The following is a talk given by Indra Adnan, Director of Soft Power Network to NATO at a Brussels conference convened by Stephanie Babst on the Power of Soft Power on 27 March, 2012. Other contributors included Philip Seib, Professor of Journalism and Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California, Jed Willard, Director, The Public Diplomacy Collaborative, Harvard Kennedy School, Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab, Elizabeth Linder, Politics and Government, Europe, Middle East & Africa for Facebook, Mitchell Baker, Chairwoman, Mozilla and William Echikson, Head of Communications and Public Affairs, Google.




Let me start with a clarification of where I stand in the wider debate on the role of soft power and public diplomacy – two very different forms of agency. As Philip Seib described, public diplomacy seeks to convince: it's transactional - an act that demands a result. Soft power is not convincing, it is attracting: it focusses on a way of being in the world that reflects its desire for the future. In human terms, public diplomacy is outreach, where soft power is self-development.


Having said that, all NATO's efforts to genuinely engage with people, do enhance its soft power – but only to the extent that it is perceived as genuinely open: not as a dialogue with only one conclusion allowed. A NATO that might itself be open to persuasion, is attractive to those who think they have a view. We-Nato as a public site can do much to enhance NATO's soft power if it is perceived as a space of possibility rather than a propaganda platform.


However, I don't want to use these precious few minutes to debate what is and what is not soft power – largely because these debates are well covered and also because to some extent both Public Diplomacy and Soft Power occupy the same category of softer rather than harder power and can, occasionally, share a taxi and even an expense account.


Instead, I would like to bring a different perspective – one that might influence the way that NATO develops both its softer powers and indeed, what direction NATO might take in the next phase of its development if it is to achieve its longer term goals of global security.


When Joseph Nye first coined the term soft power over 20 years ago, the US and Europe were in a different place than today.


  • We felt we knew the enemy – Russia - and therefore why NATO was required

  • the world had a clear pecking order with the US at the top and Europe its close friend

  • the cultural domination of the US was unchallenged (even in Russia), not least because of the strength of Hollywood, MacDonalds and a powerful English language media which included the BBC, to reinforce it


We lived in a largely unquestioning hard power culture, where guns - and if not guns, money - shaped and controlled the world. Globalisation was unfolding on hard power terms giving rise to an anti-globalisation movement (very confusing to those of us who believed passionately in a growing connectivity and global citizenship).


While America's failure in Vietnam caused some questioning about the tools, the aim of controlling the globe was not at issue.


Within this transatlantic culture, soft power was offered as a complement to hard power – another means to the same end of getting our way in the world, albeit slower. Instead of armies, we actively shipped artists, products, legal systems, video games – anything that might carry the values and templates of the world we wanted – in order to capture the imaginations of those abroad and give us access to their decision making processes. It's difficult to draw a line between what was intended as a simple pursuit of profit and market monopoly and what was intended as a further reaching social political domination. I'm not sure it matters because the result was the same. (Monocle's Magazine's Soft Power Index is useful, illustrating the common but not consistent overlap between commercial and political gain).


Projected upon the black and white backdrop of a world split into good and evil, winners and losers, America's soft power painted a picture of a good winner. One you wanted to be friends with. (For more examples of soft power, see notes).


Today is a different world. The global culture and broader context for the exercise of soft power has changed significantly. I've narrowed it down to 10 points for today's discussion:


  1. First and foremost our way of communication has changed so radically that every person with his or her hands on a computer with a bit of wi-fi can project an idea into the minds of others all over the world. What used to cost NATO millions of pounds to organise – through dropping leaflets or setting up education projects - can be done for almost free by anyone

  2. Because of this new connectivity, the battle of ideas takes place in cyber space whereas it used to take place in libraries and conferences, accessed by the few

  3. The public sharing of breakthroughs in science, medicine, psychology, economic theory, game theory, political thinking – whatever - makes it much more difficult to monopolise and manipulate national and global narratives

  4. The rise of media awareness: we now know we are being told stories by people with agendas, largely because we can see how to do it ourselves

  5. The rise of emotional intelligence: we are not yet masters of our emotions, but we do know an emotion when we feel it or see it in others and this makes us – the general public - less easy to manipulate. Add to that much more psychological intelligence. Whether we watch Big Brother or read detective stories, people are more prone to looking for the truth which lies below the surface of the news these days.

  6. The change of gender balance in the public space, allowing feminine values and ways of operating to challenge the hegemony of masculine ones. The UN's championing of women as the economic managers of the family is typical

  7. Vastly increased exposure to different cultures, allowing competing values to parachute into our previously hermetically sealed space. Witness the number of British women converting to Islam

  8. A loss of confidence, post 9/11, in the idea that someone is in charge. This fosters a culture of fear, but it does not give anyone carte blanche to assuage it: we remain on our guard against expectations of continuity

  9. A loss of confidence in the institutions, structures and authorities that made promises they were not able to keep: from the economic crisis to the endless arrests of corrupt politicians in NATO countries, to the loss of religious authority. Strong leadership itself has been devalued as a way to sort our problems.

  10. In contrast, we have the new exposition of network values – relationship, reciprocity, distributed leadership. This constitutes a revolution in our understanding of agency. The Arab Spring (informed by Gene Sharp's How to Start a Revolution) has offered exhilerating examples of how networks get results. Avaaz and other petition sites grow in influence.


As a result of more and varied people taking turns to lead the debates, different stories about our shared space and its apparatus have arisen over the years and taken hold of the public psyche. Many of these ideas are not simply the old debates between warmongers and peaceniks, but show a constant re-framing of our common reality, sometimes prompted by scientific developments sometimes by social science. Unlike the old stories shared on the margins amongst activists, these are the new common wisdom and can have an impact on stock markets, voting patterns as well as life trajectories in the private sphere.


Here are a few that are relevant to NATO:


  1. War has become a more complex proposition: it is not merely an obligation in the battle between good and evil: there are many pros and cons. Our media increasingly talks about the human cost of war, the pain of families losing their children in battle, rather than our achievements. Ron Paul gets airtime for his theories about blow-back and how overseas interventions make us less secure not more. In contrast, voters and citizens are much more aware of the broader motivations for war, from securing oil supplies to propping up the military industrial complex. These issues are for open public debate in a way they were not in the past.

  2. Men are not machines and fighting is not simply a patriotic act. Instead, men are fathers, lovers, citizens as well as soldiers. War is more than a physical challenge: it can destroy their mental health and when they return damaged, they can destroy families and communities long after the war is over. There are other ways to be successfully masculine.

  3. On top of that, the army and its soldiers are publicly accountable – we judge them and they are not beyond the law. Compare the fate of Lt William Calley at My Lai (who only served 3 years house arrest, his company getting off scot free after massacring a village) compared to the offenders at Abu Grahib and more recently Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales in Afghanistan. We are not automatically on the side of our soldiers any more.

  4. War rarely works in that clean cut way we thought the World Wars did. Post Vietnam, post Iraq, even post Libya – we are only too aware of the collateral damage, the mess we leave behind and the list of unachieved aims. The public is itself diverse and multi-cultural: there is no wholesale partisanship, people sympathise with civilians everywhere, including enemy civilians.

  5. Aggression and the ability to make things happen is not in itself a virtue. The collapse of the global money markets have done much to outlaw testosterone. The Occupy Movement, in this context, has done much to undermine our certainty about certainty.

  6. Violence is on the decrease. Not so much within our short frames of reference but against the backdrop of history, the use of violence by human beings has dropped away to relatively nothing. Again, a much debated theory but one that can be borne out by stats and evidence. The author of the book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker, does not make a case for us growing nicer, but for our increased awareness of what endangers us. Not unlike Ron Paul's blow back theory, our development away from violence is not simply due to our dislike of pain and growing ability to master our emotions, but equally because of our loss of faith in its efficacy.


I could go on, but time is short.


These shifts and turns in our shared global space of ideas and story lines adds up to a slowly softening culture. Guns and money still rule the roost, but they are not trusted, respected nor indeed loved the way they once were.


Instead we have a world that is increasingly self-mediated and hence self-conscious. Individual – as well as group, national and business - empowerment is built on the ability to connect: to engage, to make relationship. Leadership has got flatter as more of us take our chances in the market place of ideas and initiatives.


To reiterate: Joseph Nye's smart power was devised under the umbrella of a hard powered culture. Today, soft power and hard power take on a different meaning within a softer culture. Instead of working with two different ways to control the world, we now have to think about two different ways of being influential in a world we know we cannot entirely control. A balance perhaps between modelling change and trying to enforce it.


So where does NATO sit in this new world? If soft power is attraction, how can NATO draw people towards itself – how should it reflect these new values and practises and recommend itself as an institution to trust?


My position is that NATO needs to tell a new story about itself that mirrors the global developments we are witnessing. Because we know from the new brain science, that mirroring is the best route to empathy. Here are five ideas:


  1. We-Nato is a great development – I love the feminine touch brought by Stephanie Babst which makes it more human-centred. Keep the tone open as you have done but acknowledge the bigger arguments in play about security and human security. People don't want to live in a world of fear. We prefer a world of increasing knowledge through engagement. I would be wary of including any videos that talk about war and machinery in a technical way: it attracts the war as boys game tendency

  2. Re-frame NATO's history as arising in a time of early globalisation when much less was known and manageable about the vast world we were emerging in. Allow a narrative of diminishing violence and a move away from war. Be interested in the re-purposing of the army in a future culture of global inter-dependence. You may not be sure about the route, but you can acknowledge the common desire for peace without losing any power.

  3. Tell a new story about a future of growing alliance and relationship. It's all about friends. Find more ways to include women in the story. Consider creating new roles for women who we know are better at making peace than men – but only in a gender specific way. Women acting out traditional male roles in the army does not sit comfortably with the majority.

  4. Move away from the closed world of NATO, be wary of the NATO world view arising in messages. Most of the people you want to be friends with are not in your club and can't understand your rationale – you have to understand theirs.

  5. Acknowledge that in a world of growing complexity, networks and relationship, the ultimate counter-logic is drone warfare. This is NATO's achilles heal – the ultimate disconnected weapon of choice that robs you of any claim to humanity. Like torture – it is on the list of deal breakers. Compare to China opening Confucious centres while it imprisons artists.


Conferences like the one we are taking part in today are great examples of a soft power approach. The brief was very exploratory and the visitors will carry with them the news that NATO is open to ideas. This in turn suggests that NATO values its relationship with the public, something that is crucial to receiving trust in return.


There are some here that will say why should NATO care? Ultimately, in their view, the only relationship that matters is between the military and the political leaders: NATO doesn't need to attract the public because only those in power will ultimately understand the reality they face on the global stage and they make the decisions. To you I would say, observe our changing world. It's now common knowledge that the biggest constituency in the world is public opinion: politicians – from small dictators to leaders of the biggest democracies – know they will not be voted in to make their decisions without public approval, something they simply cannot manipulate the way they once could. What used to be a cosy partnership between governments and the military is fast becoming a menage a trois – the public has moved in and your politician is being seduced. Ignore them at your peril, befriend them for a more secure world. 

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