Gangsong Daeguk Driving Recent Events in North Korea

Recent events should be interpreted as a highly sophisticated PR ploy, an attempt to distance Kim Jong Un from the hardships experienced under his father Kim Jong Il and show a return to the more prosperous days experienced under Kim Il Sung. What we now see in the North is a revamping of leadership style in an attempt to project to the people the dawning of a new age while maintaining the old power structure. Read more »

Much ado about Soft Power

As the ever-eloquent and incisive Donna Oglesby recently commented, there’s been a minor dustup in that small corner of the blogosphere dedicated to topics related to public diplomacy. Oglesby notes the reaction to Amy Zalman’s recent essay in the Globalist, which faults the imprecision of the term “soft power.” Zalman’s critique is both analytical and prescriptive. It faults the ways in which soft power has been used in policy discourse as a kind of floating signifier of non-coercive means – a resource and solution that is unnecessarily separated from other aspects of power. Zalman also proposes a more pragmatic optic for policy-makers seeking to understand how power works. In my opinion, I think Zalman makes the case for a more thorough understanding of soft power – and not a rejection of the term. For Zalman, the term isn’t very useful because few aspects of power are ever truly divorced from the material or “hard” resources of power. It’s an unnecessary categorization that impacts the ability of policy-makers to think clearly about how soft power works with hard power. Oglesby reads Zalman as frustrated with the thinking and “categorization” about soft power that solidifies into bureaucratic inertia – at the expense of agility and perspective in the field of diplomatic activity. I’m not sure that “theory” (in Oglesby’s terms) is so much the problem here as the the way in which the concept short-changes thinking about how power and politics are inextricable. Theory isn’t the problem. Application is the problem. Yet Zalman is frustrated with the vagueness of the term, and the kind of disconnected, ephemeral quality of soft power. She writes: “Rather than engaging in new word-crafting games, let us return to lexically simpler times — and call this emergent quality “power.” What Zalman proposes is twofold. First, she offers her own ontology of power – the way it “works” in practice, so to speak. Second, she acknowledges the pragmatic nature of the term soft power – to recognize that the currency of soft power in policy discourse may be tied to the growing significance of other kinds of “capital” possessed or exercised by states. She writes: …soft power is an important concept because it named, and thus focused on, an aspect of political power — the strength of the symbolic — that is vitally important in our globalized, networked era. In effect, Zalman laments the conceptual vagaries of the term and the frustrating organizational consequences that have sedimented into foreign policy thinking about soft power. I don’t think Zalman is being totally dismissive, but rather recuperative. Put another way, I think Zalman is not arguing that soft power is too theoretical – it is that the notion is just incomplete theory. Most of her essay is a statement that calls for a more robust and organic theoretical understanding of power, grounded in the recognized power of the symbolic, and cognizant of the ways in which the resources and modalities of power have become distributed into the social world through new media technologies and the preponderance of the network social form. Zalman is not wrong here. This set of arguments about contemporary politics linked to the social consequences of networked communication have been elaborated by famed network theorist Manual Castells for over a decade. Castells notes that the locus of politics has become increasingly mediatized, resulting in a variety of crises (administrative, cultural, and social) that threaten the institution of the nation-state and the kind politics it must engage in. Power is located in how actors (states, transnational advocacy networks, identity groups) can manipulate or control how networks distribute meaning and value (programming the network) or who gets connected to networks (gatekeeping). Castells is not just referring to electronic networks, but the kind of networks between people and organizations that have become predominant in an age of ubiquitous networked communication. Which is a roundabout way of saying that (a) states don’t hold a monopoly on power nor (b) a monopoloy over the framing potential of information – the narrative, the symbolic, etc. As Ronfeldt and Arquilla noted so long ago, we need to pay attention to the stories that organize how people perceive the world, and how these stories anticipate future world orders. Oglesby quoted soft power’s author – Joseph Nye – who tweeted that Amy Zalman’s piece is: Interesting but she hasn’t read/understood #The Future of Power. Actually, I think Nye’s most recent book does acknowledge the diffusion of power as a kind of “agency” potential among international actors. He admits that whatever “soft power” means, it is neither separable from the resources of hard power nor the sole domain of nation-states. Secretary Clinton, likewise, argues: So the geometry of global power is becoming more distributed and diffuse even as the challenges we face become more complex and cross-cutting. That means that building coalitions for common action is becoming both more complicated and more crucial. We get it – power is not necessarily about the freedom to impose action or belief on others (the unlimited agency of the powerful), but the competence to leverage the structures and relationships that bind international actors together. While Nye’s original arguments about soft power as a warrant for US leadership may be less than convincing today – the general assumptions about soft power and the kind of public diplomacy that it justifies are not so controversial. Zalman is really arguing for inculcating a better understanding of power into the way in which policies are constructed and programs typically associated with soft power (e.g. public diplomacy) are designed to be persuasive or engaging. Zalman wants a “smarter” power that does not compartmentalize the resources of power: “To address the hard problems that confront us globally, we should resist the temptation to put exercises of power into any pre-labeled boxes. Before asking what to call them, we should figure out what they can achieve — and under what circumstances.” Secretary of State Clinton has similar ideas: It is no longer enough to be strong. ... Read more »

Exclusive Pics: The Navy’s Unmanned, Autonomous ‘UFO’

If you saw it in person, you'd probably think it was a UFO, too. That's what happened when the Navy brought its batwing-shaped drone to its new home in Maryland. Across the country, 911 switchboards lit up with reports that mysterious trucks were hauling a spaceship. Up close, you can see why people freaked out. Read more »

The Nuke Review: July 23 – July 29

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced preparations for an environmental impact study on the use of MOX fuel for the Sequoyah and Brown Ferry nuclear power plants in Tennessee and Alabama. The variety of MOX that the TVA is considering for these plants utilizes weapons-grade plutonium from retired nuclear weapons. Read more »