Soft Power: What it Really Means

Source: click here
Soft power is a very popular term. 

If you google it, you will get 106 million results in half a second. 

It is bandied about in every conceivable context and everybody thinks they know what it means. But in the international community - that political world that whirls around America and the United Nations - it has a surprisingly specific meaning. 

A meaning first given to it by a Harvard professor, Joseph S. Nye in an article and then in a book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power  published in 1992. 

Professor Nye's political theories have had a formidable impact on American thinking - we have to remember that among his many positions at the university he was the Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and now that he has retired, he still holds the position of University Distinguished Service Professor. He was  active in  government when it was in the hands of the Democrats and served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton AdministrationHe is the chairman of the North American branch of the Trilateral Commission[12] and the co-chair of the Aspen Strategy Group.  

This is someone whose ideas travel far and wide.

As reported on Wikipedia, he "pioneered the theory of soft power. His notion of 'smart power' became popular with the use of this phrase by members of the Clinton Administration, and more recently the Obama Administration." 

In fact, he expanded on the notion of soft power - as opposed to the "hard power" of raw military might - in several books, in particular, in The Paradox of American Power (2002), Soft Power (2004) and The Future of Power (2011) - the latter explores "the enduring nature of power in the cyber age". According to Madeleine K. Albright, "If your goal is to understand world affairs in the twenty-first century, there could be no better guide than The Future of Power."

So if Professor Nye has written a book about soft power with that very title on the cover, we have the final word on it, right?


A top reviewer on Amazon, Robert David Steele Vivas made this scathing criticism regarding  this particular book (quote is edited to include only the main points - highlights added):

First, this book does not focus at all on the most important soft power of all, that of a strategic culture. Others have documented how North Vietnam whipped the United States, not with firepower, but with political will deeply rooted in a strategic culture that was superior to that of the United States of America.
Second, despite the author's earlier service as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the book gives cursory attention to intelligence reform, and does not mention, at all, open source intelligence (disclosure: my pet rock). [...]
Third, the book lacks substance in the sense of effective examples. A simple illustration: $100M can buy a Navy ship of war or an Army brigade with tanks and artillery (two forms of hard power) or it can buy 1,000 diplomats or 10,000 Peace Corps volunteers or a water desalination plant capable of distilling 100M cubic meters of fresh water a year (three forms of soft power), or it can buy one day of war over water (the typical failure cost of hard power).
The book has exactly one paragraph on corporate misbehavior, which as William Greider has documented in "The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy", is the most evil and destructive form of "soft power." This is a severe oversight.
The book neglects foreign aid in a strategic context, and shows no appreciation for open spectrum, open source software, and open source intelligence, the triad of the new global open society. There is no hint of how a Digital Marshall Plan might be the most powerful "soft power" device every conceived.
The book neglects non-governmental organizations, with no mention of the organizations that are giving soft power a whole new dimension today (the European Centre for Conflict Prevention or ECCP, for example) and the book makes no mention of the "good" side of religious activism, the soft power so ably articulated by Dr. Douglas Johnston in his two seminal works on faith-based diplomacy and religion as the missing dimension in statecraft [...]
Joe Nye has my vote as the new voice of reason within the Democratic circles, but he needs to be balanced by the Jonathan Schell, William Greider, Herman Daly, Paul Ray, and other European and Asian scholars. The world has gotten too complicated to be addressed by Op-Eds out of Harvard. 

Here I'd like to pursue further two of the above points:

(1) the soft power of religious activism

 In the academic world, this is exemplified by the work of Douglas M. Johnston, a Harvard Ph D. in Political Science and President/Founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. He is the author of several books, including  Religion, Terror, and Error that won in 2011 the “Book of the Year Award” by Foreword Reviews, the rating agency for universities and independent publishers.

In the world at large, the iconic image of soft power is Pope Francis, with his "message of peace and forgiveness". He is an unrivaled master of "spiritual engagement", nobody comes close to the moral force of his voice.

He is the real successor of Pope John Paul II.

Here we have two extraordinary Popes who were able to change the course of History.

Everyone agrees that the collapse of the Soviet Union was accelerated by Pope John Paul II's actions; it is still early days for Pope Francis but he has already played a role in the Cuba-America rapprochement - perhaps not as a mediator (he denies it) but in providing a favorable setting.

The American press has taken note in anticipation of his trip to the US, as you can see in this notable piece by Jim Yardley in the New York Times: "A Humble Pope Challenging the World".
Pope Francis (Source: click here)

Popes operate without a single division, without ever firing any weapon and without any threat of military power.

"Hard power" is not part of the Vatican arsenal.

Unlike the Permanent Five at the UN Security Council (US, Russia, China, UK and France).

When the Permanent Five exercise their "soft power" at the UN, what is meant is their veto power. Outside of the UN, their power is never soft: it is rooted in their nuclear arsenal.

 (2) the soft power of strategic culture 

Mr David Steele Vivas mentions Vietnam and he is right about that. But I would add to the argument. I would mention ecological economics  and the vision of a world where growth cannot be based on a capitalistic model of perpetual growth and exploitation of natural resources.

Our future economy must necessarily be limited to the carrying capacity of the planet if we, humans, are to survive at all.

And this brings us straight to the theory of a "steady state economy" of which Herman Daly, co-founder and associate editor of the journal, Ecological Economics is a major proponent.

In fact, ecological economics has become a discipline in its own right. It tries to answer such questions as Can China achieve its carbon intensity target by 2020 while sustaining economic growth? 

But attacks on the once-dominant economic paradigm, the neo-liberal market-based approach generally referred to as the "Washington Consensus" don't stop there.

New ideas keep bubbling up and the Internet acts as an accelerator of ideology shifts.

Jacques Attali
For example, if you go outside America, you find economists like Jacques Attali, author of numerous best-sellers - his latest is "Peut-on prévoir l'Avenir?" (in French only for now, published by Fayard - title translates roughly as: Can One Foretell the Future). He has founded a new economic discipline based on including future generations, the "économie positive". Proponents of this economic school will meet in the Havre next week to debate new approaches to solve the world problems, none of them based on neoliberalism.

It is interesting to observe how new ideas that shake our culture end up at the United Nations. 

In previous posts, I have mentioned Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, adviser to the UN Secretary General He is by far the clearest proponent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Following on his hugely successful, The End of Poverty, Economic Possibilities for our Time published in 2006, his latest book, The Age of Sustainable Development, is a must read for anyone interested in taking the pulse of our culture.

But Professor Sachs is only the latest of a long line of major intellectual figures that have influenced the way of thinking at the United Nations.

Twenty five years ago, it was already happening. For example, you have fascinating figures like Marylin Waring, a New Zealand activist for female human rights and environmental issues, a development consultant and United Nations expert. 

In 1988, with her forceful book If Women Counted, she managed to convinced the United Nations to review its definition of Gross National Product. She powerfully argued that national accounts never included the economic contribution of women, their housework, their caring of the sick, of the young and old.

Her arguments inspired a revision of national accounting methods in dozens of countries and she is considered a principal founder of the discipline of feminist economics.

In fact, all this brings me to my point: so far, all discussions of soft power that have stemmed from Professor Nye's work have focused on America's role in world politics.

This is due to the restrictive definition of soft power proposed by Professor Nye, and I quote from the prologue in his Soft Power book:

"It 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."
Clearly the focus here is at the national level. And if case you missed that he's talking about America, his next sentences make it crystal clear: "When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced. America has a 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..."

But the term deserves a broader, non-American application. I would propose:

Soft power is the use of logical reasoning and/or moral values in place of the hard power of military might.  

Soft power is very much in evidence at the United Nations where it is not only wielded by the Permanent Fives at the Security Council. As I plan to show in my upcoming book about the United Nations, it is wielded by all stakeholders in the UN
(1) all delegates, not just the Permanent Five, also for example the Group of 77
(2) civil society, from NGOs, including "human rights watchdogs" like Amnesty International, to representatives of indigenous populations; 
(3) UN professional staff and UN experts - a somewhat nebulous but very large group that covers the core UN staff (some 45,000 persons) as well as the constellation of international consultants working with them, some of whom, like Professor Jeffrey Sachs have both a high profile and clear attachment to UN goals. 

Since this is after all a human organization, it is obvious that the UN contains a varying range of individuals, from those wholly dedicated to UN values to those dropped in high managerial positions as a result of political pressure (notably the Secretary General himself whose appointment is dependent on the full support from the Permanent Fives). Nevertheless, as I hope to show in my book, the UN staff, as it is tasked with monitoring UN decisions and bringing problems to the UN's attention, tends to do exactly that. 

It's part of the job.

The results are there for all to see: for example, the climate change issue was first brought to the UN's attention in the late 1980's. That led to the 1992 Sustainable Development Rio Conference and many more conferences that followed on the same subject. 

And now, in 2015, some 25 years later (!), we again have the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change on the agenda. 

First in New York in September at the UN General Assembly with the adoption of the new set of SDGs and later in Paris, at COP21 in December.

2015 is turning into a Soft Power Year at the UN...