Tuesday 26 February 2013

Soft Power and the Limits of Power

Jeffrey Stacey at the Duck of Minerva blog writes about 'soft power' and its relevance (or irrelevance) to policy makers:
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. ... something I always feared as an academic was readily confirmed when I entered the government:  more than a decade later, despite the large number of policymakers who learned Nye’s definition in graduate school, for the vast majority of them soft power‘s academic definition is of little practical use.  To a pragmatic policymaker the concept is too complex, too difficult to measure, and near impossible to manipulate as a device of influence.
The term 'soft power' actually comes originally from Nye's book "Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power", published in 1990.  It was originally proposed to arrest fears of American decline (that perpetual neurosis of the all too powerful!).  So, it was actually thought up in response to late Cold War fears, although it found its success in the more optimistic, hubristic post-Cold War world.

Of course whatever the term signifies is something unquantifiable and basically ineffible.  To some policymakers this may make it a useless concept but I'd take precisely the opposite approach: its very unquantifiability is its most important lesson.  Policymakers act in the real world, not a world of spreadsheets.  They act on the basis of intuition as well as data.  Moreover, most policymakers act pragmatically, on the basis of 'what can we get done in this timeframe with these resources?' -- not on the basis of some global, overarching superstrategy that treats reality as a giant, fifty-dimensional chess board.  So, why would policymakers need a precise total for everything?  Why must soft power be effible and instrumentally valuable in order to be real or meaningful?  You can't count your pop music artists in the same way you count your battleships but why on earth would you want to?

The very act of tying all those elements that constitute a country's 'soft power' into a tool to be militantly projected outwards into the world would, if instituted on any scale at all, destroy all those cultural entities precisely because they would be torn out of the very environment of free expression that made them possible in the first place.  Yes, you can open some libraries and sponsor some pop stars to go out on tour or hire some linguists to translate American literature into other languages and this is all fine and good but (and this, I think, is the key point) the very things that constitute the American state's soft power depend upon a cultural environment that doesn't enlist them or instrumentalise them for the sake of a centralised, bureaucratised 'soft war' effort.

The very notion that the cultural phenomena residing within a state's borders can be reduced to mere resources for the projection of state power -- this notion is part of the mania of 'Full Spectrum Dominance' that *terrifies* most of the rest of the world.  The idea that every last nut and bolt of American society should be arrayed and aligned to further American interests is precisely the kind of thing that undermines America's attractiveness.

The lesson of soft power's ineffibility is, in short, that there are limits to instrumental power and while policymakers should do what they can with the resources they have (and cultural promotion is one small element of their larger remit) not everything is grist to the mill of national security or interest promotion.  At some point you've just got to keep your damn hands off, lest you destroy what you are meant to be protecting and promoting!