Saturday 21 Apr 2018 | 21:40 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Apr 2018 | 21:40 | SYDNEY

More on 'soft power'



21 May 2009 14:29

I've been meaning for some days to reintroduce the subject of soft power, but have deferred it through a combination of busyness and writer's block. Raoul's initial post prompted this rebuttal from me and this interesting contribution from Andrew Carr, whose blog is one to watch.

Andrew adds some welcome meat to the bare-bones definition of soft power that Raoul and I based our discussion on. But here's an extract which for me again exposes the weakness of the concept:

Soft power on the other hand works to subvert the very interests of the other actors to have them believe their interests accord with the interests of the superior power...The aim of soft power in short is not to have the other actor feel they have been coerced to accept your interests over their’s, it’s that they think your interests correspond, and therefore can positively join you on the effort.

The first thing that troubles me here is the subtext of trickery. I'm not sure if Andrew intended it, but it sounds like he's saying country A can deploy soft power to dupe country B into acting in country A's interest.

Second, Andrew's description reinforces the point I made earlier, which is that we simplify and even impoverish discussion of international events when we see it solely as a zero-sum contest for power. Soft-power advocates may shy away from the idea of coercion, but they cannot divorce themselves entirely from what 'power' really means, which is the ability to get what one wants or to exercise control.

It goes without saying that people rarely discuss domestic politics exclusively in this way. For instance, we would be missing something very important about Australia's political arrangements if we described it solely as the clash of interest groups to achieve power. Such a description leaves no room for the parts of government dedicated to adjudicating and enforcing the law. It also ignores the traditions and values that make up Australia's enduring political culture, not to mention its civic life.

Realists demand that, because the international realm is anarchical, no comparison with domestic politics is possible. But many of the things realists regard as unique to the domestic realm are evident in international society, if in weakened form. There are international judicial institutions, various permanent and temporary bodies that manage international affairs, and even an international culture. (Hedley Bull, for instance, wrote about the international culture of modernity.)

To reduce all of this complexity to a question of 'power' is to miss something bigger, which is that the international system itself (or, as I would call it, 'international society') is not just the stage upon which international actors play, but is itself a key reason why any level of peace and order exists at all. That society is weakened when we refuse to acknowledge that it even exists.

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