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Hard vs Soft Power as Metaphor

March 30, 2016

One lament that I heard at the International Studies Association this year was the fact that ‘mainstream’ International Relations doesn’t attach much importance to questions of narrative, metaphor and meaning, that is to ‘soft’ aspects of world politics.

Of course having been primed to think about metaphors it leapt out at me that advocates of ‘soft’ approaches are never going to get anywhere as long as they keep using the hard/soft metaphor.   Poststructuralism 101 teaches you that binary oppositions always privilege one side of the pairing (hard over soft) and that the correct response is to ‘deconstruct’ that opposition etc, etc.

Leaving aside the technical literature on soft power, even in an academic environment  ‘hard’ gets used in a casual way to mean different things:  coercive, material, the geopolitical.  This ambiguity means that the assumption of the primacy of the ‘hard’ is easily accepted.

We can’t escape from hard/soft entirely.  The embrace of hard/soft in policy circles is an interesting area for investigation (as are policy categories in general) but as a scientific concept I think hard/soft is a major obstacle to intelligent discussion and I would employ with extreme caution.

The main reason is that when you put the hard/soft distinction to one side it is pretty clear that ontologically everything is mixed up.  Social formations and situations involve meanings and structures.   Armies have morale, and mechanics and doctrine not just tanks, the effects of armed forces are more often to do with the way that they are represented than the use of force.  Public diplomacies have buildings, computers, magazines and run on money, narratives need networks to circulate them.  Markets and exports depend on images of countries and networks of relationships.  In general terms influence emerges from combination of factors economic, cultural and political relations.  Resources matter but so do ideas, narratives, images.  From my historical research it’s quite clear that public diplomacies are just as much a part of  geopolitics as navies.  Competition for influence applies to the languages that people speak, the universities they attend, the legal systems they use, and the films they watch.

Methodologically and pragmatically we can choose to focus on different aspects of that reality, for instance on narratives or tanks but this doesn’t change the fact that hard/soft is a metaphor not an account of how the world really is.

The moral of the story is that metaphors really do matter in International Relations especially if they’re the ones academics use.

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