ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


Why “soft power” is the right term, or at least not the wrong term for the reasons that have been advanced by mattsteinglass
June 9, 2008, 4:43 pm
Filed under: United States | Tags: , ,

About 10 days ago Matthew Yglesias, Ilan Goldenberg and a couple of other folks were discussing their dissatisfaction with the term “soft power”, coined by Joseph Nye to draw a Holbrooke-esque contrast with the Dick Cheneyian “hard power” that dominated America’s so-called “foreign policy” in the early 2000s. Matt said at one point that “soft power” was the wrong term because it isn’t really “power” — diplomacy, trade relations, and so forth aren’t really a way of getting other people to do things they don’t want to do.

People here [sic] those words and they think of two kinds of power — two kinds of means of coercion — some of which might be “hard” and others might be “soft.” In fact, what Nye is trying to draw a distinction between all forms of coercion (including “soft” ones) on the one hand, and then stuff that’s not coercive at all — qualities that make a country likable.

This line struck me completely the wrong way at the time, but I couldn’t quite articulate why. Now I can.

Over the weekend I met a guy about my age who’s been in Vietnam since the mid-’90s, and worked with a number of American organizations that played crucial roles in advancing normalization of relations and passage of the US-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement – organizations like the US-Vietnam Trade Council and so forth. I only know a rough sketch of how that whole drama took place, and it was interesting to hear his description of who had moved the ball forward, how, and why. There were numerous people involved — Virginia Foote and Bill Schieffer, both Democratic machers with strong Clinton administration ties; Sen. John Kerry; Kerry’s friend, fellow Vietnam vet and former Cambridge Mayor Tom Vallely, etc. But the upshot of the whole thing, which started informally in the late ’80s, gained official momentum in the early ’90s, and has just kind of rolled on from there, is that the US has forged a relationship with Vietnam that can be used as a modest counterweight to Chinese power, economically, militarily and diplomatically. US investment in Vietnam is so deep that Vietnam takes US views strongly into account in major decisions; Vietnam knows it can count on US diplomatic weight in its disputes with China over, say, the Spratly Islands. And so forth.

Did any of this involve “getting someone to do something they didn’t want to do”? Of course not. But does it entail “power”? Of course it does. We say that Microsoft and Citigroup are powerful companies. Is this because they can “get people to do things they don’t want to do”? No, of course not. It’s because any time other people, companies, organizations or governments make decisions, they take the views of Microsoft and Citigroup into account. When the government of Vietnam makes decisions about resource allocation, it takes the views of Nike — which wants more port investment to carry its vast exports of Vietnamese-made sneakers — into account. This is influence. Influence is power. “Soft power” may not be a good term to use in political campaigns; it may be too wimpy-sounding, or something. But it certainly is power.

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