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How Power Really Works in the 21st Century: Beyond Soft, Hard & Smart

Has the ubiquitous concept of “soft power” outlived its usefulness in international affairs?

By Amy Zalman, July 17, 2012

To do the world of today and tomorrow any justice at all, we must capture the many facets of power — the symbolic and the concrete, the seductive and the coercive. Rather than engaging in new word-crafting games, let us return to lexically simpler times — and call this emergent quality “power.”

This means we must move beyond the ideas of Joseph Nye, the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (as scholars such as Yamei Shen have already begun to do.)

Nye updated lexicon of political theorists when he introduced the concept of “soft power” in the early 1990s. The term, and the concept it contained, upset the dominant view of political power as control over others that was achieved chiefly through threat of armed force or economic arm-twisting.

Seeking to soothe post-Cold War fears that the United States was losing the capacity to do either very well, Nye reinvigorated an idea that had always been latent in descriptions of power. That idea was the recognition that symbols, emotions and perceptions are instrumental in people’s behavior.

When channeled through these means, power transforms into desire — the desire of others, as Nye put it, “to want what you want.” Understanding this aspect of power made it that much easier for a nation at the top table of international politics to obtain the outcomes it desired.

So, irrespective of whether the United States might be losing its “hard power” yin in the aftermath of the Cold War, we were chock full of “soft power” yang. If hard power is the ability to kick other countries in the groin and threaten to take their wallets, soft power — with its siren call of universal values, irresistibly democratic institutions and the most comely forms of capitalism — is meant to seduce almost subconsciously.

Nye’s framework thrilled some, who saw in it an idealistic vision of a nonviolent future. It continues to outrage those who hear it as a summons to trim U.S. military potential, while offending others with its suggestion that the United States could be open to a softer, more feminine face of power.

There are yet others who consider “soft power” a transparent effort to mask U.S. efforts to run the affairs of the world, whether in “hard” or “soft” style. The key value of “soft power” however, was not in its ideological call to anything, nor was it intended to cover up hard intentions or distract with soft-heartedness.

Rather, soft power is an important concept because it named, and thus focused on, an aspect of political power — the strength of the symbolic — that is vitally important in our globalized, networked era.

Variants of coercive force and cultural attraction have been elements of political power throughout human history. But different eras prioritize differently, depending on their technological capabilities and intellectual tendencies.

In earlier times, being powerful depended on physical access to raw materials and the control of their distribution. The preponderance of power was coercive, or “hard,” because it entailed their physical control.

Today, political and economic power is increasingly based on information and information technologies, and on global commerce and the media that underpin them. Global interdependence has created trans-border challenges such as climate change, disease, crime and terrorism that require cooperation, and thus coalition building skills, to address.

The fact that everyday people, not only political leaders and state-owned media outlets, have access to the means of global communications has demonstrably eroded state power. In such conditions, power — the ability to effect desired outcomes in the international arena — flows substantially from how people perceive and interpret what is happening around them and to them.

As individuals, we make choices on the basis of the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, what is happening and where we are going next. Those who understand how those stories are constructed and how to shape them are likely to hold the keys to power in the coming century.

Even the coercive force of “hard power” must now be considered in terms of symbolic effects and perceptions. Why? Because both the event and its effects can be more easily recorded and disseminated, far and fast from their source of origin.

Violent force, once translated into symbolic representation, becomes a different weapon with a different mechanism, as the photographs of the humiliations of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison so clearly represented a few years ago.

Bahraini protestors, who have been violently suppressed for seeking democratic reforms for over a year, have begun to gain more attention in the West with protests aimed at the United States for its arms sales to the ruling family.

In other words, everyday people are learning how to use information as a lever to gain power — and to use values and emotion in service of various causes.

Smart power and beyond

Meanwhile, the United States under the Obama Administration has dedicated itself to pursuing and promulgating the idea of “smart power.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used the term to describe a foreign policy that employs “all the tools at our disposal — diplomatic, military, political, legal and cultural.”

That is a step toward a comprehensive framework that the United States, or any other major nation, will need to wield power effectively going forward. But we need to become much smarter still — by understanding how each of these tools engages both soft and hard elements.

Classic development aid, for example, far from being “soft,” can have a coercive aspect. Conversely, the military, presumably a hard instrument, can be used in bilateral exercises or peacekeeping missions to create a context in which development goals can be executed very effectively.

Hence, the point I made at the outset about how to label power is not simply a matter of semantics. Categories are the conceptual equivalent of labeled storage boxes. What we call the category tells us what is inside the box. Categories usefully organize concepts for us, but in creating such an order they also limit our ability to see new connections between ideas.

As long as defense and economic diplomacy remain in a box labeled “hard power,” we fail to see how much their success relies on their symbolic effects as well as their material ones. As long as diplomatic and cultural efforts are stored in a box marked “soft power,” we fail to see the ways in which they can be used coercively or produce effects that are like those produced by violence.

Upholding the distinction between hard and soft power also helps sustain another false distinction upheld in much of the U.S. national security community. There, it is an article of faith that nation-states have dominion over hard power, while non-state actors have as their primary advantage soft power.

That overly schematic idea grew from the strong analytical focus on al Qaeda and other violent groups, whose sophisticated use of communication surprised the U.S. government in the years following the September 11, 2001, attacks.

However, this rigorous state/non-state actor dichotomy, if it ever really existed, is disappearing fast. States are becoming more adept at using the power of marketing and public relations to promote their own standing internationally, just as unofficial organizations — such as the Mexican drug cartels — use violence in ways that limit states’ abilities to respond to them.

To address the hard problems that confront us globally, we should resist the temptation to put exercises of power into any pre-labeled boxes. Before asking what to call them, we should figure out what they can achieve — and under what circumstances.

Our continued failure to do so is likely to result in an increasing number of events that, like the Arab uprisings the spring of 2011, surprise outsiders with their intense intermingling of the material and symbolic aspects of power to produce unforeseen political change.