Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 09:38 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 09:38 | SYDNEY

True, 'soft power' isn't really power, but so what?



15 May 2009 12:06

Raoul's post on 'soft power' reveals the stranglehold that realist terminology has over foreign policy debates, and how this can constrain thinking.

Raoul's arguments about the limitations and internal contradictions of 'soft power' are solid as far as they go — soft power cannot trump interests, and it cannot coerce, so what good is it, really? That argument is fine if you accept the premise that the only currency that matters in international relations is power.

Soft power advocates submit to this premise when they describe their idea as a kind of power. But when 'soft power' is defined as 'the magnetism of a country’s culture, values, ideals, and the style', you have actually stopped talking about power altogether and are in fact talking about a subtlely different political commodity, one that realists seldom think about: authority.

Political authority is not dependent on physical means of violence to enforce it. It exists solely because those who are subject to it recognise it as being authoritative. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott described this concept with reference to the Marylebone Cricket Club which, when Oakeshott wrote this passage, was the supreme decision-making body of world cricket. How did that come about?:

The Marylebone Cricket Club is a private club which, when it was founded in 1787, had little to distinguish it from many other such clubs. But in the course of about a century it came to be recognized as the custodian of the rules of cricket and the court of record (so to say) whose impramatur is necessary for any change in those rules. This was an acquisition of authority, for the club never had any 'power' to enforce its decisions. This authority was not acquired by succession to an office of authority previously held by some other occupant; office and occupant were coeval. Nor did it come by any act of authorization. It was acquired merely by being acknowledged to have it. The earliest acknowledgement, it seems, was as a court of arbitration in respect of disputes about wagers on cricket matches; but gradually, in steps some of them distinct enough to be recorded, it acquired its present authority over the rules of the game. It retains this authority in the continuous recognition of those concerned that it has it; and this authority will lapse when it ceases to be recognized.

So insofar as cultural and political norms are valuable in foreign policy, it is not because they are tools of power, but because they carry authority. Authority can be used to help advance foreign policy aims, but it is a slow and delicate process, since authority is founded on consent, and consent can be withdrawn if the body of authority is seen as corrupt or illegitimate.

The US torture controversy illustrates the point: if you considered US foreign policy solely in terms of power, then what's the fuss? How has US power been materially harmed by the torture revalations? The key to understanding the damage done  lies in the fact that the torture revelations did so much to undermine American authority in global public opinion.

You may also be interested in...