Life can be surreal at times. Earlier this year, I spent nearly three hours in a tent in Tripoli, sitting by a fire and drinking tea. The first surreal thing about this experience was the setting: a tent located in a grassy park where horses, camels, and goats grazed, walled off by a series of gates from the city that surrounded them. The second was the backdrop: the ruins of a building U.S. warplanes had bombed in 1986. The third was the identity of my host: Libya's longtime ruler, Muammar Qaddafi--the very man many believe those planes were trying to kill.
I was in Libya at the invitation of the Monitor Group, a consulting company that is helping Libya open itself to the global economy. As part of that process, Monitor had enlisted a variety of Western experts to speak with government officials, including Qaddafi himself. Qaddafi has long been seen as a bad boy in the West. As an autocrat, he has shown little respect for human rights, and, as a sponsor of terrorism, he has been responsible for many deaths. Indeed, a Libyan bombing in Berlin was the prelude to the U.S. attack in 1986. Yet, in recent years, Qaddafi has appeared to be changing. He still wants to project Libyan power, but he is going about it differently than in decades past. Where once he had tried to bully and even overthrow governments to his south, now he is hosting peace talks on Darfur. Where once he sought weapons of mass destruction, now he has abandoned his nuclear program. These moves have paid off: A decade ago Libya was subject to U.N. Security Council sanctions; recently, the United States raised no objection to Libya being seated on the Security Council.
Qaddafi, in other words, seems to have become interested in soft power-- the art of projecting influence through attraction rather than coercion. Three years ago, I wrote a book called Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, and I have written often about the subject over the years. Was that why Qaddafi wanted to talk to me? I could not be sure, but the possibility did raise other questions. How serious was Qaddafi about exercising soft power? And just how different was this new Qaddafi--with his preference for diplomacy over weapons--from the old?
On a cool February morning, a car whisked me to a compound in the middle of Tripoli that was fortified with multiple layers of green metal gates. Inside the gates stood several large tents. Qaddafi greeted me at the entrance to one. He wore his trademark hat as well as two cloaks--an outer black embroidered one, and a plain tan one underneath. He was both tall and handsome in a craggy sort of way. He moved with ease and spoke softly. Occasionally, he used English, but he was clearly more comfortable speaking Arabic with an interpreter. We sat in plastic chairs by a table on which five of my books were spread out--including Soft Power.
Sure enough, a half hour into our conversation, he asked how Libya might increase its soft power on the world stage. I said there were several ways to cultivate a relationship with the United States. First, Americans appreciate his condemnation of Al Qaeda. Second, we are interested in his efforts to reform Libya economically and politically. Third, we have a common interest in developing energy resources outside the Persian Gulf. But any long-term relationship with the United States, I said, has to include respect for human rights. He replied with a long defense of human rights in Libya and said that economic rights preceded political rights. The United States, he said, was hypocritical in its advocacy of human rights.
Qaddafi, it turned out, was not just interested in discussing his own soft power; he also wanted to discuss America's. He advised us to get out of Iraq promptly because our presence there was seen as colonial and was hurting us badly in the region. I said that, although Iraq had undercut American soft power, I believed that the openness of our system would allow us to make corrections, and some day we would recover our soft power as we had after Vietnam. Qaddafi said that the strength of the United States was the country's diversity but that he thought the president could not be controlled. I replied that, in the climate of fear following September 11, we had made some mistakes, but that a free press, an independent judiciary, and congressional elections served as checks on the president. Thanks to them, I said, U.S. policies could change.
To be sure, the conversation was hardly limited to international relations. Qaddafi also wanted to talk about direct democracy, a way of governing that he sees as a solution to the age-old problem of how to distribute and exercise power. This, he said, was the heart of The Green Book, which he had written three decades ago, after his revolution overthrew the Libyan monarchy. Later in the conversation, he expanded on this theme: Historically, he said, humans have evolved from absolute kings to elected presidents--who only represent about half the people--to direct democracy for all citizens. Achieving this third phase, he said, was his goal for Libya.
Has Qaddafi really changed? It is difficult to know for sure. He has always been a protean figure--part Bedouin libertarian, part revolutionary socialist--and, obviously, his future actions will speak louder than any current words. But there is no doubt that he acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas--including soft power--with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy.
One thing about Qaddafi, however, has not changed: Even as he takes a softer approach to the exercise of power abroad, he remains the dominant figure at home. At the end of our meeting, Qaddafi signed a copy of The Green Book for me. That was a good thing, because when I arrived at the airport and officials told me I had failed to have my hotel stamp the visa in my passport, I pulled out my copy of The Green Book and showed them Qaddafi's signature. They inspected it, then waved me through. That was the final surreal moment.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. teaches at Harvard and is the author, most recently, of The Power Game: A Washington Novel.
By Joseph S. Nye, Jr.