Archive for the ‘Soft Power’ Category


The Centrality of the National

March 26, 2019

I think that biggest error in contemporary Anglosphere understandings of world politics is our inability to recognize the implications of the principle of nationality.  I’d emphasize that I’m not talking about nationalism but about the importance of the idea that practically everything on the planet can be assigned a nationality and that the “nation-state” (or more accurately “nationalized state society complex) is the fundamental unit of government.  You may be an internationalist but you still carry a passport and are almost certainly marked by what Gieselinde Kuiper would call, following Norbert Elias, “national habitus”.

The typical Western liberal perspective falls into an opposition between two clusters of ideas

state/ politics / official / government


society / private / unofficial /people / non-governmental.  Specific social sectors: culture, education, science, sport can also be found here.

What’s missing is that all of the second cluster can also be understood in national terms.  The national provides a set of associations that can bridge the implied gap between the two clusters. It’s a national government and a national sports team. It’s much easier to make sense of discussions about influence, public diplomacy, diasporas, cultural relations, soft power if we recognize the importance of activating or minimizing the national association.

Here’s a couple of nice examples.  The Australian government has a new scheme to make ‘foreign influence’ more transparent and universities who host Confucius Institutes are reluctant to register.  “If Confucius Institutes have not been registered, despite being substantially funded from Beijing, it may be because they are thought to confine their activities to “culture and language”. No politics.” The writer of the article makes the point that Communist China sees culture as political.  This is true but the more fundamental point is that in China (or in any other country with cultural relations programmes) “cultural and language” is certainly part of the national.

There’s also an interesting piece on the Turkish diaspora in the Balkans that has some wonderful quotes.  A lot of it is about the popularity or lack of it Erdogan among the diaspora but I was struck by:

“Take the citizenships of the countries you are living in,” Erdogan said. “Don’t say no. Take it. If they give it, take it.”

He explained: “You are representatives in your countries. You should learn your countries’ language, integrate with your country, enter politics and improve our relations. But never forget Turkish language, culture and your Turkey.”

A the end of the 19th century this was the kind of idea that you found in Italy or Germany or China, each had diasporas that were coming to be seen as part of national influence and an economic resource, even if people had to give up their citizenship if they maintained their culture they were still part of the nation.  This is the reason why all three adopted citizenship laws based on biological descent so that people had the option of returning to the homeland.

The strength of national associations can be rhetorically emphasized or minimized, later in the piece we get this

“Turkish identity is not a national identity,” he said. “It spreads across nations. It weaves itself into other identities. It’s not tied to Turkey. It’s much older, and much vaster.”

Somewhat ironically the speaker has been reported thus

“Ibrahim from the alliance of NGOs that champions the interests of ethnic Turks in North Macedonia credited Erdogan for pioneering an expansive new vision of what it means to be Turkish in the region — underwritten by increased funding in hospitals, schools, agriculture, mosques and banks.”

The core point is that opposition between politics and culture misses the importance of the national as a set of associations.  The national is not necessarily political but it is vector through which the political can travel.  Cultural relations strategies have always turned on this gap between the national as cultural and the national as political.


Egypt’s Strategy of Teacher Secondment as International Influence under Nasser

March 18, 2019

I recently came across a couple of very interesting papers by Gerasimos Tsourapas (2016, 2018) of the University of Birmingham on Egypt’s use of seconded officials, particularly teachers, as an instrument of statecraft during the regime of  Colonel Nasser.

Before discussing the case there is a broader point about the nature of historical research on public diplomacies. The problem is that our understanding of the historical record is inevitably shaped by ‘big battalions’ of organizations like the Comintern, the USIA, the British Council, the Goethe Institute – relatively enduring specialist organizations with extensive programmes of activities which leave sizeable archival records.  At the same time it is clear that these organizations don’t capture the full extent of public diplomacies, there are many other activities that have been much less enduring, more narrowly focused and on a smaller scale and don’t leave well defined archival trails.  These activities are only likely to become visible as the offshoot of other research, take for instance Kristine Kjærsgaard’s (2015) contribution on the Danish diplomat Bodil Begtrup who launched a whole series of one woman projects across different countries in the course of her career.    Tsourapas’ research has been driven by an interest in migration questions.  His research shows doing the state of the archives doesn’t make things easy, despite using different archives in Egypt he’s had to use the British archives and contemporary media reports to reconstruct the programme.   From the point of view of understanding public diplomacies as a whole  absence of knowledge is not the same as absence of activities or absence of effect only absence of research.

Eight summary points

  1. During the period under study Egypt dispatched thousands of teachers across the Middle East.  These teachers were vectors of the Egyptian version of Arab Nationalism, and they tended to indoctrinate their students into the greatness of Egypt and the importance of Colonel Nasser as the leader of the Arab World, including organizing protests and boycotts.
  2. The root cause of this was the effort under Mohammed Ali (ruled 1805-49) to reform the Egyptian state, which included the creation of formal systems of education and teacher training, publication of school books etc.  As the rest of the Arab world achieved independence after the Second World War the relative development of the Egyptian education system created an opportunity by which other states welcomed the supply of trained, Arabic speaking teachers.
  3. In this context, Egypt made a strategic choice to promote this system of secondment.  Some of the teachers were paid for by the Egyptian government while others were selected by Cairo and paid for the host government.  This process of secondment continued despite the fact that there were teacher shortages in Egypt.  This was part of the ‘Cold War’ (Kerr 1967) between the Arab Nationalists and the conservative Arab States.
  4. Money Talks: This strategy was greeted with alarm by the British, not just because of the anti-imperial views propagated by the teachers, but because they supplanted British teachers who were much more expensive to employ.   The cost issue cushioned the whole programme against the opposition of host governments who tended to be unenthusiastic about the political views of the teachers.  Although there were numerous expulsions the fact of Egyptian subsidies to meant that the expelled teachers tended to be replaced by new  Egyptians.
  5. The fact that the teachers were Egyptian and the books that they used were also Egyptian tended to raise the prestige of the country.  In addition they emphasized the role of Nasser in resisting the imperialists and the Israelis further underlining the country’s importance.  Cultural promotion and political campaigning were two sides of the same coin.
  6. Context Matters:  The reception of the secondment policy varied depending on the supply of qualified personnel.   Tsourapas notes that the break-up of the United Arab Republic was partly driven by the feeling among Syrian officials that the Egyptians were taking their jobs.
  7. Although the role of Egyptian radio broadcasting in Nasser’s foreign policy is relatively well known this other strand of foreign public engagement hasn’t attracted attention arguably would have had longer lasting effects.
  8. At a theoretical level it’s more evidence for my usual argument that separating ‘attraction’ from material resources and from contexts as many formulations of ‘soft power’ really doesn’t fit with the historical record.


Kerr M (1967) The Arab Cold War, 1958-67: A Study of Ideology in Politics. Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press.

Kjærsgaard K (2015) A Public Diplomacy Entrepreneur: Danish Ambassador Bodil Begtrup in Iceland, Switzerland and Portugal, 1949–1973, in Jordan P, Glover N and Clerc L (eds) Histories of Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Leiden: Brill, pp. 102–122.

Tsourapas G (2016) Nasser’s Educators and Agitators across al-Watan al-‘Arabi: Tracing the Foreign Policy Importance of Egyptian Regional Migration, 1952-1967, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 43: 324–41. Ungated version.

Tsourapas G (2018) Authoritarian emigration states: Soft power and cross-border mobility in the Middle East, International Political Science Review, 39: 400–416. Ungated version





Hegel and the Plurality of Public Diplomacies

July 26, 2018

I kind of realized that these two posts can be boiled down into a much simpler form by stealing from Hegel (not many things that this applies to I suspect).

In a nutshell Hegel’s theory of the state (chucking the dialectic of out the window ) is this.  There is civil society: there are lots people pursuing their private interests.  This is good and produces the dynamism of the modern world.  The problem is that many of these purposes produce conflicts and negative results.  This means the job of the state is to produce unity from this diversity.  Fortunately the modern state is run by functionaries who form a ‘universal class’ rising above the particular interests of different groups in society and by doing so promote the advance of Reason.

Hegel’s theory was aimed at those (ie the liberal tradition) who did not see any fundamental conflicts within civil society and for whom the state was at best a minimally necessary supplier of police and courts.  Marx took the view that the dominance of economic (class) conflict in society was such that job of the state was to help out the capitalist class.  After the revolution though the central conflict would disappear and with it the need for a political state.

Max Weber was rather more pessimistic about the universal class seeing them as acting on a basis of rules and narrow calculations of relations between means and ends rather than any grasp of a higher Reason.  In this they were figures like General Ludendorff in the First World War, seeking a ‘technical’ ‘purely military’ solution and ignoring the political consequences of hist actions.  On top of this the universal class were not above mention defending their own interests.  More broadly the analysis in my earlier posts suggests that Hegel rather overestimated the capacity of the state to actually unify things, its more that the state comes to reflect some of the tensions within civil society.

What is interesting is that the historical and empirical record of public diplomacies fits extremely well with the concept of a tension between a plural civil society/would be unifying state.   On one hand civil society actors constantly try to enrol the support of the state for their projects while states struggle to impose some sort of strategy or order on civil society (and also themselves), hence the search for the holy grail of the modern state; coordination.

Some of the different ways in thinking about public diplomacies/cultural relations/soft power come from looking at the field from a top down (state) or a bottom up (civil society) perspective.

  1. Although they appear very different concepts of political warfare and nation branding can both be seen as  efforts to produce a single point from which a whole range of public diplomacies can be organized into a common programme.  In practice the more stringent the unification the harder it is to produce it and the less time it can endure.
  2. ‘Soft power’ is applied as a catch all term to some of the more desirable bits of civil society even though they they are frequently incoherent or even contradictory.  A soft power strategy needs a capacity to choose.  Efforts to estimate soft power are basically about counting all manner of shiny things and saying that having shiny things is good.
  3. In policy terms the real challenge is to recognize there is a tension here and to find ways to produce sustainable coherence or managed diversity.  In research terms the issue is to understand variations across countries and across time.


On Hegel I looked at:

Avineri, Shlomo. Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Hassner, Pierre. “Georg W.F Hegel.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, translated by Allan Bloom, Third., 732–60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity : Twelve Lectures. Cambridge: Polity in association with Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood and Hugh Barr Nisbet Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.


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