Civil vs Military Inducement

>> Saturday, December 6, 2008

Matt Yglesias has a post up on the Obama foreign policy shift from hard power, ie military, to soft power, ie cultural and economic. As he notes the US is more than overdue for a refocus on the cultural and economic capabilities we posses when addressing crisis and conflict on the world stage. He has a further problem though revolving around the terminology and the perceived framing of the term "soft power". Yglesias writes,

Jim Arkedis suggests “civilian power” as an alternative term to the much-derided “soft power.” I think this suggestion actually shows that we don’t need one term to replace soft power, but rather that the underlying concept can probably be split into a few different ideas. One thing, that seems to be well-described as “civilian power” is the idea that the government needs to mobilize more of the non-military instruments available to us — things like diplomatic resources, technical assistance, development aid, etc. There are a lot of problems on the planet and not all of them can be solved primarily by blowing things up. But right now our budget is heavily tilted toward the “blowing things up” side of the ledger. We would do well to balance better.

But there’s also something else that, as I said before, I don’t think is well-captured by the term “power” at all. Maybe it’s easier to think about it in terms of another country. One thing that’s good about the United States is that we have a brand that, when we’re at our best, is very broadly appealing across ethnic and religious lines. By contrast, Iran can have strong appeal in southern Lebanon or in Iraq, but theocracy based on Shiite Islam is an inherently tough sell. Similarly, Putin-style Russian nationalism is a potent force in Russia, but hardly an ideology that’s ready to travel the globe. But insofar as the United States comes to be identified with torture, bullying, and aggressive warfare rather than with humane liberal values we lose that brand advantage.

As derided as it is, the terminology difference has never been a major deal to me. The context of the discussion has always been, "how do we move country x to position y?" We then divide it into two broad categories, the hard sell and the soft sell. The hard sell is aggressive, belligerent and threatening. The soft sell is more subtle, a carrot as opposed to a stick that leads people where they wanted to go anyway. I never bought the argument that using the term soft power versus hard power carried with it the implication that soft power was any weaker or less effective.

Yglesias though takes the route of attacking the term "power" itself. I think his point fails to connect. "Power" is simply the ability to move something from one position to another. Insofar as the ideology and cultural values of our country resonate with the average person around the globe they do have a "power". Our cultural and political system gives (or gave depending on your view) the US a greater ability to move countries' foreign and domestic policy. Power is simply a synonym for influence and because of this any word that carries similar meaning can serve instead of "Power".

The title of this post uses the word "inducement" and i think this serves equally with the term "power". We have civil means, diplomatic resources, technical assistance, development aid, as well as cultural features, that induce a country to comply with our wishes. Similarly we have military inducements, bombs, tanks, marines. I don't have confidence that one framing is all that much better than the other but if Yglesias is unhappy with the term "power" he certainly has the platform to work towards a change.


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