Tag Archives: soft power

Hard Power, Soft Power, and the Arab Spring

Soft power defeating hard power? Egyptian protesters sleep in the tracks of tanks in Tahrir Square.

The extraordinary developments of the “Arab Spring” (which are still ongoing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere) illustrate the promise–and the limits–of “hard power” versus “soft power” in today’s world. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” examines the sources and uses of different types of power in his book Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics.  This book remains an indispensable read for students of world politics.

Nye (and many other scholars) define power as the ability to influence other actors’ behavior in order to get the outcomes you want.  Hard power includes the use of both negative instruments (e.g., military force, threats of violence, economic sanctions) and positive inducements/bribes (e.g., development aid, the offer of an alliance) in order to get others to do what you want them to do.  You are basically taking an actor who doesn’t want to take “action X” and changing their calculations through external rewards or punishments so that they decide to do X.   Soft power involves influencing others through your attractive culture, values, or policies so that they actually want to be more like you or conform to the principles you espouse, and they therefore take action X of their own accord.

The developments of the Arab Spring, which began in early 2011, offer numerous examples of both hard and soft power in action.  Government crackdowns on protesters and rebels in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere are a classic use of hard, coercive power to affect the calculations of the anti-regime actors.  And (implicit or explicit) threats of violence by these anti-regime elements also represent attempts to employ hard power against intransigent regimes.  Such tactics do affect governments’ calculations and helped to produce the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  NATO air strikes on behalf of Libya’s rebels is another clear example of hard power.  But the pro-democracy movements that have emerged in the Arab world were not bribed or coerced by external actors to take action–they are largely motivated by their attraction to democracy and human rights.  This is why many Western analysts have concluded that while hard power can overthrow governments (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan), the best means for promoting democracy long-term is the soft power of Western ideals, culture, and rhetoric.  Real change, they contend, must come from within and cannot be imposed by hard power.

What do you think?  Can hard power be used effectively for democracy promotion?  What other examples of hard and soft power in the Arab Spring can you identify?

Inside North Korea

The Korean Border

The South Korean-North Korean Border (courtesy flikr)

I just rediscovered VBS TV, a group of investigative journalists who do some great reporting. They have a new documentary in which two of them manage to get into North Korea. Their report gives an unusual inside view of one of the world’s most reclusive regimes. After enduring days of indoctrination, scripted tours, and “unique” restaurants, in the final clip they conclude that the division between North Korea and the West is similar to the division between the West and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. The challenge, they note, is that North Korea remains an authoritarian society isolated from the rest of the world. As they note in the video, “They [North Koreans] didn’t have punk. They didn’t have jazz. They didn’t have blues. There are no cultural similarities whatsoever…This is a time machine. This is 1930s Russia; 1950s Soviet Union. So they see me as the imperialist aggressor, and I see them as the land that time forgot.”

It’s an interesting notion. And it leads to some interesting conclusions. If the threat of hard power against North Korea (in the form of sanctions or the use of military force) has been unsuccessful in deterring them from pursuing nuclear weapons, is it possible that the use of soft power could be more effective? Could student and cultural exchanges bring down the North Korean regime in a way that the threat of force could not? And if so, what does this suggest about U.S. policy toward Cuba? The Cuban embargo, which has been in place since 1960, has clearly not forced Cuba’s hand. Could cultural exchanges and social pressure be more effective in promoting change in Cuba than the threat of hard power? It’s an interesting possibility.

Haitian Aid and the Fungibility of American Power

82nd Airborne's Relief Mission , Photo courtesy US Military (www.army.mil)

Aid is finally beginning to flow to Haiti, despite bottlenecks at key transit points. The U.S. 82nd Airborne division has turned a golf course in Port-au-Prince into a makeshift refugee camp, ferrying relief supplies in by helicopter.
An estimated 50,000 people are now living on the country club’s grounds.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced yesterday that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which had been scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan, would be diverted to assist the relief effort in Haiti.

The use of the U.S. 82nd Airborne, the 24th MEU, and other units to assist in relief operations in Haiti illustrates the changing missions of the U.S. military. Their role in Haiti stands in stark contrast to ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan. But President Obama’s decision to deploy U.S. military personnel to Haiti presents an interesting example of the fungibility [glossary] of hard power as well. Traditionally, international relations scholars have contended that hard power (military force) was really only good for one thing: fighting wars. At the end of the Cold War, many scholars were concerned that U.S. soft power [glossary] was declining at the same time that hard power [glossary] became less relevant.

President Obama’s article in Newsweek illustrates his thinking. He states that the United States acts

for the sake of the thousands of American citizens who are in Haiti, and for their families back home; for the sake of the Haitian people who have been stricken with a tragic history, even as they have shown great resilience; and we act because of the close ties that we have with a neighbor that is only a few hundred miles to the south. But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps.

But Obama also notes that

When we show not just our power, but also our compassion, the world looks to us with a mixture of awe and admiration. That advances our leadership. That shows the character of our country. And it is why every American can look at this relief effort with the pride of knowing that America is acting on behalf of our common humanity.

This is a classic example of the exercise of soft power in international relations.