Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Soft Power

Over at The Interpreter, a debate has arisen about the concept of ‘Soft Power’ in International Relations, as pushed by self-proclaimed sceptic Raoul Heinrichs. Raoul is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute, and former foreign affairs advisor to one Kevin Rudd.

He writes:

Soft power refers to a state’s ability to achieve desired objectives through attraction rather than coercion or inducement – to get others to ‘want what you want’. According to Nye, soft power arises not from the accumulation of capabilities that can affect the behaviour of other states, but from the magnetism of a country’s culture, values, ideals, and the style — as well as the substance — of its domestic and foreign policies.

Two problems come to mind. First, even if a state is full of admiration for those elements of another society that supposedly give rise to its soft power, it is not clear to me why, when divergent interests are concerned, that admiration might lead the first state to subordinate its own objectives to the other’s.

And second, the concept seems to imply that a state can be powerful, and capable of attaining its preferences in international affairs, by virtue of its goodness, and not just its strength. This is a nice thought, though one that does not square with reality, as demonstrated by the need to create ‘smart power’, which seeks to integrate all elements of national power.

Yet this is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of how soft power. As Joseph Nye notes early on in his famous article that kicked off the subject ‘Proof of power lies not in resources but in the ability to change the behavior of states.’, yet soft power approaches this task differently to normal power. Material power takes interests as constant and uses coercive means (or the mere threat of) to force actors to subvert or overcome their interests to the good of the superior power. This is a once off action, each time the behavior is needed, material power has to revisit the threat to overcome the others actors interests, occurring a second and third time and so on.

Soft power on the other hand works to subvert the very interests of the other actors to have them believe their interests accord with the interests of the superior power. Instead of each time vaulting over the high wall of another’s interests to achieve your aim as material power does, soft power breaks down and rebuilds the wall in another location to benefit the influencing power and hopefully the receptive power too. That is, once successful, soft power does not need to be revisited, but should allow such behavior time after time without significant effort (indeed if truly successful the other actors may even return to encourage you or a third party to also engage in such behavior)

So contra Heinrichs, states under the influence of soft power don’t believe they are subordinating their interests to the others, they believe their interests correspond. This links his second complaint, the unfortunate normative link between soft power and “goodness”. That is, soft power is often seen as being simply a way for virtuous but weak ideas (like peace, co-operation and tolerance) to claim influence through association with the tag ‘power’. Yet, this is only because of the limited ways in which soft power has been studied and promoted in the last few decades, than a problem with the idea itself. Actually, that’s not quite true, significant scholarship has gone into the deliberate proliferation of idea’s which don’t meet such heavenly virtues. We just call those ideas ‘Propaganda’.

Ever since humans became able to have abstract thought, we have engaged in efforts to try and convince each other of these ideas and perceptions. Yet because Idea’s can not be counted, measured, or any other of our usual quantifiable approaches to scholarship, the field has been largely seen as ‘too hard’. Therefore it is not much surprise that the people who finally turned their efforts towards such a task did so because of some wish to promote or understand how highly held ideals could be promoted or work. There had to be some benefit beyond mere understanding, and indeed there is self-selection at work prior to scholarship, in that the people most interested in these higher ideas, will be the ones to most justify the time and effort it takes. Only when it comes to the effect of the worst of the worst ideas (such as totalitarian propaganda) do bad idea’s have enough of a power to attract scholars and thinkers attention.

There’s a second problem within the academic literature of a related nature, the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ problem. That is, having been studied for the best part of 20 years, the scholarship still hasn’t quite extended beyond looking at ideas which successfully transferred from one actor to another (ie the acceptance of democracy, or anti-landmines, or anti-chemical weapons), but that is starting to change. We don’t yet have a good criteria for why some idea’s do succeed and most don’t. But we are working on it.

For my own part, my research is on how the Australian Government over the Keating and Howard Government’s tried to use soft power to exercise leadership in the Asia-Pacific and achieve our national interests. That is, in converting the regions countries to share our interests (such as supporting multilateralism, democracy, counter-terrorism measures etc). Yet I take a slightly different spin, in that I am more interested in how countries can spread ideas, using both ideational and material power, rather than simply ideational power to promote ideas. For example: when Howard sent troops into East Timor to help stabilise the country, he was using material power in support of an ideational goal (self-determination and democracy) which are deeply held Australian values.

East Timor is currently a surviving democracy, something in the national interest of Australia. But one that only works so long as the East Timorese believe democracy is in their interest too. The aim of soft power in short is not to have the other actor feel they have been coerced to accept your interests over their’s, it’s that they think your interests correspond, and therefore can positively join you on the effort. It’s still a new field, but it’s also the oldest and most important element of power within human societies. Weapons and violence is incidental and rare, but the flow of soft power is constant and dominating. We’re just only beginning to find ways to understand and chart it.