Soft power

SOFT POWER…. Michael Chertoff, the outgoing DHS secretary, took a surprisingly progressive line on counter-terrorism investments yesterday, arguing that the U.S. “should spend more on foreign-aid programs, scholarships for foreign students and other tools of so-called soft power.”

Soft power is, of course, the phrase Joseph Nye coined to describe foreign policy tools that nations can use to “achieve desired outcomes through attraction rather than coercion.” Yglesias agrees with Chertoff’s sentiment, but wants to retire the term “soft power” permanently.

I always feel that it’s been popularized not so much by Professor Nye as by deranged warmongers who like the idea of terming every alternative to militarism as somehow “soft,” fluffy, and weak. Soft Power is a good book, but it’s a bad coinage for an era in which national security issues have returned as a partisan political topic, and I don’t think it’s an especially great label for what Nye’s talking about.

Kevin is on the same page, but is looking for suggested replacements.

“Cultural power” is no good, since it evokes thoughts of cultural imperialism. “Economic power” sounds scary too, and none too apropos anyway considering the economic devastation we’re currently wreaking on the world. Anyway, soft power encompasses lots of things, so any individual term won’t be enough. I’ve heard “smart power” bandied about, but I doubt that will catch on. Too jargony. “Non-military power” gets to the nub of things, but doesn’t roll off the tongue very well.

Plenty of smart people have been kicking this around for a while. I remember a sharp Ilan Goldenberg piece from May in which he argued the phrase “soft power” is “horribly named. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a term that more effectively plays into all the negative stereotypes that the American public has about Democrats and national security.”

I’m hesitant to step on his toes, but I recall Ezra tackling this subject in a couple of posts earlier this year, hoping to come up with a credible alternative. He seemed to warm up to “strategic power,” before concluding that the problem is with the second word in the phrase, not the first.

After 9/11, there really was a strain of foreign policy thinking where the simple demonstration of power was an end in itself…. It’s power for power’s sake. And hard power will always make more sense in that framework.

Insofar as liberals — and moderates, and realists, and non-insane people — have a response to this, it’s not within the “power” framework. It’s about goals, and ends, and strategies. It’s “hard power” versus strategic goals, or the national interest. I’m not sure if there’s a two word summation. Though, in the short-term, “Remember Iraq?” will probably work as well as anything else.