Posts Tagged ‘Soft Power’


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 a the economic 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, not to mention their propensity to defend 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/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.


Documents on British Scholarships and Visits

November 10, 2015

The role of scholarships, exchanges and visits in British public diplomacy is pretty much a black hole in terms of both policy attention and academic interest so I was interested to come across a Foreign Office review of Scholarship programmes from March of this year.

The review discusses three programmes Chevening, Commonwealth and Marshall. In general terms these all provide support for post graduate study in the UK. Chevening is intended to ‘support foreign policy priorities…by creating lasting positive relationships with future leaders’, Commonwealth ‘to contribute to international development’ and Marshall to ‘strengthen UK-US relationship’. Chevening currently in recent years Chevening has had 650 students a year but for no clearly defined reason this is rising to 1,700, Commonwealth has around 900 awards funded by DFID and Marshall 30-35.

The report offers a mass of detail including recommendations from internal reviews and if you’re interested in scholarships and exchanges I would certainly recommend it.

However in reading it becomes clear that this is a typical British government document in its relentless focus on efficiency and rationalization and the almost total neglect of what the point of all this activity is. The reviewer, who is a former banker who is now the chair of “The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation” which “regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and vocational qualifications” seems most concerned that the management structure of the Chevening programme is different from the other two – which are run by independent commissions and argues for a common management structure via a Scholarships Commission, which would be sponsored by the FCO (not sure what DFID would think of this).

However, these aren’t the only programmes that the government runs. Here’s a link to the FCO International Leaders Programme Strategy for 2014/15 that runs through the benefits of bringing leaders from the Emerging Powers to the UK in the manner of the US International Leaders Programme.


The Elcano Global Presence Index

June 17, 2015

The Elcano Global Presence Index doesn’t get the same attention as the indexes of national branding but if you’re interested in questions of influence and soft power it’s actually more useful.

In its latest version the index ranks 80 countries from the US (1099.6) to Syria (3.5). The aim is to construct an index of ‘external projection’ based on three elements; economic, military and ‘soft presence’. The economic element is composed from exports of energy, primary goods, manufactures, services and investment and is weighted at 38.5%. Military presence is troops overseas (including in international missions) and naval and air systems weighted at 15.52%. Soft presence is a mixture of elements; attractiveness to migrants, tourists and students; sports; export of audiovisual products; patents; academic publications; internet bandwidth and development cooperation weighted at 45.98%. With an index like this you can argue about what’s in it and the weightings, there are discussions of the evolving methodological issues here and here. It’s been published since 2011 but the index has been calculated back to 1990.

The strength of the index is to allow comparison between countries and to look at change over time, the index also allows an exploration of the changing composition of presence. Presence isn’t the same as influence or power but it’s a start, from my historical research on public diplomacies governments tend to notice changes in the ‘presence’ of other countries. It’s also worth thinking about an index like this in relation to brand indexes, for instance China may not have great sentiment but its rapid increase in standing on an index like this indicates opportunities for other people which translate into influence.

OK if you haven’t looked at the Index who are the top 10 for 2014?

US 1099.6
UK 404.9
Germany 400.5
China 363.5
France 321.3
Russia 295
Japan 257.7
Netherlands 231.2
Canada 205.4
Italy 176

Soft Power, Attractiveness and Influence

November 25, 2014

“The concept of soft power is soft in conceptualization and weak in empirics. What is the leap of logic that leads from attraction to American culture or its products to support for American foreign policy?”

Reich, Simon, and Richard Ned Lebow. Good-Bye Hegemony!: Power and Influence in the Global System. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 34

That’s a good question but it doesn’t just apply to soft power it also applies to classical French or German theories of foreign cultural policy. Historically there’s always been blurring between a politics of national attractiveness and a policy of diplomatic influence. In France it’s possible to see some tension under the pressure of a tougher global environment: in going through a lot of French parliamentary reports from the last decade it’s interesting to voices arguing not just for a very focused diplomatie d’influence, but also for handing over the whole activity of rayonnement to the culture ministry at the expense of the Quai d’Orsay. Having said this the majority position seems to be for the traditional compromise.

Given that I normally talk about public diplomacies in the plural this isn’t really surprising but it does raise both analytical and policy questions.

In analytical terms what is the connection (if any) between a politics of attractiveness and diplomatic influence?*

In policy terms how do you devise and fund a policy of attractiveness and a policy of influence? The irony is that it’s probably advantageous for everyone involved to keep things fuzzy – MFAs can keep claiming their budgets contribute to national economic success while cultural operators can point to the vague foreign policy benefits of funding foreign activities. The very ambiguity in soft power that frustrates Reich and Lebow is something that makes it attractive in the policy world.

*Actually there’s quite a lot but I’ll come back to that later.


A Tale of Two Diasporas: Chinese Control and British Indifference

August 18, 2014

At the Wall Street Journal Blog there’s an interview with James Jiann Hua To, about his book Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese. This discusses the policies adopted by China to monitor, protect and supervise the tens of millions of Chinese citizens who live outside the borders of the PRC

As To puts it

The purpose of qiaowu is to rally support for Beijing amongst ethnic Chinese outside of China through various propaganda and thought-management techniques. For the vast majority of the 48 million overseas Chinese around the world, many will be oblivious to qiaowu and its activity. The main target groups are those who are open to and even welcome receiving qiaowu and closer links to China and its foreign service, such as newer migrants or PRC students abroad.

In contrast last weeks Economist had a piece on the British diaspora.  Despite five million Brits living abroad the message is the UK doesn’t really care:

Of 193 UN member states, 110 have formal programmes to build links with citizens abroad. Britain is not one of them. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s database of Britons abroad is patchy. Of all the high-flying expats with British passports your correspondent asks, only one—Danny Sriskandarajah, a migration expert based in South Africa—has had any contact with local embassies or with UKTI, Britain’s trade-promotion body. And his Indian friend has received much more attention from his consulate.

Indeed, India is a trailblazer in this field. It has an entire ministry for its emigrants. Mr Gamlen says it partly has this to thank for the success of its IT industry, built by Indians lured home from Silicon Valley and Europe. Other countries are similarly welcoming. Italy and France even reserve parliamentary seats for their diasporas.

Just because a country has a programme it doesn’t mean that it does anything but it’s interesting to note a certain continuity. After the First World War the British government mounted an enquiry into why some expatriate communities didn’t seem to have been as helpful to the war effort as those of some other countries. The report recommended programmes to cultivate British identity including subsidies for British schools. In another continuity the Treasury said there wasn’t any money (eg Fisher J (2009) A Call to Arms: The Committee on British Communities Abroad, 1919-1920, Canadian Journal of History, 44: 261–86.)

It’s tempting to attribute this difference in official attitude to regime type(authoritarian control versus democratic indifference and I’m sure that this is part of it, but France and Germany have always had extensive provision for expatriates regardless of political regime.   Part of the difference is can be attributed to differences in how these four countries conceptualize the nation. This is an issue I’ll pick up in my next post.


Is Soft Power Fungible?

March 6, 2013

If you steep yourself in the theoretical debates about power in International Relations (my advice is not to do this) you will come across the question of fungibility (eg Baldwin 1979).  In crude terms is power like money?  If I’ve got money I can buy a loaf of bread  or a book using the same resource.  Can a ‘powerful’ actor achieve its goals across different issue areas using the same resources?  The very fact of raising the question suggests a suspicion that the answer is no.

Interestingly enough in his pre soft power days Joe Nye also points in this direction in Power and Interdependence (1977).  The basic thrust of that book was that you should recognize that power resources differ across issue areas.  Switzerland may have clout in the banking field (because of its banks)  but not in the regime for oceans (landlocked).   While it may be possible to leverage different power resources through clever diplomacy, by linking different issue areas together, the overall thrust is that power is non-fungible.  It would then follow that a state can be judged to be ‘powerful’ if it could draw on resources across multiple issue areas or a spectacular array of resources in a few.

But if conventional power resources aren’t fungible what about soft power? This struck me In reading Nakano Yoshiko’s contribution to the Soft Power Superpowers collection.  Nakano’s essay looks at the reception of Japanese popular culture in China. Her finding is that Chinese consumers are gaining a more complex and nuanced picture of Japan and seeing aspects of its culture as worthy of imitation but do not connect this with  their political image and attitude towards the country.  It can be added that the political attitudes have consequence for other relationships as in the effect of the  dispute over the Pinnacle Islands* on sales of Japanese cars in China.

Where does this lead us?  Probably towards the realization that soft power is probably even more fragmented than conventional power resources.  Analytically we need to think about the composition of a country’s soft power resources (How much? Are the concentrated in one or a few areas? Who do can they influence?) rather than seeing soft power as a unity.  I suspect that doing this kind of analysis will have a rather deflationary effect on estimates of national soft power.  ‘Some soft power resources will allow you to have some influence on some publics some of the time’?


Baldwin, D.A. (1979) ‘Power Analysis and World Politics: New Trends versus Old Tendencies’, World Politics, 31: 161–194.

Keohane, R.O., and J.S. Nye (1977) Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Yoshiko, N. (2008) ‘Shared Memories: Japanese Pop Culture in China’, pp. 111–127 in Y. Watanabe and D.L. McConnell (eds) Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

*This is what those islands that China and Japan can’t agree about were called on 19th c. British naval charts