It's A Hedge!

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July's garden chores include tending to the English laurel hedge I'd planted to screen the neighbor's shed. For the most part, the laurel screen serves its function quite well. It fades into the background giving some weight and coherence to the lower garden.  Specimen plants set off nicely against it, and -- as an added bonus -- the laurel feeds and shelters birds. I take a couple of passes at the hedge over the course of a few days each summer, clipping to find its form beneath the sprawl.

This morning as I pruned, I was reflecting on soft power and its utility function for the public diplomacy community. My thoughts were prompted by reading Prof. Craig Hayden's recently published book, The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts. Like my English laurel, we tend to take soft power for granted. Unlike English laurel, Professor Nye's two decades old concept is appreciated more than not. Few, particularly in the PD community,  would be so antagonistic as to write something metaphorically equivalent to this aesthetic dismissal by the Complete Shade Gardner George Schenk:

The planting of an English laurel hedge is an act of aggression against one’s neighbor – and against oneself as well. It is the fightingest of hedges, pushing outward and upward as soon as you turn your back. English laurel is one of the greatest goads to giving up on the yard and moving into an apartment – in a very real sense, this shrub is a real estate agent.

But then, few would spend much time considering the negatives of the generally benign evergreen wall to begin with; it is so useful, you see. It's greatest asset, of course, is that it is soft and pliable not hard and prickly. 

For many, the beauty of the term soft power lies similarly in its utility and malleability. As Hayden writes, "there is clearly something compelling to scholars and practitioners about the notion of soft power, despite its conceptual ambiguity" (p. 287). The shape shifting properties of the concept are evident in the four national case studies Prof. Hayden takes care to present. His is a study of the language used by the state actors: China, United States, Venezuela, and Japan, to describe and rationalize what they call, or what seem to him to be, their soft power behaviors. He finds great variety in the range of activities, audiences and objectives undertaken by the states examined. 

What explains the diversity? Given his constructivist methodology, Hayden locates the explanation in the pragmatic and contingent perspectives of the actors themselves. (An excellent scholarly review of the book is offered by Emily Metzgar on the CPD Blog.) I might more simply say the political culture of the state drives what and how it choses to communicate externally. This is qualified by the location of the state in the international order. Great powers, like the United States, not only seek to influence global perceptions of their public policies, they may think they have the capacity to try and structure the architecture of international relations and the game of world politics itself.

Hayden understands the instrumental nature of soft power and Nye's claim that the United States might have the cultural and political resources to remake the post Cold War world if it would balance its reliance on hard power. Nye also argues that given the transition of power to the East and the diffusion of power to non-state actors, the U.S. should make that shift in emphasis. Hayden's chapter on the United States does a fine job of describing the tension between public diplomacy approaches that include advocacy and those that seek to influence outcomes favorable to the United States by enabling "democratic practices through increasingly networked, technological contexts" (p. 236).  Hayden writes,

This strategic reformulation means that the United States would facilitate dialogue via social and new media network platforms to bring about the kind of changes it could otherwise not achieve just by trying to bolster its own image.

But what are these changes? "Better controlling the non-state actors that will increasingly share the stage with nation-states" was Nye's answer in 2008. He echoed that phrase in comments made in Australia this spring. I'd call that hedging your bets as the world turns. Sharper critics, such as moral philosopher Susan Neiman writing in Moral Clarity (2008)  see an element of disguise in the soft power concept and assert,

Advocates of soft power never question Hobbes's  picture of a world fundamentally at war; they just think it can be won with a Trojan horse.

While I don't agree with Neiman's characterization of most soft power advocates who are decidedly not Hobbsian in my experience, I do understand her frustration with the term soft power and her claim that soft is only a qualification of power and what counts conceptually is the material thing being qualified: power (p. 68).

Hayden doesn't get quite there as he concludes his book, but there are hints that having thoroughly clipped away at the useful -- if frustratingly vague -- soft power concept through a deep textual analysis of comparative nation state efforts to achieve and practice soft power, he may be ready to step back, walk around the obfuscating wall of language and see what is being screened from view. My bet is that he will find the always messy, never avoidable, world of politics wherein actors take advantage of whatever works to get the upper hand. 

Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License