Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Soft Power

Obama’s Long game

If you havn’t yet, you need to watch Obama’s speech in Cairo. There is already plenty of immediate commentary from positive and negative voices. Yet if there is a common theme, it seems the short term focus of all who observed. Especially with the negative or cautious views, there is a overpowering demand to see instant policy action and change. And in some ways they are right, it is policy mistakes that are crippling America (indeed Bush’s most inspiring rhetoric on the importance of liberty and democracy came in the same 2003-2004 period as his greatest policy mistakes).

Instead of looking for this speech to suddenly changing polling attitudes, or even the policies of governments of the middle east, what Obama is seeking to do is at least re-establish America’s voice as a part of the regions debates. What this type of speech does is attempt to re-establish an operating environment for American power, both political and military to act. MIDEAST ISRAEL PALESTINIANS OBAMANot only will it help calm blowback on the mistakes the US will inevitably make (such as bombing civillians), but also give their offensive elements a chance to actually have a chance. The US critical mistake under Bush was to try and walk away from a world it had authored. It spent the decade trying to both hold other nations to a set of rules it had established post 1945, whilst also re-writing the rules for it’s own actions. And whilst all nations see rules as somewhat flexible, the US’s actions served largely to bring into disrepute it’s own laws. Like a corrupt cop, the US’s -very public- search for flexibility cost it more than it gained. As David Killcullen writes in his new book:

“Assuring other nations that the United States will exercise it’s power responsibly, sparingly virtuously, and in accordance with international norms is therefore not an optional luxury or sign of moral flaccidity. Rather it is a key strategic requirement to prevent this previously noted adversarial “balance of power” response to the unprecedented scale of American military might” – David Kilcullen The Accidental Guerrilla 2009 Page 24

Kilcullen is a military man of over 20 years experience in the Australian Army. He has operated in East Timor, Pakistan, Thailand and Afghanistan and helped write the Counter-Insurgency booklet with David Petreus that led to the surge in Iraq in 2007. If he thinks this is a strong act, thats more than enough for me compared to the dozens of conservative armchair hawks who see this as somehow weak. Instead, this is actually a way that we can establish a footing in a another battle field that we have ignored to our peril:

‘Under Globalised conditions the media space is a domain, an ecosystem, or even a battlespace, filled with dozens of independnet, incoordinated, competing and conflicting entities rather than a single actor or audience… the diversity and diffusion of globalised media makes what public relations specialists call “message unity” a single consistent message across multiple audiences impossible for democratic governments and open societies – David Kilcullen The Accidental Guerrilla 2009 Page 10

This is where Obama’s speech seeks to make it’s main impact. It wont suddenly make the Israelis end the settlements, the arab world embrace democracy and stop supporting extremists, or even a family to dissuade a wayward son against extremism. But Al Qaeda is clearly worried and it at least gives America a chance to have a voice again in this debate. One of the most dangerous challenges any politician faces is when the public are no longer listening. It happened to Keating in 1996, Howard in 2007, and Bush almost ever since he declared war on Iraq. Once that trust is gone, then no claim, no spending, no policy will be received in the way it is intended, allowing conspiracy and rumor to rule.

Obama is seeking to play a very very long game. What he had to do with this speech was at least stop the bleeding America had suffered under Bush, and become once more an honest force for argument within the region. With that, then future policy actions, such as small but significant steps in the Israel/Palestine negotiations, encouraging democratic reform, and even offensive properganda style efforts to convince people away from terrorism and towards legitimate political engagement will have a chance to actually be taken on their merits and perhaps, maybe, with luck, work. As a speech, it was low on the rhetorical flourishes, dominated by Obama’s favourite tactic of alteration, but clever in its ability to respond to and refute the arguments of his opponents, an under-rated skill of his which I’ve previously noted

No one can say yet if it will work. But if in 5 years the Arab world has reacted largely sensibly to US policy steps, or at least given it some benefit of the doubt, then we will know that this speech has had its effect. Obama isn’t seeking to change perceptions, but simply to give future US policy a chance to be judged fairly. If he succeeds, this could be a world changing act, by the only possible candidate from the 2008 election who could have given it. That is why so many of us supported Obama way back in 2007, and why he may just deliver on those impossible promises his strongest supporters and critics attribute to him.

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.