ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


No, actually “soft power” is the right term for it by mattsteinglass
December 4, 2008, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Foreign Policy, United States

Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, two of the world’s greatest bloggers, are back on their ridiculous hobbyhorse arguing that we should retire the Joseph Nye term “soft power” and think up a new one. Their objections to the use of the term are silly. Here’s the deal: “hard power” is the use of forms of compulsion, particularly violence, to make people do things you want them to do. “Soft power” is using your position and significance to arrange the situation such that people want to do the things you want them to do. Klein tries to argue that the latter isn’t really “power” at all:

The problem isn’t just the “soft” part, it’s the “power.” After 9/11, there really was a strain of foreign policy thinking where the simple demonstration of power was an end in itself. As Michael Ledeen put it, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” It’s power for power’s sake. And hard power will always make more sense in that framework.

Insofar as liberals — and moderates, and realists, and non-insane people — have a response to this, it’s not within the “power” framework. It’s about goals, and ends, and strategies. It’s “hard power” versus strategic goals, or the national interest. I’m not sure if there’s a two word summation. Though, in the short-term, “Remember Iraq?” will probably work as well as anything else.

This is nonsense. Obviously there are many kinds of power besides “throwing people against a wall”. If I were introduced to Donald Trump, for instance, I would probably accord him an immense amount of deference and try to ingratiate myself, not because otherwise he might pick me up and throw me against a wall (well…maybe) but because he is hugely rich and famous, and thus has the ability to affect my prospects for good or ill in myriad ways. Hence, we say that Donald Trump is a “powerful” man. He can use his strategic assets (fame, wealth) to shape the playing field such that others want to do what he wants them to do. But of course if Trump were to actually threaten to throw me against a wall I might be so angry and threatened that I would respond by insulting him and maybe even trying to tackle him pre-emptively.

Clearly, as anyone who’s read Sun Tzu would recognize, the ability to shape the field of play is the most important kind of “power”. Anything that gets people to kiss your ass without your having to do anything is power. Indeed, I started this post by noting that Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias are great bloggers, mainly because I tremendously enjoy reading their work, but in part because they’re respected and widely linked members of the liberal blogosphere and you don’t want to piss them off by calling some of their posts “silly” without communicating that in the wider context you think their work is great. And that’s a modest kind of power, too, though it involves no foreseeable threat of anyone being thrown against a wall.

Add.: The point is even clearer with reference to Yglesias’s line: “But what Joseph Nye is talking about when he writes about soft power is something more like brand appeal than a form of “power.”” How is brand appeal not a form of power? I think we would all agree that the New York Times is a powerful institution. How much of its power comes from its brand? Gotta be more than 50 percent, right? And beyond brand appeal there are a lot of non-coercive elements that are unquestionably forms of power. Exxon and the AARP both have tremendous power based on things that have nothing to do with coercion. If you think coercion is the only thing that has power to shape others’ behavior to serve your interests then you’d better tell all those corporations that they’re making a tremendous mistake, sinking all that money into advertising every year.

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