Tag: soft power

Not everything outside the Pentagon is “soft power”

As someone who works on religion and politics, I encounter the term “soft power” a lot. Most of the time it’s in a good way; soft power is a means to advocate for policies that draw on our values but still advance our interests. But, occasionally, the term frustrates me. Too often it’s used as a catch-all to address any foreign policy that doesn’t involve military force or economic sanctions. If we want to advocate for a broader set of foreign policy tools, we need a better set of terms to describe them.

Soft power

Soft power was famously introduced by Joseph Nye in a 1990 Foreign Policy article. He argued that it is the ability to get others to “want what we want,” rather than merely doing what we want. It amplifies, or even replaces, conventional “hard power.” Since then, scholars have tried to test it, policymakers have advocated for its use in US foreign policy, and skeptics have questioned the usefulness of the term or whether it really matters.

Continue reading

Time to Redefine the Term “soft power”?


The broad goal of this blog, to the credit of its founders, is to bridge the gap between foreign policy practitioners and foreign policy scholars.  Prior to joining it recently, I have known its reputation for doing just that.  While in government I kept a mental note every time I came across a policymaker who regularly followed the Duck, and frankly I lost count.  So in this vein I’d like to quibble with something I thoroughly digested as a student, regularly promulgated as a professor, and gradually began to question as a policymaker.  It seems high time to question the usefulness of how we define the term “soft power,” which has gained credence ever since the scholar Joseph Nye came up with it more than decade ago.

Nye’s classic definition of the term–the attractiveness of a country based on the legitimacy of its policies and the political and cultural values that underpin them–seemed reasonable enough when I first became familiar with it in the mid 1990s.  The notion that a country’s cultural power could influence other countries and cause their governments to either agree more with a country of cultural prowess or adopt similar values made a lot of sense.  The Cold War had recently come to an end, and the rush of East Central European governments to join the West in all ways seemed just the evidence one needed to subscribe not only to the concept, but also the view that the U.S. possessed a whole lot of soft power that was causing other countries to agree with or emulate it.  After all liberalism and openness of all kinds were being celebrated, and the new concept of globalization was further and futher in evidence while the third wave of democracy was spreading fast.

Continue reading


Area Political Scientist Armed Only with Words Thwarts Robbery


“All the fake news that’s fit to print.”
–South Boston
Photograph by Matt Gratias

Area political scientist Joseph Nye of Harvard University emerged Sunday as a hero, thwarting an attempted robbery at a local convenience store. Suspected robber Donnie McFlanagan was pointing a sawed-off shotgun at the quickie-mart clerk, demanding him to empty its contents. Taking his own life into his hands, Nye intervened according to multiple witness accounts. Armed only with a bottle of Coca Cola and a copy of US Weekly he managed to convince the assailant to put down his weapon and surrender his weapon. One witness recounted: “He had this sort of power over [the robber]. But he wasn’t holding a gun or anything. I can’t describe it. Maybe he is a Jedi master or something.” Another said: “That dude was hard. Well, not quite hard. That’s not the right word. But he was the man. Dude didn’t even use any carrots, and there were some right there in the produce aisle if we wanted ‘em. Of course, they did look nasty. No one buys vegetables at the 7-11.” 

Security camera footage reveals that Nye tried to reason with the criminal by pointing out all the great things about the United States that he was denigrating with his actions – like soft drinks and gossip magazines, conveniently on hand at the store. He told the thief that he had to be true to his values and that this, rather than brute force, was the only way in which he would reach his personal goals. People fear force but respect peace, Nye explained.  Did the petty thug really want to live in a country where people could not go safely into a store and catch up on Kim Kardashian’s divorce? Didn’t that undermine our moral leadership in the world? Nye advised that if the hooligan wanted the $182.14 in the register, he was more likely to succeed by appealing to the clerk’s sense of justice, rather than by coercing him with a weapon. 
As the assailant starting weeping, Nye slowly reached for the gun, seized it, and threw it across the floor. Although the police only responded 20 minutes later, the robber never attempted to flee. Once he is out of prison, the soon-to-be felon claims that he will begin taking classes on international relations with an eye towards following in Professor Nye’s footsteps. In his statement to police, the suspected robber said, “Professor Nye taught me that anyone, even a Southie like me, can become an expert in international politics. That is what the United States is all about. It is the attraction of America.” 
However, another local success story, Will Hunting, who succeeded in a career in higher math despite his underprivileged background, cautions the assailant to think about all his options. “When I started this whole higher education thing, it was great. I didn’t have to clean toilets or risk my life robbing banks. But now I have to go to all of these faculty meetings.  I ask you, ‘What’s worse?’ Seriously, I mean that. These people are insufferable.”
When contacted to account for why he was in the working class suburb in the first place, Nye, who lives and works in the tonier confines of Cambridge, did not return phone calls. However, area residents have reported seeing Nye in the area on several occasions and think that, bored with the stuffy environs of Harvard, he might have adopted an alter ego in superhero fashion. His students have noticed that he frequently comes in late to class, noticeably tired. “With Gaddafi gone, I think Joe is looking for a true diplomatic challenge,” said longtime friend Stephen Walt. “And what better place is there to resolve disputes non-violently than here at home?” However, Nye has not responded to inquiries from the Guardian Angels, the Catholic diocese, or the Dorchester Neck police forces, preferring it appears to work alone under cover of darkness. To date, he adopts no disguise, preferring the standard uniform of the consummate Washington insider — dark suit and tie.

New Deal for BBC World Service Weakens Britain’s Soft Power?

Una Marson, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and others at the World Service during WW2
The reputation of the BBC World Service around the world reflects that of Britain generally. It’s an institution tied to colonial history. It aspires to global reach. Through its journalism it tries to uphold values of impartiality and objectivity, and therein lies the attractive, soft power dimension. As an institution, however, it cannot escape appearing partial – it is funded by the British state, and that state wouldn’t continue to fund it unless it was serving Britain’s interests. Therein lies the appearance of hypocrisy that taints Britain’s soft power. But this week the British government announced a new funding mechanism, and yesterday Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service, spoke about the changes to an audience in London.

The BBC World Service is currently funded by a direct grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Britain’s State Department. While a Royal Charter prevents the FCO interfering in the editorial content of World Service programming, the FCO can decide which foreign language services are strengthened or cut. In the last decade, Arabic and other strategically important language services have tended to do quite well, others less so.  Last year the government announced the World Service would be funded through the annual licence fee people in Britain must pay in order to receive BBC content legally. The World Service will be just another part of the BBC per se, its tie to the FCO less obvious. This week the World Service was granted extra funding not least because of its performance through the Arab Spring and supportive comments from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader.
The problem for the World Service now is that it is just another BBC service, funded by taxpayers. In the current economic malaise, taxpayers might feel extra hospitals are more important than Hindi radio. Horrocks suggested that the World Service is highly regarded by British citizens. But historically, the value of World Service programming is to those in conflict zones and diasporic publics who consumed its cultural output. People in Britain gets a more parochial, national BBC news and are probably unaware of the range and impact of World Service programming.
As the World Service becomes increasingly integrated into the general BBC – sharing technology, content, staff, and buildings – and as it has to justify itself to a home audience, so its distinctiveness would seem under threat. Horrocks seemed optimistic. For example, the fragmentation of media across devices, formats and languages and creation of innumerable niche micro-audiences is not a problem because the World Service has the tools and expertise to repackage the same news for all possible outlets.  While China, Russia and others may be investing huge resources on rival global broadcasting organisations, the World Service retains the credibility borne of its professional, impartial journalistic ethos (note that Al-Jazeera has been criticised for treating different Arab Spring uprisings in very different ways, prompting aprickly reaction). 
Horrocks finally turned to the question of soft power. He argued that the World Service does not aim to project soft power, but that paradoxically it does create soft power for Britain because the objectivity of World Service journalism becomes associated with Britain. A moment later, however, he said the World Service aims to project and change people’s perspectives, to “impart impartiality”. Imparting sounds very much like changing minds. Changing minds is an instrumental goal for the FCO, who want the world to “do business with Britain”. Does this make the World Service an unwitting instrument of the FCO? This ambivalence is exactly why the World Service is open to charges of hypocrisy.

Horrocks must be thanked for speaking openly and taking questions, and it is important that the World Service continues to engage in critical discussion about its role and purpose. I would be interested to know whether the chiefs of CCTV or Russia Today hold free flowing public debates.


Nuk-ya-lar Two-Step

As I always tell my World Politics 101 students, the word is “nuclear,” folks. Noo-clee-ahr. No such word as “nuk-ya-lar”!

Yet here we go, Sarah Palin on the stage pontificating about nukes (HT to Moira Whelan at Democracy Arsenal):

Seems like a silly thing to bitch about, eh? But goddammit, the thought of listening to my President or Vice-President further embarrass our country and belittle the incredible threat posed by these weapons by mangling that word for the next four to eight years, well, let’s just say my botherment is probably at least as disproportionate as the utility of nukes to any conceivable military objective.

Why is that, I’m asking myself? Why do I work so hard to make sure my students don’t reiterate this simple error in job interviews, an error for which they might, after all, be forgiven after listening to Washington for the last four years? Why do I fixate on word pronunciation when the substance of Palin’s remarks was about nine zillion times as scary? (In case you didn’t notice, her answer to the question about nuclear use was an answer about non-proliferation – she clearly has no basic literacy in the nuances of nuclear policy discourse.)

So why sweat the details? Because it reflects on me when my students or my President sound uneducated in foreign affairs. Because of what it says about me as an American when I allow myself to be represented on the world stage by someone who, whether smart or not, simply doesn’t care enough about basic diplomatic protocols to do simple things like learn the vernacular. I’ve been embarrassed for four years by my President’s inability to form a sentence. Whether this is simply a strategy to make Palin look “folksy” doesn’t matter. Whether it actually reflects on her intelligence, irrelevant.

It is the image this communicates about Americans abroad that matters. The perception that we care so little about the rest of the world that we are willing to put the power to affect the entire globe into the hands of someone who seems not to care would be as damaging to our soft power abroad and our national security as any US policy. It is part of what makes [some] people abroad despise us, not just our leaders. I would be just as hesitant to vote for a Democrat who was so brazenly and callously indifferent to the basic rules and syntax of foreign affairs.

OK. Rant over for now.

Update: OK, OK, Mike Innes has definitively proven that my statement that “people abroad despise us” for electing idiots, not just the idiots we elect, was an exaggeration… only some people abroad do.


When do we get to call it “balancing”?

I’ve expressed skepticism in the past about the idea that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization represents counterbalancing against the United States. And I still believe that the primary purpose of the organization isn’t to function as a NATO-like block, but more as an alternative or “exit” option for public goods provided by the US.

But The rhetoric certainly sounds an awful lot like, if not balancing, then some sort of proto-balancing.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – The leaders of Russia, China and Iran said Thursday that Central Asia should be left alone to manage its stability and security — an apparent warning to the United States to avoid interfering in the strategic, resource-rich region.

The veiled warning came at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and on the eve of major war games between Russia and China.

The SCO was created 11 years ago to address religious extremism and border security in Central Asia, but in recent years, with countries such as Iran signing on as observers, it has grown into a bloc aimed at defying U.S. interests in the region.

“Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations,” the leaders said in a statement at the end of the organization’s summit in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attending the summit for the second consecutive year, criticized U.S. plans to put parts of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as a threat to the entire region.

“These intentions go beyond just one country. They are of concern for much of the continent, Asia and SCO members,” he said.

Washington has said the system would help protect against potential Iranian missiles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t mention the United States in his speech, but he said that “any attempts to solve global and regional problems unilaterally are hopeless.”

He also called for “strengthening a multi-polar international system that would ensure equal security and opportunities for all countries” — comments echoing Russia’s frequent complaints that the United States dominates world affairs.

Even if we reject the full notion of “soft balancing”, we still might consider attempts to substitute for the US–and therefore to erode its influence–as something akin to balancing.

So, here’s the question: at what point would we declare that the SCO, and related policies, amount to counter-balancing, and what’s the justification for your particular threshold?

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Cooperation_Organization


This is rather embarassing

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Joseph Nye’s The Paradox of American Power.

Nye makes a very interesting argument, but one that I wish I had known about as late as a few months ago:

Finally, as the prior example suggests, the hub-and-spokes model may blind us to changes that are taking place in the architecture of the global networks. Network theorists argue that central players gain power most when there are structural holes–gaps in communications–between other participants. When the spokes cannot communicate with each other without going through each other, the hub becomes less powerful. The growth of the internet provides these inexpensive alternative connections that fill the gap.

For those of you that may find this post mysterious, I’ll explain by the end of this month.


Nineteenth-Century Soft Power

From Anders Stephanson’s Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right, pp. 61:

“The nation,” [Seward] instructed the Senate in 1853, “that draws the most materials and provisions from the earth, fabricates the most, and sells the most productions of fabrics to foreign nations, must be, and will be, the great power of the earth.” This was his basic geo-economic premise. Command over the “ultimate empire of the ocean,” the only “real empire,” was therefore what mattered. Britain offered a glaringly obvious lesson to this effect. Laggard by comparison, the United States nevertheless had enormous potential for emulation. Here Seward was far less impressed by expanding imperial borders than, figuratively speaking, the development of steam power. Though doubtless Christian traders and civilizers, the British had become locked into the old pattern of European colonialism, subjugators forced, as it were, to rely on force. By contrast, freedom of economic activity and protection of natural rights within a constitutional system, the two ideal and ideological features of American life, put the United States in an excellent position to compete for the empire of the future. Unrestrained by old irrationalities, the nation would attract instead of subjugate: open borders and increasing commerce couple with respect for local autonomy would draw the foreign inescapably into the most advanced form of Western civilization and hence also serve to elevate.

The more things change… The question is: was Seward prescient, or is Joe Nye fooling himself?

Filed as:,


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑