Center for Strategic Communication

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. Great powers also have to be savvy and persuasive. The test of our leadership going forward will be our ability to mobilise disparate people and nations to work together to solve common problems and advance shared values and aspirations. To do that, we need to expand our foreign policy toolbox, integrate every asset and partner, and fundamentally change the way we do business. I call this approach smart power.

Of course, one of the lynchpins of Clinton’s use of the term smart power is that the international “order depends on American economic, military and diplomatic leadership, which has underwritten global peace and prosperity for decades.” I’m not sure if that necessarily follows from a general understanding of “smart power.”

For Zalman, policy-makers and practitioners can design better policies and programs if they recognize the way power works. Yes, power is diffuse and increasingly collaborative in nature, but the key to Zalman’s view of power is summarized here:

As individuals, we make choices on the basis of the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, what is happening and where we are going next. Those who understand how those stories are constructed and how to shape them are likely to hold the keys to power in the coming century.

This is a profoundly social and communication-centric view of power. Rather than belabor the extensive trans-disciplinary scholarly lineage of this kind of assumption, I’ll just admit that Zalman’s assumptions are indeed correct. It demands of practitioners the ability to understand communication construction, message effect, and the broader mediated ecology that conditions the effects of communication. It does NOT suggest that there is simply a better message to be constructed to frame or shape the context of foreign policy. Nor does it suggest that practitioners need only to identity social structures and relations among potential stakeholders for US policy (opinion leaders, etc.). Rather, for Zalman, a significant portion of power is really in how the resources of power are translated into perceptions of power. Zalman has argued that the dominant cognitive and cultural vehicle for this capacity is through the structure of narrative, though one could argue that frames, metaphors, tropes, or other kinds of organizing containers for communication could serve similar purposes. It is of course one thing to identify the powerful structure of the narrative in social and political life. It is quite another to suggest interventions in local, regional, and global narratives that impact foreign policy objectives.

I don’t want to get too specific here. But I do want to underscore what I think Zalman is asking for: a more deeply theorized understanding of the power as a concept, that can be adapted into the inevitable bureaucratic structures that conduct foreign policy. This is only the beginning of the conversation.