LANGUAGE AND DIPLOMACY

Lecture 8: SOFT POWER AND PUBLIC DIPLOMACY


Aim

This week's topic addresses the relationship between public diplomacy, soft power and other forms of power. The lecture evaluates Joseph Nye's definition of 'soft power' and Gary Hart's notion of the 'Fourth power' and introduces other related terms such as hard, sticky and smart power. It then goes on to look at various interactions between these types of power, as well as some of the more problematic attributes of each type of power, such as the categorisation of 'smart' and the connotations of 'soft'. The expressed aims and ulterior motives of soft power are also considered. The lecture concludes with an analysis of the three variables of public diplomacy proposed by Mark Leonard which provide a means of integrating the guiding principles of soft power with the executive practice of public diplomacy.

You will find the following reading useful (extracts are provided for your annotations):


Defining 'Soft Power'

Joseph Nye's influential theory of soft power has 'transformed our way of analysing global affairs'. What then is 'soft power'? As we saw in previous lectures, the most structured way of tackling the definition of a new term is to provide a sense and reference analysis. The sense relations of 'soft power' are obtained by contrasting the term with other compounds in the 'X power' paradigm: soft power is the power of attraction and persuasion as opposed to the coercion of hard (military) power, the entrapment of sticky (economic) power and the clever combination of all of these contained in smart power (about which, more later). In Nye's words:

Soft power...is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced. (Nye, 2004, p.x)

Soft power can also be defined in contrast to other terms in the same semantic field, such as influence and persuasion:

Soft power is not merely the same as influence. After all, influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments. And soft power is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence. Simply put, in behavioural terms, soft power is attractive power. In terms of resources, soft power resources are the assets that produce such attraction (Nye, 2004 p.6)

Nye illustrates the reference relations of soft power by providing a list of examples:

America has long had a great deal of soft power. Think of the impact of Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in Europe at the end of World War II; of young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music and news on Radio Free Europe; of Chinese students symbolising their protests in Tiananmen Square by creating a replica of the Statue of Liberty; of newly liberated Afghans in 2001 asking for a copy of the Bill of Rights; of young Iranians today surreptitiously watching banned American videos and satellite television broadcasts in the privacy of their homes. These are all examples of America's soft power. (ibid)

Having defined 'soft power', he turns to a definition of 'power':

More specifically, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants. But there are several ways to affect the behavior of others. You can coerce them with threats; you can induce them with payments; or you can attract and co-opt them to what you want (Nye, 2004 p.2)

Nye goes on to outline the main themes of his book, which include the comparative strengths of attraction, the importance of values, the need for legitimacy and the dangers of arrogance. For those of you without access to the book, the chapter headings are:

  1. The Changing Nature of Power
  2. Sources of American Soft Power
  3. Other's Soft Power
  4. Wielding Soft Power
  5. Soft Power and American Foreign Policy

There are several questions which immediately come to mind on reading these definitions:

Soft power has arisen largely in response to a combination of factors, which include the changing role of military power, the inability to counter terrorism through hard power alone, and the rise of the information age. Although the term is primarily associated with Joseph Nye (see his earlier books Bound to Lead (1990) and The Paradox of American Power (2001)), the idea can be traced back earlier. E.H. Carr had, in 1939, distinguished three forms of international power: military, economic and power over opinion (Nye, 2004 p.8). Cast your minds further back and you will find plenty evidence of ancient empires practising the equivalent of soft power.

Gary Hart's 'fourth power', defined as the power of principle, is in many respects similar to soft power, as the following quote suggests:

Grand strategy has to do with the application of power and resources to achieve large national purposes. In the case of the United States in the twenty-first century, its powers are economic, political, and military. In each category these traditional powers are orders of magnitude greater than those of any other nation - friend or rival - and, in the case of military power, greater than those of most of the next several strongest nations combined. America also possesses a fourth power, the power of principle, which may well be one of its greatest strategic assets in the twenty-first century. Much depends on whether and how this asset is deployed. (Hart, 2004, p.1)

The Interplay of Powers

It is worth noting that both Nye and Hart introduce the power of attraction and principle as a more viable alternative to other forms of power. However, the relationship between them is potentially complex. Hocking (in Melissen, 2005, p33) alerts us to the following interdependence: 'Soft power supports the exercise of military and hard economic powers, and arrogant and unjust use of hard power can erode soft power.' Nye (2004, p25) suggests that 'Hard and soft power sometimes reinforce and sometimes interfere with each other.' Hard power may bolster soft power, but may also undercut it. Thus a country that throws its weight around without concern for how it is perceived 'may find others placing obstacles in the way of its hard power.' Conversely, soft power may obstruct the legitimate use of hard power, as when a country that courts popularity desists from employing force, revealing itself as a 'paper tiger' at considerable cost all round, including subsequent loss of soft power.

In addition to reinforcement and interference, soft power may turn into hard power when it is used coercively. For instance, NGOs often play an attraction power game in order to coerce governments into realising their own policy objectives. In other words, the brand image of NGOs as a force for the good gives them a moral edge which they deploy coercively (Hocking 2005).

Conversely, hard power may exert attraction, tempting the weak to join the strong, or impressing the strong with still greater shows of strength. The myth of invincibility has always exerted a tremendous pull. Nye quotes Osama Bin Laden as saying 'When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse' (2004, p26). (Notice however that this dichotomy between weak and strong contradicts the thesis that soft power is a source of strength).

Furthermore, as we saw last week, diktat, which is a form of hard power, may be deployed in order to promote dialogue, which epitomises soft power.

Finally, the use of hard power may pre-empt any attempts at using other forms of power. Indeed, not only the use of hard power, but the labelling of a country as deserving of corrective discipline and therefore on standbye for the pre-emptive use of hard power, by placing it on the 'Axis of Evil' for instance, in effect prevents the use of both soft and sticky power (in the latter case, through the imposition of embargos).

The role of sticky power in relation to these other two is equally deserving of attention. Sticky power refers to economic attraction and is closely related to those dimensions of soft power dealing with products, financial institutions, trading opportunities upon which many of the cultural assets that prove so attractive are based. Once enmeshed in the economic systems which underlie sticky power, it is difficult to extricate oneself, hence the term.

It is, in my opinion, at the interface between soft, hard and sticky power that the interesting dynamics occur, and these are the topics which need investigation and exemplification. As always in an exercise of persuasion, or even just of explanation, well defined categories are identified and familiar stereotypes are compared to bold new prototypes. Easily remembered terms, often with strong connotations such as 'hard', 'soft', 'sticky', 'smart' are used as labels and the argument is clearly presented with reference to them. This approach is indeed commendable for being both persuasive and pedagogically sound. More than commendable, the identification and manipulation of mental categories is a prerequisite to our ability to think. Cognition depends on categories. The clearer they are, the more easily we can gogitate. But it is our responsibility as discriminating intellectual consumers not to jump onto the bandwagon unthinkingly. Categories can be reductive and misleading. Where are the shortfalls, the sticking points, the contradictions and obfuscations in the argument? And where, on the ground, in the grass root application of these categories, do problems arise? What do they reveal about the theory?

I welcome your suggestions. I shall touch on four topics here which may illustrate the need for caution. These examples do not reflect my views on soft power, as I am neither advocate nor critic, merely an interested observer keen to learn, and not just to learn what is being taught.

The Categorisation of 'Smart Power'

Consider the term 'smart power', defined by Nye (2004, p32) as follows: 'Smart power means learning better how to combine our hard and soft power'. Given a definition in which smart power involves the ability to achieve the best of both worlds, and given the connotations of 'smart' (the opposite of which is 'stupid'), who would not wish to be smart? But notice that smart power is not an equivalent category to hard, soft, or sticky. It is a supra-category which combines elements of the others. Moreover, the hybrid nature of smart power is not predetermined, it does not come with a checklist of defining features. Instead, smart power is defined in an ad hoc manner in the light of results. If you succeed in achieving your objectives, then you are an aficionado of smart power. But who determines those objectives, at what point in the process, and who evaluates success? I would like to caution that the concept of smart power smacks very much of a carte blanche which allows the means to be justified by the ends.

When Nye says (2004 p7) that 'Hard and soft power are related because they are both aspects of the ability to achieve one's purpose by affecting the behavior of others. The distinction between them is one of degree both in the nature of the behavior and in the tangibility of the resources' and then goes on to say 'Smart power is neither hard nor soft. It is both', I would flag the following claims as worthy of reflection: that hard and soft power are not categorical but distinguished by degrees; that smart power is a supra-category; that the term 'smart' is loaded, and that no prior criteria are provided as to what determines 'smart'.

The 'Soft' of Soft Power

Consider the following judgments: 'The problem with soft power is that it is soft'; 'Soft power is not hard enough'. Should they be dismissed as representing a tautology and an oxymoron respectively, or is there a semantic and conceptual issue worth addressing here?

The table below lists both the positive and negative connotations of the term 'soft' as found in compounds such as the following:

POSITIVE

NEGATIVE

  • soft answer (good tempered)
  • soft-centred/hearted (kind)
  • soft detergent (biodegradable)
  • soft drink (non-alcoholic)
  • soft landing (one without damage)
  • soft sell (low key but persuasive salesmanship)
  • to soft pedal (use restraint)
  • to soft-soap (persuade with flattery)
  • soft touch (gullible person, push over)
  • soft option (the easier option, cop-out)
  • soft subject (one lacking in intellectual rigor)
  • to 'go soft' or 'be soft' (unmanly)

I would like to suggest that the ambivalence surrounding the merits of soft power arise from the conflicting connotations surrounding the term 'soft'. Soft is presented as morally strong and a sign of the times (which, it is assumed, are an improvement on what preceded). 'Soft' is good, it is healthy, eco-friendly, persuasive rather than coercive, evidence of 'being in touch with one's feminine side'. Yet to some it connotes weakness, and may even act as a provocation.

'Hard', in contrast, although admirable to some, is despicable to others. This is because the physical strength it embodies, with its connotations of persistence, coercion and intransigence, is deemed comparatively uncivilized, unsophisticated and unfit for the subtleties of present day politics.

This ambivalence over the terms soft and hard arises from the following ambiguity: Whereas 'soft' can be seen as physically weak but morally strong, 'hard' is physically strong but, in our day and age, morally suspect if not outright immoral. Physical and moral strength are thus in conflict.

Is soft power the new panacea? Not just a sign of the times but the solution to our times? I believe that soft power is very much being given the hard sell. To lack soft power, it is argued, is to lack credibility and legitimacy, both of which are predicated on sound morality, and 'soft', as we have seen, is equated with moral strength. Seductive though the discourse on soft power is, a closer look at the content of soft power reveals that although a value-driven world is definitely preferable to one in which might is right, the key questions which need to be addressed concern political choices where conflicting values - and corresponding conflicts of interest - arise. How should these be resolved, and what is the role - and the danger of appealing to - 'smart' power in their resolution.

The Ethics of Soft Power

The underlying premise of soft power, and indeed of public diplomacy, is that these are the new, politically correct, morally enlightened ways of getting other people to want what 'we' want, supposedly for the mutual benefit of all. The following extract from Gary Hart in which he evaluates the political options available to the United States in a global arena is representative of this approach:

The choices for the United States are finite. One is to act unilaterally. Another is to form ad hoc coalitions of the willing. Another is to involve existing international institutions such as the United Nations. The final choice is to devise new institutions not yet known or tried. The alternative argued for here is an anticipatory internationalist policy (that is, one that does not await for crises to arise) based on collaborative sovereignty, the collective decision by nation-states to aggregate their sovereignty to deal with both threats and opportunities in a structured way that benefits the interest of all. If we want to lead the world, we may stay engaged in and ahead of the world in a way that respects the people of the world. (Hart, 2004 p105-6)

Notice that there are several presuppositions worth questioning here, not least of which is that America is to lead the world (by consensus or diktat?), and that this is for the greater good of mankind. I would like you to consider and respond to Paul Sharp's objection that:

There is something fundamentally illiberal about regarding human beings in terms of great lumps of humanity that can be nudged and shaped into beliefs, values and patterns of behaviour that accord with some conception of our own values and interests. ('Revolutionary States and Outlaw Regimes' in Melissen 2005, p120)

'Supremacy by stealth': conspiracy theories

The cynic, along with the conspiracy theorist, might argue that soft power is a handy disguise for more sinister imperial intentions. The word 'soft' merely deflects from what is really at issue, namely power, the aim of which is to get others to do one's bidding.

'Supremacy by stealth' refers to the pursuit of a global empire through the spread of America's military, economic and political tentacles without informing the people, American or otherwise (see Robert Kaplan, 'Supremacy by Stealth: Ten Rules for Managing the World', Atlantic Monthly, July-August 2003, cited in Hart, 2004 p130-1).

Pronouncements by members of the Bush administration, visions of the future as contained in websites such as the Project for the New American Century, and even some of the comments quoted above by independent thinkers such as Nye and Hart, may invite speculation about ulterior motives. Consider the following address by former Secretary of Sate Colin Powell on the relevance of global communication to public diplomacy, made at the 2001 NetDiplomacy Conference on 6 September:

The tools that the State Department now has through NetDiplomacy are "just remarkable, in the sense that they can go over political boundaries, they can go over cultural walls, they can break down any barrier that is out there to communication."

Powell goes on to eulogise the values enshrined in the constitution of America and to envisage a world in which new technology disseminates these 'universal' values wrapping the globe in the warm embrace of America's soft power, here rendered synonymous with God's munificence:

"What I want you to do (is) to take the message that I have about the use of the tools that 21st century technology has given us to communicate our foreign policy, but more than communicate our foreign policy, to communicate the values that underguard our foreign policy, the values of openness, the values of freedom, the values of democracy, the values of an economic system that is open and free, the values that are universal to the world we believe, and are certainly universal here in the United States, because they are enshrined in our Constitution, the rights of men and women, the role of government to secure those rights given by universality, given by a God to men and women."

Powell's lyricism reaches a climax as he explains that through these values America can shape economies, lives and political systems across the globe:

"And increasingly, in the modern world, these values are looked up to for inspiration. People around the world want to know how do we move forward into this globalized 21st century world. And we as the United States have an enormous opportunity to communicate not only these values, but how these values can shape economies, how these values can shape lives, how these values can shape political systems..."

Just in case any dissenters among you are starting to feel uncomfortable at the expansionist and interventionist undertones of these lofty ideals, rest assured, the sentence concludes with the irrefutable promise:

"...and, give hope to a world that wants hope."

There is no unwanted imposition of values or systems here, we are told, since 'shaping' is presumably done by consent, and besides the world needs, wants, and lives in hope of being granted, the values and systems America is bringing to it.

For the full text, see: Secretary Powell at NetDiplomacy

Powell's address makes an important connection between new technology and the new public diplomacy (although he does not use the terms 'soft power' and 'public diplomacy' there is little doubt that his discussion of 'values' and of 'shaping' other countries refers to them). The structure of his argument suggests the direction of causality: ICT developments have enabled > global communication, which in turn is enabling > the spread of soft power, which will ultimately enable > the implementation of public diplomacy objectives. Whereas public diplomacy has been around in one guise or another for a long time, it would seem that the new, much more dynamic, pro-active and comprehensive public diplomacy currently being advocated, is the fortunate offspring of technological advances, in particular those which enable global communication.

Yet one cannot help but wonder whether the US vision of the future, outlined in greater detail in the Project for the New American Century is not better seen as fostering, rather than springing from, ICT advances? Given the self-serving new world order being advocated here, it seems a little disingenuous to suggest that the birth of the new public diplomacy is a happy accident born in a computer lab!

I am, as I warned you, playing devil's advocate here. For a comprehensive attack on the strategy of empire, and on supremacy by stealth in particular, please read and respond to the following argument by Gary Hart:

There is a world of difference between a historic power such as the united States using its power and influence to organize the world community to provide security, expand opportunity, and promote liberal democracy, on the one hand, and the united States using its military power to overthrow governments, impose its own colonial administrations, and occupy foreign countries for many years, on the other. In the former case the United States seeks to impose neither control nor will, organizes the resources of others, exercises benign influence, leads rather than dictates, and is motivated by the common good and common interest. It is governed by its own constitutional principles and remains true to its republican heritage. In the latter case the United States advances its own interests at the point of a spear, sometimes covertly ad surreptitiously, it governs countries directly through proconsuls or colonial administrators or indirectly through handpicked puppet governments, it pays its costs where possible through the sale of local resources, and its long-term presence or occupation is required to solidify the order it seeks to impose. (130-1)

In the latter case the problem of selectivity if a real one. It might be called the North Korea or Iran problem. If, as was argued by the administration regarding Iraq, preemptive invasion and occupation are required to eliminate threats to our security, then the same approach should be used in North Korea and Iran (among other problem spots), which represent equal or greater threats. Given this inconsistency, at least one of two things must be true. Either elimination of a threat was not the real reason for occupying Iraq, or we will exercise the option of empire only in those venues where it is relatively convenient and easy to do so. It is not possible that both things are true.

By deduction, then (since, again, none of this is being debated in Congress or discussed openly and candidly with the American people), the putative American empire will have these characteristics: nations representing the color of threat that can be conquered relatively easily will be targeted; it is hoped friendly governments can be quickly imposed, but long-term occupation and administration remain an option; the presence of a valuable resource such as oil will be an important and perhaps determining factor; the opportunity to condition the behaviour of other nations in the region in our favour will weigh heavily; if the use of military power is too costly, economic leverage may be employed or political pressure applied; finally, the less public discussion of this strategy in the United States, the better. The American people should not be involved, as they might become alarmed.

This last point is real, not ironic or argumentative. The reason that citizens and taxpayers would be alarmed if straight-forwardly and honestly presented the strategy of empire is simple: it is not who we are. It is contrary to our principles and beliefs. (131-2)

Soft Power and Public Diplomacy

I have so far, true to the aim of these last four lectures, focused on the debating points and controversial issues arising from the topics covered. I would like to conclude with a quick summary of the relationship between soft power and public diplomacy. You will already have established several connections. Should you have come across any readings which address the topic, please share your references with us.

Joseph Nye distinguishes between soft power as a guiding principle and public diplomacy as an executive practice when he counterposes the three principal concerns he attributes to soft power (culture, domestic policies and foreign policies) with Mark Leonard's three principal objectives - or practices - of public diplomacy (daily communications, strategic communications and lasting relationships). In the table below, Mark Leonard (2002:10) provides a useful heuristic aid for understanding the scope of public diplomacy:

Purpose

Reactive
(hours and days)

Proactive
(weeks and months)

Relationship building
(years)

Political/Military

     

Economic

     

Societal/Cultural

     

As Leonard explains (p10-11):

On one axis are the spheres on which it is played out: political/military, economic, societal/cultural. These will carry different weight at different times, and in different contexts...In each of those spheres, we can characterise three dimensions of public diplomacy activities:

Each of these dimensions operates according to a different time-scale...The dimensions also demand different skills and organisational cultures. News management needs to be flexible, reactive and plugged into the government machine. Proactive communications demand highly developed communication skills, strategic planning and the budgets, resources and the expertise to organise events that can capture the imagination. Building relationships depends on earning high levels of trust, creating a neutral and safe environment, and can often best be done at one remove from government.

You might like to consider how this grid depicting 'the three dimensions of public diplomacy' applies, firstly, to the public diplomacy activities of your own country, and secondly, how it may be adapted to incorporate the aims of soft power. The 'smart' integration of guiding principles and executive practice is the challenge that confronts us and which deserves your attention.

In order to help you focus on this challenge, I include Leonard's assessment of how British institutions span the three dimensions in the table below and accompanying text (Leonard 2002:73).

Purpose

Reactive

Proactive

Relationship building

Political/Military

GOOD at post level.
MIXED work with London-based correspondents.

GAP on promotion of strategic messages through some single issues campaigns.

MIXED: some good initiatives British Council and Embassies, but no strategy to work with political parties. Danger of GAP emerging as opinion makers increasingly turn from radio to TV.

Economic

Ibid.

GAP on general promotion.
GOOD with specialist audiences.

GOOD work by Invest UK and TPUK

Societal/Cultural

Ibid.

GAP on popular culture.
GOOD British Council on arts events.

GOOD: British Council with professional groups. BBC reaches wider audience.

What this table shows is that with regard to the 'reactive column' of news management, although Embassies do good work in liaising with the press on the ground, the foreign press corps in London is neglected as a resource. Given that foreign journalists are important shapers of public opinion abroad, there is clearly a large gap here within British management of public diplomacy. This gap needs to be filled with 'at the very least better co-ordination' not only with the foreign press corps but also with press and public affairs officers in British Embassies who cannot always get the necessary information out of domestic departments. Furthermore, someone should 'ideally be appointed in each Government department who is responsible for dealing with the foreign media'. Their particular responsibility would be to deliver information in 'public diplomacy terms' (I am tempted to say: 'with a public diplomacy spin' and invite you to comment!).

With regard to the 'proactive' column of strategic communication, this is the dimension in which Leonard identifies the 'biggest gap in the public diplomacy armoury' of the UK , 'both in terms of activities and the platforms that are covered' (2002:75). In the political sphere, proactive communications are few and tend to be focused on difficult issues such as the French beef ban or war on terror (co-ordinated through the Coalition Information Centre). In the economic sphere, activity is largely limited to trade fairs. In contrast, cultural activity is well covered by the British Council, but a gap emerges with regard to the communication and positive portrayal of British popular culture (apparently the British Council's Through Our Eyes survey of young professionals in 30 countries in 1999 and 2000 showed that many of the best known British pop figures are thought to be American!). Leonard advocates a more strategically driven use of resources in all three areas with a change in focus from the slow-to-shift paper publications in English produced centrally by the FCO to more flexible web-friendly publications which posts can use as a template for local (including local language) production both on websites and as radio and TV output. He identifies the web and television as the two platforms which need to be attended to primarily.

Finally, with regard to the long-term relationship building column, Britain has done quite well through the BBC, the British Council and student scholarship programmes to build up the kind of trust-based relationships which make a difference to intercultural understanding and friendship. Joseph Nye argues that studying abroad allows students to 'complexify their thinking' about the host nation and thereby presumably to avoid the stereotyping which prejudice feeds on. Discussing his own experience of his study period in England, Nye says (a little immodestly!): 'I think it was in Britain's interests that I would develop a nuanced view of Britain rather than either an Anglophilic idealisation or an Anglophobic characterisation. And I think that aspect of soft power is probably most effective' (cited in Leonard, 2002:19). Statistics show that some 50% of the leaders in the International Coalition were once exchange visitors to the US, which Charlotte Beers, the former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, described as an investment that 'has got to be the best buy in town'. 'Building relationships', Leonard concludes, 'is very different from selling messages because it involves a genuine exchange' (ibid.).

Apologies for this Anglo-centric case study! The Leonard analysis is offered as a model which you might usefully apply in profiling the public diplomacy activities and institutions of your country. Since one of the important challenges facing governments today is to build a coherent and constructive public diplomacy system which integrates the ideology of soft power, this may prove a good opportunity for you to exchange information and ideas on this topic.


Summary

This lecture has introduced the notion of soft power and raised some controversial questions, such as whether soft power really is the new panacea or whether it is an example of smart marketing and hard sell. To do so it has analysed the sense and reference distinctions between 'soft power', 'hard', 'sticky' and 'smart' power, and considered the metaphorical entailments of the term 'soft'. It has also suggested evidence in favour of and cited arguments against conspiracy theories concerning soft power as a tool of empire strategy.

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