Wednesday, May 12, 2004

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Dissecting soft power

Jim Hoagland has a good review of Joseph Nye's Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics and John Lewis Gaddis' Surprise, Security, and the American Experience in The New Republic.

I've always found "soft power" a maddening concept, in that Nye has managed to identiy something important but its precise definition and causal logic remains inchoate (click here, here, and here for more of my thoughts on the matter). Hoagland appears to be equally frustrated with Nye:

Soft power, or so the doctrine goes, will set Americans free from misunderstanding, vilification, and the kind of determined opposition to American foreign policy that has marked the presidency of George W. Bush. We can and must "attract others to our side," and we can do this by better communicating America's true character and values to the world. The next president must seduce other governments and international institutions rather than bully them. If that does not work, take two aspirin and call Harvard tomorrow. By then it may be clearer what soft power is and how it will work....

In 1990, his three main sources of soft power were American culture, international laws and institutions, and American multinational corporations. Two of those secret weapons have now dropped well down the list. Culture--in particular educational exchanges, "public diplomacy" (as government-run information programs are now known), and mass-market films and other media--still makes Nye's cut as an American resource for changing opinion abroad through the force of example or persuasion. But American political values (when, Nye warns, they are in fact honored in America) and American foreign policies ("when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority") have somehow stormed ahead of McDonald's and Coca-Cola in Nye's worldview. It would be interesting to know why and how, but we are glided past that and much more.

Definition is all in this kind of exercise. Nye's book so stretches the definition of soft power, and so heavily conditions it, that the term comes to mean almost everything and therefore almost nothing.

In contrast, Hoagland has a more favorable take on the Gaddis book:

The alternative to Nye's softness, of course, is not an unsophisticated and chest-thumping unilateralism. There are significant roots in American history for a smart multilateralism that is not at all allergic to the use of force. For this, we must return to Gaddis....

Gaddis reminds (or more likely informs) us that the United States would not exist today as a continental power if it had not employed unilateralism, preemption, and hegemony as tools of national policy well into the twentieth century. Bush 43, meet Adams 6. In 1793, John Quincy Adams, whom Gaddis plausibly describes as the "most influential American grand strategist of the nineteenth century," was already writing that only unilateralism--staying disconnected "from all European interests and European politics"--would guarantee "real independence" for the fledgling United States. Nor could the United States simply co-exist on equal terms with any other great power on the North American continent. That, Adams wrote in 1811, would create "an endless multitude of little insignificant clans and tribes at eternal war with one another for a rock, or a fish pond, the sport and fable of European masters and oppressors."....

Gaddis is convincing in arguing that the Bush administration has paid a heavy price for sustaining momentum in the war on terrorism rather than consolidating its battlefield successes through a more focused, more Rooseveltian multilateralism. "Shock and awe are necessary departures from the normal," he observes. But "they become what's expected, and that undermines the element of surprise that makes such practices work in the first place. That's why good strategists know when to stop shocking and awing." And he continues: "The precedent John Quincy Adams set has at last produced what he warned against: an American government that deliberately goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy--lest those monsters attempt to destroy it."

UPDATE: For more on the Gaddis book, readers would be well-served to check out the Slate Book Club exchange between Robert Kagan and Niall Ferguson about Gaddis' book as well as Walter Russell Mead's Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk.

posted by Dan on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM


Seems to me some of your frustration is in the atempt to define 'soft power' as a science, when clearly, it is more of an art, a creative process. IE; "I know art/soft power when I see it, but damned if I could define it for you on paper"

posted by: Bithead on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Soft power always loses to iron boot. See Madrid.

posted by: Mark BUehner on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

When Billy Graham does a Crusade outside the borders of the United States, is this an exercise of American soft power?

It's a serious question. For generations the most visible and influential Anericans abroad were traders and missionaries, not always in that order. What the missionaries did they did primarily as Christians, not patriots, but they had to carry with them some messages about America, what its people believed and the kind of country it was. And their work often had major consequences, for example giving people from vastly different cultures a common frame of reference (the Bible) and bringing to America knowledge of conditions and people overseas that would have been expensive to acquire in any other way.

Like other forms of power hard and soft, evangelizing Christianity can produce negative as well as positive reactions: among secular Europeans hostile to any religion, from a Chinese government hostile to any religion it cannot control, from a Russian Orthodox church hostile to competitors. And of course from Muslims, among whom American Christians are always advised to keep their faith under wraps in deference to the proud traditions of Islamic culture, and also because otherwise they would cause riots and attacks by human bombs.

Joseph Nye put me to sleep before I made it to the part of his book where he discusses the soft power aspects of Christian missionaries, but I'd be interested to hear any thoughts others might have on the subject.

posted by: Zathras on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

I won't attempt to answer your question, Zathras, but I will suggest that your answer lies beyond the question of how close you think Christianity to the foundation of our culture. Answer that question, and the remaining answers will follow.

(note, I dind't say, 'our government' which is a different matter altogether.)

posted by: Bithead on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

"Softpower" is merely a new name for that old-fangled thing called "leadership". "Leadership" is simply the skill of getting others to do for you, what you do not have to or can not force them or coerce them to do directly. Leadership includes diplomacy in the sense of euphemisms that flatter someone else, cover over sins, create a conspiratorial hidden agenda, inspiring others, politeness to the dignity or vanity of others, credibility, having a good reputation as a person who can deliver, and having a reputation as someone who will subtlely revenge insults or those who do not "play ball".

Leadership includes the capacity to take drastic action, but to do so discretely and tactfully so as to preserve the Machiavellian appearance of morality. Love, respect, and fear - in that order - are to be wielded to establish that above all that one is a impersonal actor that others can "do business" with.

That is "soft power". It is the iron fist wrapped in the velvet glove, it is the light touch of imperial superpower, it is the wit to show mercy to the weak while maintaining the cunning to crush all those that are true threats to your power, it is the wisdom to cede your opponents the symbolic victories while taking for yourself the ones dealing with blood or treasure.

In short it is everything that the present Administration lacks.

posted by: Oldman on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

First, a scream: there is no such thing as "soft power." There is POWER, full stop, and then there is influence. To confuse the two is to run around madly, as a dog circles its own tail. This is one of those popular but erroneous convictions that passes for truth these days (like that the US is the new Roman or British Empire--but I digress).

I think Zathras touches on the key principle behind both of these dichotomies when he asks where missionaries have and do fit into the picture. Missionaries can function at times as an arm of imperial or quasi-imperial power, but in the end (at least in the Western tradition) they have always butted up against the church-state split and competing power bases, fundamentally divergent philosophies, wildly different goals--even the social classes from which missionaries were/are drawn has set them apart from officialdom. In short, what you have always had with missionaries are a separate "wheel" of influence (with limited actual power) that operates apart from official power (military and state) but shares some "shaded area" that is never stable, always in flux.

What I would argue is that in today's world actual missionaries must compete for influence with secular "missionaries"--that entire universe of do-gooders and NGO-nics that represent the desire to help without judging, to save the bodies of non-westerners, but leave their souls alone.

Missionaries used to have the field practically to themselves: they were doctors, anthropologists, teachers, agronomists, women's rights advocates, etc. But we live in an age of specialization. Missionaries are just one of many voices on the world stage. They simply don't dominate the way they once did.

What they remain unsurpassed at, however, is the ability to draw together small communities in opposite ends of the world. NGOs don't do this: there are no Red Cross "ministries" in Iowa to exchange information and personnel with a small town in Rwanda. Churches are the only organization that operates in a separate sphere from state actors, but can move people, money and ideas across large distances relatively efficiently over a long period of time.

What this says to me is that missionaries have at least as much impact on the homeland as they do overseas. This has always been true, but is doubly important now. Thus their contribution to America's "soft power" (ptouie!) is potentially tremendous. If Nye doesn't address this issue, or addresses it inadequately, it is just another strike against his brand of effete East Coast establishmentarian thinking.

But that may be just me.

posted by: Kelli on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Zathras and Kelli make important points. Note also that an amazing proportion of our Foreign Service Officers for most of the 20th Century were children of missionaries.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

The Slate discussion between Ferguson and Kagan is very useful, but they rely on some pretty big assumptions.

1) They have a very Eurocentric definition of "legitimacy" here. American grand strategy as related in the NSSC is to forcibly shatter an unacceptable status quo in the Middle East and replace it with something new and more acceptable. What has Europe got to do with this? What can the Europeans deliver - their restraint from malicious interference?

I quite agree that America's proposed successor status quo for the Middle East must have legitimacy among Middle Eastern residents, but I fail to see how or why it must be legitimate among Europeans.

2) Legitimacy is a two-way street. The other big player here is the American people, not Europe. The successor status quo in the Middle East must have "legitimacy" in the eyes of the American people, i.e., not pose a threat to America, or the American people will desire to continue smashing things. One way or another, the American people will be safe at home, and they do have the power to get what they want.

Walter Russell Mead at least genuflects in this direction, but then hares off into almost nonsense.

I'll get back to this.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Oh, to be Niall Ferguson! No other scholar has his own Monty Python sketch--y'know, the one where Michael Palin knocks on Graham Chapman's door looking for an argument, only to find himself in the contradiction department instead?

First Ferguson made a name for himself by saying WWI was not inevitable. Well, duh, you might say, but the inevitability school had been ascendent for quite some time. Next, while everyone was foaming at the mouth about the evils of imperialism and the intractability of the post-colonial predicament--boom, along come Niall the contrarian to tell us all how great the sunset-less pax Brittanica was. Bravo, man, bravo.

Fine, the British Empire was not nearly the Nazi regime it was being equated to. But is the US today the new BE? I'm with Kagan here. Nope. It ain't. The age of empires is over. Ferguson tries to obfuscate the issue by implying that our continental expansion was sorta like European empire-building. Russia's perhaps, not Britain's or Frances, still less anybody else's.

We are not an empire for two reasons: firstly, because Britain graciously left in place an international economic, transport and legal structure (thanks very much) which makes it possible to trade without raising a flag over the port city/then hinterlands of any given foreign land. Secondly, we are not just "resistant" to the idea of taking over lands that don't belong to us, we're genetically predetermined to bare fangs at those who suggest somehow it would be a good idea (hint, Mr. Ferguson, you may have ridden this horse as far as it will carry you).

Above all, you can tell that we are NOT an empire because, whereas the spread of British dominion in the late 18th and 19th centuries sparked a race to EMULATE among the second tier countries of Europe (and third, yeah, I'm looking at you Belgium) all attempts by the US to do more than clear its throat on the world stage provoke paroxysms of outrage from our "peers"--in short, they have learned something over the past century or two: why run a race you cannot win, when you can just as easily trip the leader and hopefully break his nose in the process? The death of honor on the continent--now that is altogether another story, but one that has more potential value than Ferguson's calculating but intellectually bankrupt thesis about the American Empire.

posted by: Kelli on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

I thought Mead's newrest book had some useful things to say about hard and soft power, particularly the way he breaks them down into more categories. I also quite like Mead's approach which looks at how the United States' internal economic and ideological developments changes the sort of power we can project abroad.

posted by: Kevin on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

I've read Nye in many small excerpts, but never an entire book, so this is a pretty incomplete impression. I have two major problems with the idea of soft power. First, it often seems little more than a clever way to present old and unpopular institutionalist ideas. "You like power, and you don't like the UN? Alright, working with the UN IS power. . .soft power". More importantly, soft power isn't really leadership/influence/power/pick a term at all. Most of Nye's suggestions involve picking issues where there isn't a lot of disagreement (i.e., there isn't a lot of actual assertion of influence, even through cultural and other mechanisms). Only doing what France wants may be an effective way to succeed, but it's not a good way to do what YOU want.

posted by: Evan on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

Mead's previous book is also very good on why Continental realism is a poor way to steer American foreign policy (the necessary auteur is a poor match with both our political culture and our institutions). It's not clear from the excerpts whether Hoagland and/or Gaddis is in favor, but whenever I hear "grand strategy" I wonder if an undemocratic policy isn't lurking around a nearby corner.

posted by: Doug on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]


Ripping what Ferguson said in his book does not at all address the issues raised in his discussion with Kagan, notably when they agreed that the U.S. has done nothing to create the necessary legitimacy for our proposed end state in the Middle East.

I attacked their definition of legitimacy but not the underlying concept. Ferguson's book is not the issue here. His discussion with Kagan is, and Kagan disagrees with Ferguson's book too.

My disagreement with them on the need for end state legitimacy, aka the "better state of the peace", is not limited to their Eurocentric definition of it - that they ignore the Middle East where the end state is to be created, and the people creating it (us). They just can't let go of Europe as the center of their universe.

Kagan & Ferguson jump the gun a whole lot, ignore the real cause of the present unacceptable (and rapidly disintegrating without our help) Middle Eastern status quo, how bloody its collapse will be, and how that directly impinges on both the successor end state and its legitimacy.

Their focus on the end state in isolation from the process of getting there is like a pastor attending a dying parishioner, where both want to avoid the messy painful part of dying, and instead talk only about the glorious afterlife.

So Kagan and Ferguson assume that the status quo shattering part of the war on terror stopped with our conquest of Iraq. "Can we talk about legitimacy now, please?"

In their dreams.

First, America won't be done shattering the old status quo until it no longer threatens us. Right now Iran is developing nukes as fast as possible, while Pakistan has them and is far more unstable than Iran.

Iran is just our worst enemy in the whole world at the moment, i.e., there is no way whatever we'll let them develop nukes. Not that we'll be the first to do something about it - I expect Bush's October surprise to be an Israeli air attack on Iran, aka Osirak II, right through American controlled air space in Iraq, though that might happen a lot sooner. This will hopefully delay Iran's nuclear program long enough for Bush to win re-election and only then begin overt preparations for an American invasion of Iran.

"Guess what you hundreds of thousands of reservists (not to mention their millions of relatives), all of whom vote? Now that the election is over, you're all being called up for the duration."

Plus the little detail that Iran has launched a pre-emptive attack on us in Iraq, i.e., Sadr's aunt just happens to be married to the President of Iran, the Iranians have spent hundreds of millions of dollars helping him attack us, and sent their own uniformed forces (Basiji and Revolutionary Guards) across the border to help him shoot at our forces.

So the party has only just started, not ended.

Next is the detail about the price of overthrowing the Middle East's status quo. There is precedent from the last time we did something like that. It was called World War Two.

The Germans and Japanese were tough and nasty. Their aggressive, vicious and thoroughly racist governments expressed deep-seated cultural attitudes towards foreigners. Sort of like the twisted tribal Arab version of Islam.

We performed an attitude adjustment on the Japanese pretty much by ourselves, which entailed killing about a million Japanese civilians in 1945 through starvation (blockade), fire-bombing and nuclear weapons. Nukes are quite effective in adjusting attitudes.

The Soviets did most of the work in adjusting German attitudes. Somewhere between two and five million German civilians died of exposure (freezing) and violence during the winter of 1945, almost all in East Prussia when the Red Army arrived. Plus the 2 - 2.5 million German soldiers who died on the Eastern Front.

The vast suffering of the German and Japanese peoples 1942-50 was essential to their cultural attitude adjustment in favor of democracy and peace. Expecting a greater attitude adjustment by Arabs at minimal cost is just not credible.

Ferguson, Kagan, the Bush administration, and almost all commentators and academics really, really, don't want to discuss the real cause of the war on terror because that both raises questions about our ability to create the desired end state, and the price of getting there. These quite disparate groups tend to agree that the cause of the war on terror is Islamic extremism only, which in turn is purportedly caused by tyranny and lack of freedom in the Middle East forcing all dissent into religious channels to be expressed as religious fanaticism (though the December 2003 "European Security Strategy" document of the E.U. also ascribes it to the pressures of modernization, cultural, social and political crises, etc.).

They carefully avert their eyes from the fact that the religious fanatics we are dealing with are generally Wahhabi Arab, and that what made them dangerous was Arab oil money paid to them to go be dangerous some place else.

A few commentators, such as Stephen Schwartz ( focus on the Saudi Wahhabi aspect while ignoring the significant role played by non-Wahhabis here, notably the Shia of Lebanon and Iran B the latter aren't Arab at all. And Iran's mullahs did not direct "dissent" into religious channels - they ARE the tyrants who deny freedom to others. Iran's mullahs are religious fanatics, period.

To the extent there is a dominant cause of the Islamic extremism which is our enemy in the war on terror, though, it is an extreme and violent faction of the Arab variant of Islam which is effectively a cancer that has metasticized courtesy of Arab (notably Saudi) oil money into the rest of Islam. While Islam arose among Arabs, it has a Auniversal@ appeal and takes many forms among many peoples. The Arabs, though, have interpreted and exaggerated significant elements of Islam in light of their tribal culture to make it something quite different from Islam among non-Arabs. There definitely is a recognizable Arab form of Islam, and the Wahhabis are an extreme form of Arab Islam which themselves have their own extremists (there are lots of tribal based variants of Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis are only one of those tribes).

I repeat that the Islamic extremism which has made itself our enemy is rooted in the Arabs= tribal culture being unable to cope with the modern world, in particular with the unearned wealth provided by oil royalties. The backwardness and tyranny of Arabic countries is IMO caused by this dysfunctional tribal culture, which does not bode well for our stated goal of democratizing the Middle East. Our victory in the war on terror will IMO require shattering the Arabs' tribal culture.

This brings us back to an immense amount of violence and death as an apparent precondition for effective change in the Middle East.

Ferguson and Kagan, not to mention the Bush administration, don't want to go anywhere near this for all sorts of understandable reasons. But ignoring how the old status quo is ended makes a discussion of what follows academic. The latter cannot be considered in isolation from the former.

Ghu, 1200 words. I'm calling it a night.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]


You are missing an important point. Kagan & Ferguson are not just EUROCENTRIC.


In their world PEOPLES don't mean anything. The genuflect at the concept but only pay attention to diplomatic and government elites. People are a mere formality, little more than the lines on the map their European elite forebears drew in the Middle East after WW1. They just don't get the political reality of peoples and nationalities in mortal conflict.

It is as if the nationalist wars with whole peoples in arms like WW2, WW1 and the Napoleonic Wars never happened. That we are still in the era of "dainty" European 'wars of royalty' where "legitimacy" in the eyes of elite diplomats for European governments were all that counts.

Our current reality is that we are in a war to the knife between the American folk-nation and the metasticized Arab-Tribal culture within Islam.

Politically, we are not just dealing with the Fantasy Mythology of the Tribal-Arab here. We have several of our own, fill in the {blank} here. That is the nature of a paradigm shift.

All these people you mentioned here:

"Ferguson, Kagan, the Bush administration, and almost all commentators and academics really, really, don't want to discuss the real cause of the war on terror because that both raises questions about our ability to create the desired end state, and the price of getting there. "

...are on the wrong side of this shift.

posted by: Trent Telenko on 05.12.04 at 11:04 AM [permalink]

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