Why soft power is more effective than hard power in our interconnected world.
Yesterday we found ourselves once again on the edge of that whirlpool that, with one moment of weakness, could pull us bewilderingly into the heart of darkness that is pointless, murderous war. Pointless because dropping bombs on Syria will no more solve the regional problem that this war represents than dropping bombs on Iraq did. And murderous because not only are the vast majority of deaths unarmed civilians, but even the soldiers we send will not be mentally and physically equipped to withstand the conditions they will meet. This time we pulled ourselves back from the brink, but, in the absence of an alternative means of expressing our concern about Syria, we remain in danger of being drawn back to the edge.
As Director of the Soft Power Network people ask me what the soft power strategy might be in the face of escalating violence and the unacceptable death of civilians, particularly children.
It's not easy to answer and it might help to start with the Buddhist response to a common question thrown at those who oppose violence: Q what would you do if you turned the corner to find a man with a gun pointed at your head? A I would never have turned that corner. It sounds like avoidance, political spin even, but in fact it is an injunction to step back and see the conflict from a different angle.
Hard power describes agency delivered through force – usually achieved through guns and money. Soft power describes agency arising from attraction: attitude, stance, brand all contribute to shaping the response of your environment. Behavioural economics goes some way to explore this route.
Contrary to popular belief, both carrot and stick are hard power – attempts to manipulate an outcome with a tool of coercion. In this sense diplomacy, where the outcome has already been decided by the superpowers and talks - backed up by threats of sanctions - are only held to deliver their goals, is often hard power too.
Soft power on the whole is a long game:first coined by Clinton's adviser Joe Nye, it described the many ways American remained powerful in the post Vietnam age – citing democracy, Hollywood and the American Dream as key attractors that would keep the world in thrall. Since then every emerging superpower has put soft power high on its foreign policy goals: soft power is influence, a cheaper way to get your way in the world.
In an instance when war is already the state of play, it is not easy to respond with soft power. If you respond to war, on military terms, it is game over – somebody will win and the party that loses will be humiliated, the best possible conditions for war to start up again in the future. Investors in the military industrial complex understand this and are rarely disappointed by politicians who equate hard power with physical and moral strength and are up for the game (see Polly Toynbee on what constitutes gravitas).
Soft power is to refuse the game of war and pursue a different way of being in the world – it calls for a different kind of strength. Conflict is inevitable in all areas of life: what matters is how you respond to it. It's rarely enough to turn a blind eye as it results in the weak being victimised by the strong. Instead, full engagement with all the parties to the conflict and the vision to see how all can grow to reach a new settlement, requires courage, patience, imagination.
And here is a shock for you: soft power is not good power any more than hard power is bad. What we are experiencing as our emotions flow towards intervention is Cameron's ability to make his case attractive. Its not a direct hit – there are no threats. Instead he is making himself appear compassionate, moved, humane. He constructs an artificial time table to excite the adrenalin and suddenly we feel we have no choice but to act.
It's both happy and sad for us that we have learnt to distrust this package of appeals – like an addiction that brings more pain than pleasure. Cameron sounds too much like Blair, the man who taught us that trust is a weasel word. For once, Ed Miliband's careful, cautious approach feels different and better. We feel better not going down old paths. But does that leave us with no action to take at all – definitely not.
Britain has always been a small country with extraordinary influence – we are a soft power much more than a hard power. Self avowed soft power organisations like The British Council and British Museum have built a tradition of arts exchange which actively promote other culturesin order to gain greater global understanding and dialogue. But more than that, because we are the home of the English language, our media has disproportionate clout – BBC World Service of course, but in the age of digital communication, every BBC channel, The Times, The Guardian, all are big players in shaping public opinion. Our focus should be on changing the headlines – shifting the argument to another level.
In the case of Syria the vision has to be regional and transformational – it can't be winner takes all when civil war has already broken out: we learnt that in Iraq. For those that look with a birds eye view rather than from the trenches, there is a clear fault line between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the area, with the added factor of Israel's needs and connections in the globe. Assad is just one man, but, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he represents a bigger problem which deposition will not solve.
It is within our grasp to train global action on humanitarian forces to help the victims. But more than that, now is the time to create a platform for Sunni and Shiite Muslims - drawn from all parts of the region - to meet and dialogue. Who are the champions of Islamic vision – not only politicians but philosophers, scientists, artists – who can shift the narrative so conveniently perpetrated by US and Russian militarists that this is a warring religion that must be contained? Don't underestimate how a different dynamic can give rise to new calls for action – not from the superpowers but from the surrounding countries with a renewed interest in resolution rather than victory.
Cameron, like Blair, cries: we can't stand idly by, wringing our hands. Damn right: take action but not of the killing kind. Now is the moment to use your special relationship with America to refuse to back the war option and insist on the very British option of creating a real time and media spectacle to come up with a different story not only for Syria but for the whole of the Middle East.
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