Archive for the ‘Soft Power’ Category


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.


What’s More Limited? Chinese Influence or the Concept of Soft Power

July 14, 2015

I’m writing a chapter for a forthcoming Handbook of Soft Power so I’m kind of grumpy about the whole thing again. In this frame of mind in the last week I’ve spotted a couple of pieces about the limits of Chinese soft power, notably one by Joe Nye that have caused further irritation.   Nye correctly points to China’s tendency to bully its neighbours and the limits imposed by its political system both in the negative attitudes towards it abroad and the reluctance to unleash its civil society to spread its influence abroad or the negative attitudes to some investments in Africa. I don’t actually disagree with these observations but I do think that he’s tending to reduce Chinese influence to a matter of sentiment and missing out the importance of its economic expansion this underestimation is a direct effect of how soft power is conceptualized.

The starting point for the chapter I’m writing is the argument that when we talk about ‘soft power’ we mix up two things: ‘soft power’ as a theoretical language and the thing that it’s supposed to describe. What is that thing? For the moment let’s call it ‘non-coercive national influence’ (NCNI), hence ‘soft power’ is one language that can be used to describe how countries have an effect on other actors but it is not the only one.   In the chapter I’m using the history of French and German concepts of external cultural action as alternative languages for thinking about NCNI. If you step outside ‘soft power’ as conceptual framework and look both at the history of practice and at alternative ways of thinking about NCNI the peculiarities of the soft power framework come into focus

In French or German practice there has always been a close relationship between economic and cultural factors in their national influence. Nye has always seen the ‘economic’ as part of hard, coercive power this isn’t entirely wrong as in the case of Merkel and Tsipras but this isn’t the whole story. From a historical perspective the cultivation of economic relations and the construction of cultural and educational relations and image building go together. Teaching the language or offering scholarships facilitates economic relations. Offering a scholarship or building a factory is about providing opportunity. Constructing an economic presence may lead to opportunities for coercion but it also constructs opportunity. Non-coercive Influence isn’t just about attitudes. The expansion of China’s presence in the world is offering opportunities to all kinds of people and regardless of their attitudes to China’s politics they are taking them up. In taking up those opportunities their attitudes may or may not be influenced but the creation of relationships with actors in China is likely to create other effects; valued relationships, understandings, further opportunities.


Why Isn’t Germany More Unpopular? (Is Angela Merkel the Answer?)

January 7, 2015

I really will get on with writing about counter-propaganda soon but in the meantime Angela Merkel is visiting London today and this reminds of an issue that has been bugging me for a while: why isn’t Germany more unpopular in Europe?

Hang on you say ‘Germany is up there at the top of the Nation Brand Index what are you on about?’

You don’t need to dig very far into the business pages to encounter two arguments about the Eurozone. Firstly, the chief beneficiary of the Euro is Germany which has been able to boost its exports because the Euro is a weaker currency than the Deutschmark would be.   Secondly, this economic success has made Germany the financial bastion of the Eurozone with the result that it is in imposing its deflationary ordoliberal policies to the rest of the zone. Hence rather than pursuing counter-cyclical Keynesian policies the Eurozone countries are largely pursuing self-defeating policies (see for instance the last five years of Paul Krugman columns in the New York Times)

OK so we have one country imposing self-interested policies that damage the interests of other countries. Wouldn’t we expect those other countries to vigorously resist and given the consequences are unemployment for national leaderships to be pressed to take a hard anti-German line by popular movements and a hostile media? The result might be that an Angela Merkel visit would end up like Richard Nixon in Venezuela in 1958...But with the exception of Greece I don’t see any real animus against Germany or Merkel (for example).

How do we explain this? I assume that part of this is the acceptance among Eurozone Europeans that the benefits of the Euro outweigh the costs. But I also wonder about the extent to which it is Angela Merkel herself that produces the effect. Partly this is about her skills as a political leader but also a matter of style. She’s so benign that she deflects most of the ‘fourth reich’ references and can’t be placed by the media within the traditional frames of German power. Hence the colourlessness of Merkel contributes to the hegemony of Germany within Europe because of the difficulty of mobilizing hostility against someone who seems so personally inoffensive.

This leads to a wider question about the role of national leaders in shaping national images. We all know that the image of the US took a bounce when Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush. We also know that conflict is associated with demonization of enemy leaders but how about an opposite process? Are countries more or less tolerant of other countries where the leader is seen as benign or threatening independently of the ‘objective’ level of conflict between them. There’s a sizeable literature on personalization in domestic politics maybe it’s an issue that deserves more attention in international relations.


Recovering the Nation, Part 2 : The Persistence of Nationalness

August 29, 2014

In the previous post I pointed to the centrality of the ‘national’ in the French account of influence. Although I’ve focused on France because of the relatively coherent theory you can extract from Foucher’s Atlas, the national cultural view is strongly present in the approach of many other countries large and small. Germany is the obvious example but I’d particularly emphasize that the post socialist reconstruction of Chinese and Russian external outreach has taken on board national models, not least in the emphasis placed on language.

From the perspective of a think tank in Washington or London the French discourse of influence with its discussion of the national and geopolitics may sound quaint next to the post international politics of global governance, climate change and the internet revolution. The response from Paris would be might be something like this:

Firstly, : “countries will always advance an agenda that is important to them. Why do you assume that your agenda is the only one? What about our agenda ? for instance of cultural diversity.”

Secondly, “the new agenda of global politics is an addition not a replacement. New issues will always be refracted through the lens of national differences. Nations are permanent issues and regimes change”   It’s noticeable that while ‘Europe’ is frequently invoked in Foucher’s book it is seen as an atout (an asset or even trump card) for French influence not as something that replaces France or its project of influence.

We don’t have to buy into a Gaullist metaphysics of the nation to recognize that they may have a point. The nation may be socially constructed but some social constructions cannot be dismantled in any politically feasible way.   Nationality does not mean a self conscious effort to assert or promote the nation but the existence of particular ways of seeing the world. As Billig argued in Banal Nationalism everyday life is shot through with assumptions of the national. This isn’t just confined to old nations. The most recent wave of the World Values Survey asked individuals in a variety of countries whether they were proud of their country;  in many former colonies or post communist countries 95% or more answered that they were proud or very proud. As might be expected answers in ‘post national’ developed countries were lower: Germany could only muster 70% and the Netherlands 81% but asking whether people felt part of the nation added another 10-20%.  Even a large part of the minority who refused national pride could not escape the nation as a social fact.

If we move from individuals to institutions the national remains important. Institutional models in government, law, and business are endure.   What the French see is that Anglo Saxon or French institutional models give advantages to some actors and disadvantage others (see for instance this issue of Mondes). For instance structuring contracts for major infrastructure projects on Anglo-saxon models tends to disadvantage firms that operate under a different legal system. In a 2012 book Sarah Stroup shows that British, American and French transnational NGOs remain closely linked to their countries of origins and operate in distinct ways. From my own work on PD institutions it is also clear that national models are highly persistent.

This suggests to me that it’s less the French insistence on the continued relevance of the national that looks odd but the refusal to recognize its significance.

In the final part of this series I’m going to point to some theoretical sources of this failure to recognize the national


Recovering the Nation, Part 1: The French Theory of Influence

August 26, 2014

In last post I suggested that the importance the France has attached to questions of cultural diplomacy is a function of the way that the nation is discussed but this goes further: the French theory of influence sees France within a world of nations. In this series of posts I’m going to outline my take on the French theory of influence as a matter of inter-national relations before asking the question whether Anglo-Saxon policy and academic thinking has a blind spot towards questions of nationality and nationness what the implication of this are and where it comes from.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the failure of US and UK research to really engage with French (or German) concepts of statecraft is a major gap in our knowledge of public diplomacy. This is important not just because France is an important international actor in its own right but also because it shows up some of the gaps and assumptions within Anglo-Saxon (but also other liberal) modes of thinking about influence particularly the question of the nation.

Michel Foucher’s edited Atlas de l’Influence Française au XXIeme Siècle (Paris: Institut Française, 2013) provides a good place to start. which between the publisher and the institutional affiliations of many of the contributors has to be seen as a relatively authoritative statement. Although Foucher provides an up to date discussion the project that he discusses is pretty much the same one that was sketched out at the end of the 19th century.

The starting point: France before all is a culturally, linguistically and historically defined community that exists in a world of other similar communities, states are therefore merely the political expression of these communities (this is pure Herder). Within this world of diversity it is important to resist the forces of homogenization represented by capitalism/globalization/English/the United States. Indeed it is instructive that part 1 of the Foucher collection the fundamentals of influence opens with a chapter entitled ‘the other language’; the French language is important in its own right but it is also important as the alternative to English.   Hence France is not only engaged in a competition for influence among other countries but is also part of an effort to resist homogenization. Of course such an effort not only preserves French influence but also builds it through the country’s leadership role in this effort.

Running through this approach is a fundamental assumption of nationality that links everything together, the Atlas covers the legal system (and its characteristic modes of thinking), the internationalization of French companies, food, luxury goods, design, education, expertise, development aid, public health, expertise, cultural industries, ideas, the formal instruments: MFA, Institut, Alliance, broadcasting form only a small part of the discussion. It’s all linked together: If you buy a Hermès scarf you are buying into as aspect of France’s influence but at the same time French influence does not float in some deterritorialized realm of globalization but must be considered part of geopolitics because a realm of nations is a geopolitical one.

But isn’t this just soft power? In his introduction Foucher explicitly differentiates French influence from soft power. Soft power is not a scientific concept of universal applicability but a distinctly American project with an emphasis on power. Soft power is always discussed in relation to hard power and aims at getting the other to accept your objectives and models. France is not in a position to make such an imposition thus ‘influence’ needs to operate through interaction and reciprocity. I’m not sure that I quite buy the claims of ‘influence’ put in these terms is that different but I think that the emphasis that soft power should be seen as a US project is correct. What noticeable about French influence is the way that it is placed in the context of a global order composed of ‘countries’ whereas American (and British discussions) often take on a strongly universalist tone without reference to questions of national difference. France is the home of ‘the rights of man’ and so also has to balance claims of national difference with universal values but in my next post I’ll pick up on some implications.


UK Soft Power: The Government Responds (Sort of)

June 26, 2014

If you work in a large public organization there comes a time when your department is up for review. You probably have to write a self-assessment document and/or respond to a report. There’s a routine that generally happens. You parcel out different bits of the task to appropriate colleagues and then try and assemble what they send you into something coherent. There’s always a question you don’t want to answer or you realize there’s something that you should have been doing but haven’t. What do you do? Easy; just pretend the question is something different and or talk about what you do and hope that whoever reads the report doesn’t notice.

I’m reminded of this because I’ve just been reading the government’s response to the House of Lords Report on UK Soft Power and it’s pretty obvious that this is how it has been constructed.

My six line summary of the HoL report was:

Britain is in a world increasingly characterised by hyperconnectivity and ‘the rise of the rest’ and this makes soft and smart power more important. The UK has lots of soft power assets but the government tends to neglect them and shows no ability to coordinate anything. We need stronger mechanisms for defining a national strategic narrative and pointing the great many players in the right direction.

And there’s nothing in the response that would cause me to think that the original report or my summary is wrong. The Lords Committee saw the discussion of soft power as a way of pulling together disparate elements of national life and while the response is happy to address individual projects and initiatives it wants to steer clear of big questions. This is pretty clear in the first few pages of the response (6-11)

The Lords wanted the government to talk about soft power domestically to alert people to the international implications of what they do. The response offers indirection. The Lords place emphasis on the UK having an identity distinct from the US or the EU. The response either doesn’t get the question or is deliberately ignoring it and starts talking about ‘messaging’. The Lords wanted a coordination mechanism the response starts talking about the role of the National Security Council which is rapidly running out of credibility. The Lords suggested the development of a national strategic narrative; the response points to the Government’s Communication Plan which is something else entirely.

Once the response gets past the big stuff they are able to just throw in everything that they do: Conflict Pool, Emerging Powers Initiative, Building Stability Overseas Strategy without ever addressing whether this adds up to anything coherent. There’s a tendency to identify ‘soft power’ with communications. DFID’s contribution to soft power is that they publicise what they do; that’s not really the issue that the House of Lords were raising.

When you cobble together a response from the bits that colleagues send you it’s easy to make editing mistakes. On page 33 we are pointed to the ‘FCO’s “Projecting Britain Overseas” project (see 1c above)’ but when you arrive at section 1c there’s no reference to this. Projecting Britain overseas? Apparently the age of one way communication isn’t dead.


Reading China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa

May 1, 2014

In case you missed it among the never ending flood of publications on Chinese soft power I’d just like to draw your attention to Kenneth King’s, China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training which offers an interesting take on the question.

King is retired University of Edinburgh Africanist who approaches the question of Chinese soft power through the perspective of aid for ‘human capital development’ (HCD) rather than from the more common perspectives of International Relations or Communications. This is valuable in itself but King also throws in lots of (sometimes implicit) comparisons with the approaches of other countries to HCD which really help to give perspective.

King sees a great deal of continuity in the Chinese approach to Africa dating back to the 1960s, this is rooted in a paradigm of poor helping the poor or as it would be seen today South-South cooperation. One of the points here is that while a Western aid agency such as DFID will be operating in paradigm of a one way altruistic transfer the Chinese model places emphasis on mutual benefit. One of the themes in the book is the extent to which there is a convergence between the Chinese model of aid and that of the countries operating within the framework of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. While there is some convergence it remains quite limited. For instance while many countries have signed up for universal primary education as part of the Millennium Development Goals China prefers to focus educational assistance on the HE sector.

A bit chunk of the book focuses on activities conducted through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) this dates back to the 1990s and provides the umbrella within which bilateral cooperation takes place. Much educational cooperation takes place through this framework. In African terms Confucius Institutes (which are also discussed) are a latecomer as numerous HE partnerships have already been in existence for a considerable period. FOCAC is run out of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce which also houses the main aid department.

There are some nice stories that to my mind show how influence is built over time. By providing scholarships to study in China, students are incentivised to learn Chinese. If they learn Chinese and spend time there they are in a position to develop other relations in China or work with Chinese firms. There’s the case of a student who decides to go and study in China because there are so many people who have studied in Europe or North America and by going somewhere different he will have a differential value in the market place. You see how education and training, language and commercial links work together to reinforce each other.

In reading this it occurred to me that it’s possible to see the whole Chinese approach as a very classical cultural relations paradigm – one that has probably existed in rhetoric and theory rather than practice in the West. It’s about constructing enduring relations between countries on a basis of mutual interest and equality. The connection between education and economic relations may offer the basis for longer lasting relations than the more rigorously altruistic perspective than you find at DFID.