Soft Power: The Vaccine Against Oppression (op-ed)

By James Stavridis and Matthew Daniels

Ebola is not the only virus threatening humanity. For nearly a decade, a spreading global contagion of oppression has caused setbacks in human rights of which ISIL is only the latest symptom.

While no treatment has been developed for Ebola, a serum against its virulent moral and ideological counterparts emerged from the ashes of World War II.

The vaccine is embodied in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called, “the quintessential values through which we affirm together that we are a single human community.” The breakthrough vision at the core of the declaration is a call to ordinary men and women to unite in promoting the freedoms essential to fully realize our common humanity. It presumes that ordinary people will always have a greater stake in their own freedom than those in power.

The declaration speaks of freedom of conscience, speech, property and privacy. It condemns slavery, torture and discrimination. It respects the dignity and worth of every human as equal regardless of race, nationality or gender. Although a powerful and elegant expression of our common birthright, the declaration was, arguably, 50 years ahead of its time. This “good idea virus” needed the web to connect the ordinary people who it seeks to protect.

Equally important, it required a generation to come of age with the technology itself: “digital natives” who communicate across boundaries in ways we cannot now even imagine. Only then could this historic expression of universal human rights become a meaningful social reality.

While the Universal Declaration is already the most translated document in history, the Internet has created an opportunity to promote its vision of universal rights through the world’s first nearly universal communications medium. The emergence of a more globally conscious and interconnected generation raised on the Internet – especially in those parts of the world where ordinary people are resisting tyranny – has made it possible to inoculate more people than ever before with the inspiring truths of human freedom.

Liberty is an addictive drug. As Machiavelli warned in The Prince: “He who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it.” Freedom itself is a powerful weapon against tyranny.

Throughout history there have been times when great ideas and technological advances converged with profound implications. We are again at such a time, and the task before us now is to ensure that the most potent ideals of human freedom are organically embraced by a new generation of digital natives across the globe. This, more than any weapons system, is our best hope for promoting international peace and security.

Yet even in the face of this potential, American foreign policy and military leaders have devoted so much more energy and resources to hard power weaponry. They have put more faith in the power of killer drones than in life-giving ideals. It’s an expensive miscalculation for those of us who must pay the bills while we watch ISIS advance. As General Myers, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has observed, “every dollar spent on the soft power of ideas is worth 100 in hard power.”[3] And the digitally-mediated barbarism of YouTube beheadings is a horrifying warning that technology can be used for good or evil. In the years ahead, no matter who controls the White House or Congress, our nation must focus more of our efforts on soft power.

Our government should invest the funds needed to launch 10 good ideas for every Tomahawk missile we fire. But, the independent voice of the private sector is especially important in an era when public trust in political leaders and governments has reached a modern low ebb. So, the resources of the private sector should be harnessed to develop soft power networks and strategies that can help to soften the ground for freedom worldwide.

Ideas matter, and disseminating the timeless ideals of freedom to digital natives is the vital security imperative of our time. In the digital age, information truly is power — a new form of digital soft power that will be increasingly important to global security in the years ahead. The time has come to embrace its full potential as a force for good.


Retired Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, led NATO in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander. Matthew Daniels is founder of Good of All and director of the Center for Human Rights and International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, the home of

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