In a previous discussion, I attacked Joseph Nye’s “soft power/hard power” theory at the level of language, effectively calling his terms unclear and mealy-mouthed substitutes for clearer, more precise terms we can use like force and coercion, sanctions or diplomacy. Nye has made international relations theory less clear and transparent for the application of his two terms and I tried to reverse that trend with my own replacements.
At the same time, Nye’s ideas don’t work as theory, either. Nye has offered a Hobson’s Dichotomy, a false choice that doesn’t exist in the real world. A Hobson’s Dichotomy poses us with two falsely opposed choices that may not offer a solution to the problem set. That is what soft and hard power effectively presents us. It is a trick of language that also gives us an untrue sense of mastering reality. The reality of international politics is far too complex for that. To put this simply: as a Hobson’s Dichotomy, Nye’s idea is a narrows that squeezes out rather than includes alternative or opposing means to achieve political change.
In political reality, decision-makers don’t choose from one quiver labeled “soft power” and another labeled “hard power” when taking action. If their judgment is keen, they look for the best tools available to them to achieve the most desirable outcome. If they are lucky, and their country is truly powerful (like ours), they will have a wide variety of means available to apply to what will be a unique, complicated, and dynamically evolving situation and environment.
Nye’s theoretical failure goes beyond the toolkit available to decision-makers. “Soft power” fails to take into account civil society, international movements, and faith groups. For Nye, there is nothing like the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, or Buddhism. For Nye, there is nothing like the Freeze, or the Civil Rights Movement, or the Color Revolutions, or the Arab Spring. Each of these has had profound international political effects – in other words, by his own definition they are powerful — but they simply can’t be accounted for by Nye’s political theory.
What makes these movements all the more interesting – and possible – is the flow of information, inspiration and support across borders. There would have been no revolution against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia without Solidarity, and there would have been no uprising in Tunisia without Serbia, and no Cairo without Tunisia. To Nye, this does not account for soft power, or any kind of power for that matter, because it is not enabled by a state — even though these movements peacefully changed the means of government and the norms for governing in more than a dozen countries.
Nye’s theory also fails to account for terrorism. He dispenses with terrorism as “depending on soft power” (my emphasis) without defining terrorism per se as either hard (force) or soft (as I have defined it before, power qua power). Reading between the lines, then, Nye’s theory cannot really accommodate terrorism: it simply does not belong in Nye’s universe.
If we take most observers’ understanding that terrorism is a tool of the weak – a meansof the un-powerful – even if they are state-sponsored — then terrorism falls away from this discussion entirely. Nye may get partial credit for recognizing terrorism requires other tools to succeed, but it is not a tool of power or the powerful in and of itself. Nye’s theory of two “buckets” does not have enough room for either political movements or terrorism — which pretty much defines the political dynamism of the previous decade.
An effective theory of power will take into account terrorism and the power wielded by ordinary people through collective action, whether in faith groups, civil society, or international movements. Power, in the end, is mass, and mass can really be found in the minds of millions or billions of individual human beings. Only military theorists really understand the importance of this collective mind in political affairs, and even then the American military tradition has been slow or loath to understand the relationship of the public to the political.
Clausewitz for example wrote about the “moral forces” in war affecting public opinion as “among the most important”. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) wrote about “the crowd in action,” dating the phenomenon back to ancient Greek warfare. David Galula, writing about insurgency, noted that the guerrilla could “still win” with “no positive policy” but “good propaganda” — that is, directly influencing the population. David Petraeus, drawing off all these shrewd observations, argued that military communications could be the “decisive logical line of operation” by communicating directly with the public in counterinsurgency operations.
We still struggle to understand the motivations and goals of terrorism. The attack on the Boston Marathon is the most recent expression of this ambivalence, but almost daily bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan should remind us of the continuing struggle as well. Theoretically we wrestle to understand whether terrorism is an effective political weapon.
Nonetheless as a theoretical matter it should be clear terrorism is violence, not force, and as a practical measure it should be clear that terrorism is a tool of the weak, that it leverages political entities that are not as powerful when measured against the mass movements outlined above. Hannah Arendt has written precisely that “power and violence are opposites”. This is probably the most mordant indictment of Nye’s theory, since it quite simply excludes terrorism from any consideration by Nye. It fully supports my contention that Nye’s theory constitutes not an expansive analysis of power but an exclusive narrows.
The real pain extracted from bombings or mass attacks can mitigate that inherent weakness. Violence can, on a macabre balance sheet, equate to political power but only if state authorities or the public mind are willing to allow it. Still, as violence, terrorism is only relegated to simply another tool – like economic sanctions, or diplomacy – which states or non-state actors use to affect international affairs. This by no means justifies terrorism, but it does account for the practice. So far, that is more than what Joseph Nye can do.