to be unsure, willful, or downright weak, that country's influence suffers.
Not the least of what goes into making a nation influential in the world are the policies it pursues in the international sphere. If those policies are seen to be well-conceived, consistent, generous and in the interests of all rather than one nation alone, then the nation pursuing those policies will inspire confidence on the part of other nations, gain their cooperation and secure their friendship. However, this is true only to the extent that those policies are real and not rhetorical. No amount of high-minded speeches about policy can take the place of policy in action, of the actual pursuit of the goals proclaimed, of doing what we say we want to do. That is another way of saying that a nation's influence depends to an important degree upon its reputation for reliability. A nation, like an individual, must be counted upon to fulfill obligations and see its undertakings through.
As St. Paul said, "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound who shall prepare himself to the battle?"
But a nation's leadership and its ability to execute its policies do not exist in a vacuum. They are surrounded by a sea of public opinion, and that sea is made up of many waves of special interests, special pleading, special attitudes. For a country to exert influence in foreign affairs as well as domestic, it must have the understanding, confidence and support of its own people. This nation in particular must inform and convince its public of what it is doing and that what it is doing is right if it is fully to bring its influence to bear.
There are many other factors which contribute to a nation's influence: the general perception of the national character, of its governmental institutions, of its example to the rest of the world. They are, all of them, important, for influence is a kind of market basket of all of a nation's strengths, and some of its weaknesses, of its resources, attributes and governance. It is fundamental to the conduct of our foreign policy.
Influence is as old as power and always has been an associate of it, but through most of history power has had the primacy. I am suggesting that has changed, and that being enjoined at this juncture from any casual use of power, we must accept influence as its substitute although I pray we will not use our influence casually, because it can be as expendable and unreliable as power itself.
We have heard much of the limitations of power former Senator Eugene McCarthy wrote a book with that title, although I do not take my theme from him. We must also realize that influence has its limitations as well. The national pride of other countries, their traditions, the stubbornness of their leaders and their public opinion, all conspire to make them resistant to the influence of others. Moreover, by its very definition, since it does not involve the use of overt force or domination, influence implies compromise. Compromise is no easy thing. It involves negotiation, trade-offs, and a sure appreciation of what we want most if we can't have it all. In other words, the influencing nation must often, in turn, allow itself to be influenced by others. It is a two-way street.
This, I may say, has not always been our way in the international sphere. Yet to be influenced by others may not be as great a handicap as the most prideful of us might think. After all, it is the way we have learned to order our lives in our own communities. As individuals we all get along by engaging in a daily series of compromises, doing some things we might prefer not to do in order to be able to do other things we reckon to be more important.
It would seem clear that this is precisely the way we will have to conduct our relations with other states in this period of history if we are to avoid physical conflict which, in the case of nations, is war . . . and it is the avoidance of war which is the ultimate test of diplomacy.
The use of compromise and reliance upon influence rather than power seem to be a relatively straightfoward prescription for dealing with international affairs. They are, however, not as easy to put into practice on an international scale as they are in the ordinary lives of individuals. In a world which is both increasingly interdependent and increasingly antagonistic, the range of hard choices which daily present themselves to a decision-maker are enormous. Many of them are interconnected and rub off one upon another, so that trade-offs are inevitable and as often as not we will have to settle for less than our optimum goals in one area so as not to compromise the achievement of something essential in another.
Thomas Hughes, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has a theory which he has expounded on several occasions. It is that the essence of foreign policy today is the management of contradictions. It is his contention, and I agree with him, that in world affairs in this latter part of the 20th Century, contradictions are inevitable. That is, most situations contain inherently incompatible factors, and the art of diplomacy is to reconcile those without armed conflict. Whether or not that is formally recognized, it is certainly the way this administration and, doubtless the next, and the one after that, will find themselves dealing with problems. The effort to deal with the inescapable contradictions in today's pluralized world politics through influence rather than power is a challenging one.
It involves, as we have seen in the present administration, a number of apparent inconsistencies. It is easy, all too easy, to charge the President with doing something in one situation which he would not do in another at least superficially similar situation. This stems in large part, it seems to me, from our architectonic instinct, our desire to create a model of the world and our role in it which is structured, tidy and internally consistent.
Unfortunately, that is not the way the world is today, if it ever was. But how often have we heard the call for the promulgation of an all embracing foreign policy, a kind of grand strategy embracing our relations with the Soviet Union, China, Western Europe, the Third World providing automatic answers for dealing with everything from SALT to the Middle East to South Africa, Angola, Zaire, not to mention the oil-producing nations and the complexities of international economics. In our contradictory world, so full of surprises and unforeseen developments, there "ain't no such thing," and cannot and should not be. But we yearn for such a seamless and consistent set of policies. Worse, we often act as though there were such.
My own medium, television, and indeed the daily press as well, contributes heavily to this. We are the great simplifiers, boiling down complexities into easily grasped simplicities. We tend to measure our leaders by how well they measure up to unachievable standards of rigid consistency which the media, I must say with the help of our leaders themselves, have largely created. How many stories have you read or heard of alleged departures from unattainable consistency? The media might do better to explore the complexities of a situation and discuss the true options open to policy makers.
Having said that, let me hasten to add that the present administration has done little to help its own cause in this regard. It sometimes seems that the President and his advisers are as caught up in the mystique of consistency and coherence as the media and the public. When, as is sometimes bound to happen, the administration is apparently caught in an inconsistency, its tendency is not to explain why it acted as it did, but rather to insist until it is blue in the face that there was no inconsistency at all.
I am not trying to elevate inconsistency to a guiding principle of foreign policy, but only to say that some of it is inevitable and that we should recognize it as such and not expect or demand adherence to a spurious coherence in our conduct of foreign affairs. As I have indicated, compromise is essential in the management of affairs in a world in which influence is, on a day-to-day basis, a more important factor than power and a series of compromises implies a certain degree of at least apparent inconsistency.
The same holds true of other countries, not least, the Soviet Union. It is an old habit of ours to hold up our antagonists as exemplars of virtues we fear are wanting in ourselves. Thus, the policy of the Soviet Union is often presented as a model of consistency in contrast to the presumed waywardness of American policy.
I do not think this is true. The Russians blow hot and cold at least as often as we and have, indeed, in many cases, been more willing to abandon unprofitable adventures and seek other avenues than we.
For instance, if we had been as willing to pull out our advisers and cut our investment in Vietnam when the tide was clearly turning against those we supported, as were the Russians to pull their advisers and investment out of Egypt, we would not have had to endure the national ordeal we did. Yet Egypt was at least as important to the Soviet Union is was Vietnam to us. In fact, the Russians have shown themselves adept in many instances to manage short-term contradictions and accept inconsistencies in the pursuit of more distant goals.
As Emerson grandly declaimed, "A foolish consistency is the hob goblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines." The experience of men and nations bears him out.
Let me recall an old and certainly apocryphal story about an alumnus who returned to visit the hallowed halls of his university, it might have been this one. Encountering an acquaintance, he asked how things were and was told not much had changed. He asked whether old professor so-and-so's examinations were still as difficult as ever.
"Oh, yes," was the reply. "He hasn't changed. He still asks the same questions every year."
"Well, I would have thought that would have made his exams pretty easy."
"Oh, no," was the response, "every year he expects different answers."
In a period in which influence is likely to prevail more often than physical power, what is needed is not consistency, or a grand and rigid design, but rather a set of goals and priorities which we should seek to achieve despite disappointments, setbacks, and some sacrifice of pristine consistency . . . new answers to old questions. It is the formulation of those goals and priorities, and the creation of a consensus in support of them, which should be a major preoccupation of our foreign policy and the public discussion of it.
But setting goals is one thing and achieving them is another. If I am correct in my conviction that influence has become a more important tool of foreign policy than power, then it is going to require a great deal of rigorous thinking about what influence is and how it works. We have been so used to thinking in terms of power and the threat of it, that the vastly subtler use of influence has been neglected, if not impugned. Influence, in many connotations, has a pejorative implication. We tend to think of "influence peddling," wire-pulling, under the counter deals, and other unsavory activities. Actually, influence is not, or should not be, that sort of thing at all. It can, and should be, benign.
But it must be said that influence is a much more amorphous concept than power. It is more difficult to define. It resists quantification in terms of megatonnage and predictable accuracy and yield. But it, and not nuclear weaponry alone, is likely to be our principal reliance in resolving the disagreements among nations and in establishing the kind of stable and orderly world we wish to live in.
To use our influence to best advantage will require re-thinking and a change of attitudes from our instinctive and historic addiction to sheer power or the threat of it. The emphasis on influence and the de-emphasis of power will not be automatically popular either among politicians or the public, for influence is not nearly as dramatic as power, and politicians and the public love drama. But the policy makers and technicians will have to learn about influence because it is the major instrument in their hands.
Let me close with an example.
Alf Landon's whole career makes my point. (Although I have been talking about the lives of nations, there are many analogies with the lives of individuals). As far as I know, Alf Landon never commanded much actual power twice, perhaps, in his long career. Once as a lieutenant in the first World War when he had a lieutenant's authority over a small fragment of our military establishment. Again as governor of Kansas when the state police and the national guard were, to some extent, under his command. But it was not these meagre instrumentalities of power which gave him the prestige and authority and capacity to produce useful results which he has had in this state, in this region, in this whole country. It is the influence he has had, based on his accomplishments, the general regard in which he has been held, and above all on his character, his strong convictions, and his willingness to stand up and be counted. Thus, Governor Landon is a living parable for my theme, which is that in the wider world, influence can be as significant as power.
Of course, in the long run power is more important than influence. But in the long run, we will all be dead. And that certainly will be the result if the super powers resort to power rather than influence in settling their disputes. Thus, it is incumbent upon us, while maintaining enough power to defend ourselves and those dependent on us, to understand where our influence lies and to use it where power is unacceptable.