Friday, January 23, 2004

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Further thoughts on soft power

My last post on "soft power" generated quite a debate, in part over terminology, so it's worth following up a bit. Three points:

1) Here's a link to one definition. Unfortunately, it's a bit vague, and as a result people tend to define soft power the same way that Potter Stewart defined pornography -- "I know it when I see it." Here's my quick and dirty distinction between hard and soft power:

Hard power is having the capabilities to get others to do what you want them to do. Soft power is having the capabilities to get others to want what you want.

2) For states,* hard power is a crucial component of soft power over the long term. The Soviet Union had soft power when their economy seemed to be growing at a fantastic rate and their military technology seemed on par with the United States. The debate over "Asian values" occurred at the peak of East Asia's economic growth, and has since subsided. It's tough to make an argument about the strangth of values without pointing to the material rewards produced by adhering to such values.

3) As long as the American economy and culture remain vibrant, U.S. soft power will exert a powerful pull regardless of the foreign policies of the moment. Consider this Chicago Tribune story on Vietnam's attitudes towards the United States:

Thirty-six years after the Tet offensive that helped break U.S. resolve in the Vietnam War, young Vietnamese have put the bitter struggle in the past and embraced an America they see as a source of hope....

The Vietnam War killed more than 3 million Vietnamese, yet it does not evoke strong passions here, let alone hatred for an enemy who inflicted so much death and suffering.

Instead, many Vietnamese yearn to travel to the U.S., and they see it much the way Americans like their country to be seen: as a shining example of freedom, opportunity and wealth.

"My friends who have gone to the U.S. are very lucky," said Huynh Hoa, 26. "If my daughter [7 months old] can go there one day, maybe I would miss her, but it would be very lucky for her."

More than half the nation's population is younger than 20. For them, the war is not even a memory but a collection of artifacts and photographs confined to the War Remnants Museum.

Their parents and grandparents rarely speak to them of those times, said Xi, 53, who would not give a family name, citing fear of the communist government.

"There is no time for that," she said. "We work hard every day, for money for our families. . . . What happened then is not important now."

"I love America," Xi said. "I always think American people are the best."

* Intriguingly, for non-violent, non-state actors, the reverse can be true -- the soft power of persuasion can be converted into the hard power of bigger budgets.

posted by Dan on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM


A colleague who had escaped from Vietnam as one of the boat people lamented how Americanized his children had become.

His observation:

Vietnamese culture is like steel---it survived the Chinese and the French. But American culture is like acid, it will eat through even steel.

posted by: Dean on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

America is the greatest country on this planet. No other nation can even begin to compete with us. Needless to add, this fact embitters France and a number of the other second raters. They must become more like us if they desire to succeed in the 21st Century. We must also cease paying attention to those living in the northeastern area “blue states” who attended Harvard University and the other Ivy league schools who suffer from a cultural inferiority complex. These folks like Senator John Kerry have done enough damage.

“Unfortunately, it's a bit vague, and as a result people tend to define soft power the same way that Potter Stewart defined pornography -- ‘I know it when I see it.’”

This principle underpins most human intellectual activity. It is often the best that we can do in a given circumstance. We should accept this fact and cease pretending that we can always do better. Utopia is not within our reach.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

At the risk of gross oversimplication: hard power=masculinity, soft power=femininity. Hard power repels, soft power attracts.

We do not need to hype our soft power--its powers of attraction are manifest the world over. But, being American, we like to tweat here and there, tart ourselves up, and push the "product" to generate higher profits and the elusive "buzz" of the global marketplace. Hence, this administration's abortive stab at going Madison Ave. by bringing in Charlotte Beers. Quel disastre!

The Vietnamese have not been subject to our hard sell for thirty years. However, everyone knows SOMEONE who emigrated to America, and now they all come back rich and happy. Who wouldn't want a piece of that?

My advice is to stop pushing so damn hard and just be who we are. When I travelled abroad as a single lass I found that men were floored by American women--we were so direct, so self-assured, so free and easy (not ME personally, well, nevermind). The point is, we could do with a little less aggression and a little more coyness. Less Madonna in a steel bra, more Mandy Moore in a gingham dress.

posted by: Kelli on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

It never occurs to the Tribune reporter that perhaps the U.S. was not the enemy in the Vietnam War, that the vast majority of people in South Vietnam desperately wanted a U.S. victory and that many in the North would have shared that view if only they had the freedom to do so.

If Vietnam were a democracy now, that view would be even more clear.

posted by: gopower on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Kelli needs to speak to the groveling “blue state” MIT educated Carly Fiorina who is apologizing to the Old Europeans for being an American capitalist:

“On to Carly Fiorina: She is CEO of Hewlett Packard, and she speaks in crisp, clear English. It is almost completely devoid of international-conference-speak, which is refreshing. She is like a cool glass of verbal water.

But what is the content of that water? She says that "the fundamental objective" of her company — the fundamental objective, mind you! — is not "to make money" but "to do good," "to be a good international citizen." When she says "make money," she makes it sound so dirty. She borrows the old Quaker business about not just doing well but doing good.”

posted by: David Thomson on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Oh yes, David, America is on top, DESPITE all these blue states on the coasts (that produce 70% of our GDP) and these damn Ivy leagues. If only we all copied Mississipi (State), what a truly fine country this would be.

posted by: bah on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

I really don't know why I goes:

David: If you ever actually got to know some Europeans and citizens of other Anglo-nations you would be surprised to learn that they don't actually want to be Americans. That is not say that they hate Americans or don't respect Americans, but they are quite happy with who they are. I won't even bother explaining the reasons for this, because it will be a total waste of time.

I will add that us northeastern educated people don't have an inferiority complex to other nations. It is just a feeling that even the greatest nation on earth can do better. True excellence is not being on top, it is being on top and striving to do better.

posted by: Rich on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

pot say that they hate Americans or don't respect Americans, but they are quite happy with who they are.”

Baloney. They may not wish to become Americans---but they are envious of our preeminent position in the world. The French, for instance, are enraged that they are no longer serious world leaders. How many people make an effort to learn French? And yes, I have personally met and read enough comments of these people to unhesitatingly make this claim. Human beings are innately ashamed of appearing to be jealous of others. Thus, they lie to themselves, and then lie to others regarding their true motivations.

“I will add that us northeastern educated people don't have an inferiority complex to other nations.”

More baloney. You are deluding yourself. The Harvards and Yales make this tacit demand of their liberal arts students:

“You are a disgusting American who resides in a capitalist and imperialist country. The French and the other Old Europeans are vastly more open minded, sophisticated, progressive, and less war mongering than the United States. We expect you to be a knee jerk liberal. Supporting the Democrat Party is a bare minimum. You might wish to be even more liberal than that.”

Am I being facetious? Do I really mean what I’m saying? Yup, I’m serious as a heart attack. Harvard University hates America. That’s a fact of life.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Full disclosure: I work at HP.

Now, that being said, I'm not sure that the statements Fiorina made (cited by David Thompson) are ill-considered.

Seriously: If you're trying to sell stuff to Europe, Africa, Asia ... one of the best ways to differentiate yourself from competitors is to play up your role as a global citizen. And a stated disdain for profit can similarly be used to ... create profit.

And, really, it's not just the Rest of the World that finds appeal in a "good citizen" argument - so do many of the people in the US who buy computers and use the Internet. You know, the Blue Staters.

I totally concur with Rich's final statement. My big issue is when people consider a lack of perfection to be a proof of failure. Such binary thinking lacks nuance and appreciation of gray areas.

posted by: Steve in Houston on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

My understanding, first gleaned from Joseph Nye's Bound to Lead was that the difference is rather clear-cut: Hard power is the use of military force or its threat and economic rewards and sanctions. Soft power is moral suasion--the ability to get things done simply because the other guy believes you're acting in good faith and therefore trusts you.

posted by: James Joyner on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

“And a stated disdain for profit can similarly be used to ... create profit.”

Indeed, groveling to the Old Europeans can be financially rewarding. But should such gutlessness be praised? And what happens when you start believing your own bull@#%*? No, Carly Fiorina deserves to be criticized for her self flagellating behavior. The Davos conference is dedicated to anti-Americanism. This is a given when anyone accepts an invitation to speak to its participants.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Why should the Vietnamese resent the U.S.? They won their war with us. Anger generally comes from losing.

posted by: Brooklyn Sword Style on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

I have a cousin in Germany, married to a German woman. Not only do they both get 5 weeks of vacation but they are able to carry over their vacation time. So, over the past dozen years or so, they have travelled the world for two months at a time every other year. Needless to say, they have seen and experienced far more of the world than my wife and I ever could. I never asked, but given the higher cost of living in Germany, they probably make less than we do.

I've never asked him whether he envies us. What do you think his answer would be, David?

And Kelli "When I travelled abroad as a single lass I found that men were floored by American women--we were so direct, so self-assured, so free and easy..." Don't know where you travelled but I have personally known several Italians and Frenchmen who could make the plainest woman feel like she was the greatest thing they had ever come across. I'm sure that you are gorgeous but I suspect that it is you who were floored. (Betcha did't travel in Afghanistan.)

posted by: claude tessier on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

"I've never asked him whether he envies us. What do you think his answer would be, David?"

Just remember this: the Germans (my ancestors) and the other Old Europeans parasite off the United States. We are the ones who take care of most of their military needs. That is why I want us to remove our troops from German soil as rapidly as possible. Your relatives are taking five week vacations because our tax money is subsidizing their lifestyle. Also, I believe Germany current endures a ten percent unemployment rate. I guess your cousin and wife are among the lucky ones.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Erm, the strange thing is, the US is not the gratest country on earth, Australia is. Claiming anything to contary is sheer anti-Australianism.

posted by: Factory on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Erm, the strange thing is, the US is not the gratest country on earth, Australia is. Claiming anything to contary is sheer anti-Australianism.”

Australia is a very decent nation and tries to live up to its obligations. We are indeed thankful for your assistance in the war on terrorism. Still, it is not the preeminent power in the world. That honor (and headache) belongs solely to the United States. We are the world leader whether we like it, or not. Virtually everybody recognizes President Bush. Australian Prime Minister John Howard could walk into most rooms throughout the world and remain anonymous. Should you be bitter and envious? No, you probably should feel relieved!

posted by: David Thomson on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

I've known many Vietnamese for long periods of time over the years. The estimated death toll in the Vietnam war is at about 3 million. If you add in the number that died in the French Indochina conflict, it probably approaches the Holocaust. Why don't Vietnamese complain or act paranoid or act embittered about it? They won. Both times around. Even the expats don't really complain about it. Even if it wasn't their side who won, and many still cling to the old enmities - it was still Vietnamese who won.

As for Mr. Dean's Vietnamese friend, he should remember something. There are some Vietnamese who have come here and become Americanized thoroughly. This isn't new however. Back in the day, Elvis impersonation was quite popular in the previous generations. Some succumb to the darker temptations of American life, like organized crime. However, even in South Vietnam persons who were there admit that the civilian Vietnamese government was rampant with corruption, mostly ineffectual, and the country was ridden with black-market organized crime rackets.

If his friend was being honest, he'd probably admit that his kids were just being Vietnamese - who have always been quite astute and quick in adaptation. The steel has always been hidden beneath a silk glove. Most Vietnamese kids 25 or under that I know personally may superficially have adopted American culture, but when it comes down to it they've got the same steel.

Why I know of one family who had one daughter who was the ne'er do well ditz and complete fashion slave. Then she interned at downtown DC homocide and the DA's office, and sometimes worked in the same office as Janet Reno - as in Reno was explaining what her desk pictures meant. Her interview was being taken into a crime scene with a mostly decapitated human corpse. Seasoned veterans had vomited at the sight of it. Her response? She laughed. And got to work. They bought her a drink and took her on.

And yeah, she was the underachiever. It was just the family had a different standard of "achievement" than the typical "American" family had. Heh. Steel.

posted by: Oldman on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Anyone else find Oldman's anecdote, well, disturbing?

As for Claude, I guess I earned that slightly sour response. Gorgeous? Maybe not. But perhaps through the power of exoticism (and excessive drinking) I managed to attract far more attention from European men than I had previously in my homeland. And it's not just me--read any Henry James or Edith Wharton lately? how about sitting through "Le Divorce?"

European "soft power" over here involves an ability to project at air of sophistication ("it's European! It MUST be chic") and worldliness that permeates (largely overpriced) products and (often overrated) ideas. I may groan sometimes, but I buy into it a bit too. American "soft power" by contrast is all about possibility, speed, thrill-seeking, and just plain stupid fun. There are exceptions, yeah, but the bulk of what we "sell" is about these qualities.

I'll try to keep my hoary reminiscences to myself from now on.

posted by: Kelli on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Sorry Kelli,

The oldman has been through some pretty freaky situations. Sometimes I forget that others haven't been as desensitized as I am. There are three salient points here. The most important thing in Vietnamese culture has always been winning at any cost. At any cost doesn't mean "cheating" but it means ruthlessness in pursuing achievement.

The corruption of South Vietnam, the gangs of South California, and the defeat in the Twentieth century of China, France, the USA, and the Khemer Rouge were all based on this. Some Americans still tell me that America could have won the Vietnamese war. I laugh at them. The Vietnamese have winning bred into their very bones. Every anti-American country wants to be the "new Vietnam" ... but there is only one Vietnam.

The other two points are just simply that no matter how well intended the purposes, invasions and occupations are always doomed to failure unless the governments they leave behind are stable and have popular legitimacy. We are already running into problems with this in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even when military victory is possible, success depends upon political transformation. This is almost entirely dependent upon "soft power".

Our success in Iraq is entirely dependent on getting Iraqis to buy into it. The whole reconstruction of Iraq is a test case in "soft power". And right now, on those grounds, we're not exactly having smooth sailing. Based on this, those Americans who still believe in the preminence of American soft-power should do some soul searcher. There are other troublesome signs as well. Americans still have hard power - formal legal and diplomatic relations, military force, and sheer economic power. But our soft power is eroding almost by the day in every field but the attractiveness of American brand merchandizing.

Finally, I really do think America is the greatest country on the face of the earth. But that doesn't mean that we're infallible or invulnerable or eternally destined for success. What I see on some of these comments is frankly complacency or arrogance. That's the quickest route to losing our special place in history.

posted by: Oldman on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

Of course, there is no such thing as "soft power". But never mind that, we're blogging.

As has been agreed by almost all here, there is no way to quantify this 'thing'. I am at a loss to see how something that cannot be defined can be used as a tool. And it necessarily follows that if a thing cannot be employed as a tool of statecraft, that it has no utility.

Hmmm. A tool that has no utility. Can it really be a tool, then?

I think not.

Well then, is the indefinable side of commerce - it's 'softer side' - real? Yes. It is real because it is merely a condition and not expected to accomplish anything. But is it a power? Demonstrably not.

Power makes for victory - not "soft power" - and if it is to be maintained that this imaginary thing, ‘SP’ is what will win us 'success' in Iraq, then let's - by all means - pull out immediately and simply allow medical supplies and foreign currency to flow in, absent the ‘hard’ power of Coalition frameworks and the ability to enforce them.

Oh, that's right - that didn't work worth a damn.

posted by: Tommy G on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

It's okay Oldman, we don't always need to agree, right? On this question I'm a lot closer to Tommy G's succinct analysis. Soft power is one of those great ideas we "big thinkers" come up with sometimes that sounds so great over coffee first thing in the morning but which, no sooner do we sit down at the computer to write it up, leaves us thinking "what the hell was I so excited about?" It is a chimera.

Do the Iraqis need "soft power" to get them on the road to reform? Hey, there, you with the gun and the 500 lbs of plastic explosive in your truck, let's you and I get to know each other, share a coke and a smile? How's that work, exactly?

And as for Vietnam always winning--tell that to the Vietnamese girl who just did my nails for 11 bucks. Are a lot of us American "losers" going over there to give them manicures? Just checking.

posted by: Kelli on 01.23.04 at 11:01 AM [permalink]

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