December 13, 2005
Joseph Nye the PR Guy: "Soft Power" in Iraq
Just saw Joseph Nye speak on the subject of “Can Democracy Defeat Terrorism?”, a talk which ended up being mostly about Iraq and what U.S. policy should be in that neck of the woods. "Soft power" is his term for what in other fields of endeavor is sometimes called “hearts and minds,” or maybe “public relations”- the idea that convincing people of the merit of your position by diplomatic means is more effective than doing so by force, and at a lower cost.
It seems bizarre that there would be any debate that convincing others of the inherent value of doing things your way would be a sensible way to conduct foreign policy, but then there are some bizarre ideas in U.S. foreign policy these days. Nye is of the opinion that the U.S. desperately needs to repair Iraqi public opinion of America if there is to be any hope of stopping the counterinsurgency, and that one item on the to-do list should be to make public statements aimed at convincing Iraqis that the U.S. has no intent to stay in Iraq indefinitely, such as, oh, declaring some semi-solid future point after which U.S. forces will withdraw, not vague statements about being there as long as it takes, and not a moment longer. (And also not engaging in hypocrisy like, oh, babbling about how Iraq needs a free press at the same time you’re planting news stories pushing your point of view.)
Of course, there was a question I never got to ask (they never call on the short people in the back, I swear!), and I will find some way to drag the Kurds into this, dammit, so let’s talk about it here – if you were an Iraqi Kurdish leader, and you wanted to use the “soft power” concept to best advantage over the next couple of years, how would you go about it?
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Odd, I was just writing something on this concept.
As for your question, it strikes me that Iraqi Kurds are playing the image game precisely as one would think they should.
(i) Get themselves labelled "pro Western" and "pro Democracy" by the naive, the gullible and the mendacious.
(ii) Talk a good game on issues of democracy.
(iii) Have plausible deniability in the West for the slow ethnic cleansing in their border regions.
(iv) Don't engage in flagrantly bad behaviour and no more intra-Kurdish shoot outs like in the mid 90s.
That is "soft power" for a client, my dear. The Kurds have played the game, to date, beautifully.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 13, 2005 11:53 PM
I agree with Lounsbury - the Kurds have played the image game to perfection.
Nye's interesting, but to be honest his ideas strike me a little naive. He's a neoliberal (not in the lefty anti-globo sense - in the sense that he's articulating a reinterpretation of classical liberalism) and as such shares the liberal view that not all politics comes down to military might - 'soft power' (i.e. communications and economics) also plays a role.
But as a neoliberal he's also an idealist - he labours under the illusion that political actors generally agree that progress and improvement are good things and that they'll be persuaded by the strength of the better argument.
I don't share his idealism, and I think that the way he couches 'soft power' is quaint and out of date. Communications and economics are incredible tools of in this day and age, and in the hands of states they can be can be used for the repression of citizens/subjects and for leverage against foreign powers. And in a world where (fortunately) the threat of nuclear war has sublimated great power rivalry into non-military competition, 'soft power' has become even more important.
Clausewitz said 'War is the continuation of politics by other means'; Foucault inverted it and said 'Politics is the continuation of war by other means'. Nye thinks like Clausewitz - he thinks that there is an escalation from diplomacy to war, and that the use of force should be a last resort. Foucault's formulation is much closer to what we have today: the only differentiation between 'hard' and 'soft' power is in the legal constraints to their use: states will use both simultaneously to achieve their political goals, flowing between one and the other with little regard for obsolete concepts of 'escalation' save where that escalation is intended to convey a particular message.
Posted by: waterboy at December 14, 2005 01:58 PM
waterboy! Good to see you again :)
Posted by: eerie at December 14, 2005 06:15 PM
Kurdish soft power? I'd announce that we wanted to join the European Union.
Posted by: Alex at December 15, 2005 05:02 AM