An Intellectual Assault on Joseph Nye: Part One

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 complementary 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.

I’ll start from a position of strength: Nye’s theory fails at the level of language. Briefly put, 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.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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