When soft power is hard

The “soft power” espoused by the US establishment should be viewed with suspicion.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is an example of Washington's 'soft power' [Reuters]

There has been serious confusion associated with the widespread embrace of “soft power” as a preferred form of diplomacy for the 21st century. Joseph Nye introduced and popularised the concept, and later it was adopted and applied in a myriad of settings that are often contradictory from the perspective of international law and morality. I write in the belief that soft power as a force multiplier for imperial geopolitics is to be viewed with the greatest suspicion. But as an alternative to militarism and violence, it is to be valued and promoted.

Significantly, Nye first introduced the concept of soft power in Bound to Lead, published in 1990, reaffirming confidence in the United States as the self-anointed leader of the world for the foreseeable future based on its military and economic prowess, as well as its status as an exemplary democracy and the global outreach of its popular culture, from jeans to Michael Jackson.

Nye has been a consistent advocate of what Michael Ignatieff dubbed “empire-lite” a decade or so ago, and his invocation of soft power is as a cluster of instruments useful in projecting US influence throughout the world. Soft power is, in his view, under-used. Nye’s career as a prominent Harvard specialist in international relations peaked in the 1990s when he served both as Chair of the National Intelligence Council, making policy recommendations on foreign policy issues to the US president, and as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs during the Clinton presidency. He is an unabashed charter member of, and valuable apologist for, the US establishment in its current embodiment, although the policies of the Bush presidency often displeased him.

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The idea of soft power was sold to the US establishment in Nye’s 1996 Foreign Affairs article, America’s Information Edge, appropriately written in collaboration with Admiral William Owens, a leading Navy planner who rose to be vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The main argument of the article was the need to realise the revolutionary relevance of mastering the technologies of information if the US global domination project were to be successful in the years ahead.

This emphasis on the role of information and networking was also certain to lead to a “revolution in military technology”. Soft power was not, as the words seem to suggest, a turn away from imperial geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War, but rather the opposite. It was more in the spirit of a geopolitical cookbook on how to remain in control globally, despite a rapidly changing political and technological environment. The recommended soft power breakthrough can be summarised as the recognition of the role to be played by non-military forms of global influence in reinforcing the mandate of hard power.

The US century ahead

The final section of the Nye/Owens article is aptly titled “The Coming American Century”, insisting Time publisher Henry Luce’s famous claim that the 20th century was “the American century” would turn out to be a gross understatement when it came to describing the 21st century. Their expectation was that the US will be even more dominant, thanks mainly to its superiority in information technology, anticipating that the robust military applications of soft power will have a huge foreign policy payoff: “The beauty of information as a power resource is that, while it can enhance the effectiveness of raw military power, it ineluctably democratises societies.”

This unabashed avowal of imperial goals is the main thesis of the article, perhaps most graphically expressed in the following words: “The United States can increase the effectiveness of its military forces and make the world safe for soft power, America’s inherent comparative advantage.” As the glove fits the hand, soft power complements hard power within the wider enterprise of transforming the world in the United States’ image, or at least in the ideal version of the United States’ sense of self.

The authors acknowledge (rather parenthetically) that their strategy may not work if the US continues much longer to be seen unfavourably abroad as a national abode of drugs, crime, violence, fiscal irresponsibility, family breakdown, and political gridlock. They make a rather meaningless plea to restore “a healthy democracy” at home as a prelude to the heavy lifting of democratising the world, but they do not pretend medical knowledge, and offer no prescriptions for restoring the health of the American body politic. And now, 16 years after their article appeared, it would appear that the adage, “disease unknown, cure unknown”, applies.

“The idea of using power of any kind to democratise other sovereign states is an imperial undertaking at its core, and completely disregards the post-colonial ethos of self-determination.

There is much that I would object to about this line of advocacy that waves the banner of soft power so triumphantly. First of all, the idea of using power of any kind to democratise other sovereign states is an imperial undertaking at its core, and completely disregards the post-colonial ethos of self-determination widely affirmed as the inalienable right of all peoples. This right of self-determination is given pride of place in Article One of each of the two major international human rights covenants. The Nye/Owens assumption that “democracy” means “made in the USA” is an ideological claim that seems increasingly questionable given the reality of political life in the US.

“If we want to respect the politics of self-determination, we need to be prepared to accept the prospect of some tragic struggles for control of national space.”

This would be the case even if the country somehow miraculously heeded the Nye/Owens call to restore national health to its democracy. It is not open to doubt as to whether an elective plutocracy, which the US has become, can qualify as the sort of democracy that merits being exported abroad. And since the 9/11 attacks, the corporatising of democratic space has been complemented by a series of governmental encroachments on traditional liberties in the name of “homeland security”.

No longer a great idea

While it might have seemed unproblematic in 1996 for Nye/Owens to write about planting the seeds of US democracy throughout the world, by 2012 such a project has become nothing less than diabolical. The best the world can hope for is not such an aggressive version of soft power geopolitics but a US turn toward passivity, what used to be called “isolationism”, and was perhaps briefly reborn by the Obama posture during the 2011 Libyan intervention of “leading from behind”, as if that is leading at all.

Of course, such a realistic retreat begets the fury of the Republicans who seem to have not lost any of their appetite for the red meat of military adventures, despite a string of defeats and their constant wailing about the fiscal deficit. When it comes to militarism, all of their firepower is directed at the alleged wimpishness of US foreign policy in the hands of a Democratic president.

There is a second sense of soft power that I advocate, which, in its strongest form, applies Gandhian principles to the practice of diplomacy. A weaker form that may be more consistent with the world as it is, would restrict the role of hard power to self-defence strictly constrained as it is by the UN charter, and to humanitarian interventions in exceptional circumstances – but even then under the operational control of the UN Security Council, and implemented by a UN peace force trained to minimise recourse to violence.

If we want to respect the politics of self-determination, we need to be prepared to accept the prospect of some tragic struggles for control of national space. Geopolitical passivity needs to be recognised as an essential political virtue in this century, and reliance on the wisdom of collective procedures subject to constitutional constraints as a necessary adjustment to the realities of a globalising world that may go awry on some occasions.

But it is far better than entrusting peace and security to the untender mercies of a single sovereign state, no matter how democratic its credentials purport to be.

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.