James Thomas Snyder,
An Intellectual Assault on Joseph Nye: Part One, jamesthomassnyder.com
Joseph Nye’s theory and advocacy of “soft power,” articulated in the early 1990s and developed during the last 15 years, have been a touchstone for virtually anyone studying or writing about international relations. It’s been impossible, particularly, to write about public diplomacy without having to throw it obligatorily into the custom-made “soft power” box that Nye built. In summary, Nye believes the fundamental aspects of effective power are changing; that this has become more “soft” in recent decades; and for the
United States to remain dominant in global affairs it must adapt to wielding this “soft power” more effectively.
I’ve long found Nye’s theory troublesome but it took me some time to understand why. I don’t think he understands power, force and coercion and the nuance of their employment in foreign affairs. The strange dichotomy of “soft power” versus “hard power” long bothered me because it seemed to try to articulate something very complex by using mutually opposing contrasts, like trying to describe a Picasso using only “light blue” and “dark blue”.
What follows is the first in a series of assaults on Nye’s theory. By assault I mean I intend to take territory and to replace what I hope to destroy in the process in the process. I’ll start from a position of strength: Nye’s theory fails at the level of language. Briefly, the “soft power/hard power” paradigm clutters more than it clarifies. In an attempt to provide a simple differentiating factor between aspects of national power, Nye has only blurred important distinctions beyond measure.
The absurdity of Nye’s apparent dichotomy is inherent in the words he applies, which pairs opposing modifiers to the same underlying object; specifically, he discusses power which may be “hard” or “soft”. To give a sense of what I mean, we may as well be using “More Power” and “Not-Power” or “Less Power” for all the additional clarity his distinction brings. There is a whiff of Orwellian Newspeak to this.
Orwell’s 1984 philologist Syme would have liked “soft power”: Why try to articulate or describe this in more precise language when “power” and a modifier (“smart” comes to mind) serve the purpose just as well? The result, as Orwell has argued elsewhere, defeats complex thought.
This is no post-modern critique. It demonstrates at a practical level the problem of the language involved. What should bring more clarity makes this subject more obscure because it begs the question of what, exactly, power is (a specific point I hope to bring up in a later post). And in this case – which damns Nye the most in my eyes – he is willing to acknowledge that “hard power” is the equivalent of force but then won’t simply use the term, which is much more precise and accurate. But also inconvenient. When is hard power not force? When it’s paired with soft power. Which in turn is what, exactly?
In short, Nye’s language obfuscates. It refuses to name what we are really talking about, which is power and force. When we use language like this, it is far more clear what we are discussing. True power is not attractive, as Nye posits, it is conductive, and can for example include a wide array of (painful) economic and diplomatic tools. The full array of national power includes the organized, destructive and denying tools of military and paramilitary violence. Force can be coercive, punitive and destructive – aspects Nye strangely ignores in his description of power.
And that explains the false comfort we find in “soft power,” which as we will see here is not very soft at all. Nye makes quite a case for attracting and convincing countries, but that is simply another way of talking about diplomacy. Nations talking to one another can come to agreements based on mutual interests or previously unknown commonalities. In addition to forgetting this plain fact of international political history, Nye ignores the nuanced realities of foreign relations, which can also resemble parliamentary “horse-trading” — the barter in trade of deals that have been the staple of international diplomacy for centuries. (Most countries today see
America’s ability to give away something for nothing as idiocy, not benevolence. The rest of the world simply can’t afford that kind of charity without an explicit quid pro quo.)
But beyond that we are talking about coercive if nominally peaceful means, non-violent tools that are powerful nonetheless. Coercion short of force can be almost as destructive as warfare and certainly as disruptive. We need look no further than the collapsing economies of the European Union and the power of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (for some) and the stronger economies (Germany foremost) have to wield over them to reform. This is simple power and there is nothing soft about it for the people living under it.
Nye has carved out an advantage for himself, of course, by wrapping up virtually every non-military aspect of national power in the non-threatening mien of “soft power”. But enlarging the basket and giving it an anodyne label should make us all the more suspicious. Because it is the difference among the tools in the various baskets, and the consequences of using them – or not using them – that has real effects for real people. And perhaps Nye, as well as his defenders and detractors, have forgotten that those real people are the ultimate source of power in political life.
I would replace Nye’s soft power language with this: there is only power – the full combined measure of a nation to act on the world — and force is a subset of national power; we have alternative tools of national power that are no less coercive but less destructive such as trade barriers, economic countermeasures, and sanctions. These are rightly labeled power because some countries have greater power (and more tools) than others. We have means to induce, cajole and convince without coercion and these are called diplomacy, public diplomacy, communications and (sometimes) propaganda.
There is nothing to be gainsaid from simplifying to the point of simple-mindedness. That is what, in part, Nye has done. We can use language to describe, accurately and with precision, exactly what power and force are and can do among nations.
In a previous discussion, I attacked Joseph Nye’s “soft power/hard power” theory at the level of language, effectively calling his terms unclear and mealy-mouthed substitutes for clearer, more precise terms we can use like force andcoercion, sanctions or diplomacy. Nye has made international relations theory less clear and transparent for the application of his two terms and I tried to reverse that trend with my own replacements.
At the same time, Nye’s ideas don’t work as theory, either. Nye has offered a Hobson’s Dichotomy, a false choice that doesn’t exist in the real world. A Hobson’s Dichotomy poses us with two falsely opposed choices that may not offer a solution to the problem set. That is what soft and hard power effectively presents us. It is a trick of language that also gives us an untrue sense of mastering reality. The reality of international politics is far too complex for that. To put this simply: as a Hobson’s Dichotomy, Nye’s idea is a narrows that squeezes out rather than includes alternative or opposing means to achieve political change.
In political reality, decision-makers don’t choose from one quiver labeled “soft power” and another labeled “hard power” when taking action. If their judgment is keen, they look for the best tools available to them to achieve the most desirable outcome. If they are lucky, and their country is truly powerful (like ours), they will have a wide variety of means available to apply to what will be a unique, complicated, and dynamically evolving situation and environment.
Nye’s theoretical failure goes beyond the toolkit available to decision-makers. “Soft power” fails to take into account civil society, international movements, and faith groups. For Nye, there is nothing like the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, or Buddhism. For Nye, there is nothing like the Freeze, or the Civil Rights Movement, or the Color Revolutions, or the Arab Spring. Each of these has had profound international political effects – in other words, by his own definition they are powerful — but they simply can’t be accounted for by Nye’s political theory.
What makes these movements all the more interesting – and possible – is the flow of information, inspiration and support across borders. There would have been no revolution against Slobodan Milosevic in
Serbia without Solidarity, and there would have been no uprising in Tunisia without Serbia, and no Cairo without Tunisia. To Nye, this does not account for soft power, or any kind of power for that matter, because it is not enabled by a state — even though these movements peacefully changed the means of government and the norms for governing in more than a dozen countries.
Nye’s theory also fails to account for terrorism. He dispenses with terrorism as “depending on soft power” (my emphasis) without defining terrorism per se as either hard (force) or soft (as I have defined it before, power qua power). Reading between the lines, then, Nye’s theory cannot really accommodate terrorism: it simply does not belong in Nye’s universe.
If we take most observers’ understanding that terrorism is a tool of the weak – a means the un-powerful – even if they are state-sponsored, then terrorism falls away from this discussion entirely. Nye may get partial credit for recognizing terrorism requires othertools to succeed, but it is not a tool of power or the powerful in and of itself. Nye’s theory of two “buckets,” does not have enough room for either political movements or terrorism — which pretty much defines the political dynamism of the previous decade.
An effective theory of power will take into account terrorism and the power wielded by ordinary people through collective action, whether in faith groups, civil society, or international movements. Power, in the end, is mass, and mass can really be found in the minds of millions or billions of individual human beings. Only military theorists really understand the importance of this collective mind in political affairs, and even then the American military tradition has been slow or loathe to understand the relationship of the public to the political.
Clausewitz for example wrote about the “moral forces” in war affecting public opinion as “among the most important”. D.H. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) wrote about “the crowd in action,” dating the phenomenon back to ancient Greek warfare. David Galula, writing about insurgency, noted that the guerrilla could “still win” with “no positive policy” but “good propaganda” — that is, directly influencing the population. David Petraeus, drawing off all these shrewd observations, argued that military communications could be the “decisive logical line of operation” by communicating directly with the public in counterinsurgency operations.
We still struggle to understand the motivations and goals of terrorism. The attack on the Boston Marathon is the most recent expression of this ambivalence, but almost daily bombings in
Afghanistan and Pakistan should remind us of the continuing struggle as well. Theoretically we wrestle to understand whether terrorism is an effective political weapon.
Nonetheless as a theoretical matter it should be clear terrorism is violence, not force, and , as a practical measure it should be clear that terrorism is a tool of the weak, that it leverages political entities that are not as powerful when measured against the mass movements outlined above. Hannah Arendt has written precisely that “power and violence are opposites”. This is probably the most mordant indictment of Nye’s theory, since it quite simply excludes terrorism from any consideration by Nye. It fully supports my contention that Nye’s theory constitutes not an expansive analysis of power but an exclusive narrows.
The real pain extracted from bombings or mass attacks can mitigate that inherent weakness. Violence can, on a macabre balance sheet, equate to political power but only if state authorities or the public mind are willing to let them. Still, as violence, terrorism is then relegated to simply another tool – like economic sanctions, or diplomacy – which states or non-state actors use to affect international affairs. This by no means justifies terrorism, but it does account for the practice. So far, that is more than what Joseph Nye can do.