December 4, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

There are a couple of footnotes which I think are worth tacking onto the end of my earlier post about Obama’s proposed national security team. The first of these comes from bensix at Back Towards The Locus, who rightly notes that given Robert Gates’ history in charge of the CIA, we should at least greet his re-appointment with some scepticism, and not take his relatively recent advocacy of ‘soft power’ as a sign that he’ll be radically different from any of the other competent* Secretaries of Defense America’s had over the past 25 years. Perhaps the best test of Gates’ appropriateness will be whether he uses his time in office to push a Missile Defense Shield which has, over its long lifetime in development, incurred the kinds of strategic costs which have begun to outweigh the potential benefit. That said, it’s rumoured that he’ll only stay for a year, so it’s possible the Obama era might only truly reach the Pentagon by 2010.

The second notable point is from the excellent Spencer Ackerman, who pivots off a thoroughly stupid comment from Carol Jenkins that the role of Secretary of State is now a ‘woman’s job’ before trying to destroy the entire dichotomy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power:

The truth is there’s nothing “soft” about diplomacy, wherein you try to get the other fellow to do what you want. Madeleine Albright had the courage to go to Pakistan and denounce the Pakistani-allied Taliban in 1998 for “their despicable treatment of women and children and their general lack of respect for human dignity.” Try telling Richard “Bulldozer” Holbrooke that there’s something soft about forcing an end to ethnic cleansing a civil war. Was one of these activities more masculine or feminine than the other? It’s absurd to think in these terms.

He’s absolutely right, of course. Diplomacy can be as arduous as it is tedious. It requires coalition-forming, cajoling, debating & late-night deal-breaking. Even more taxing than that, diplomats need the belief that their approach is the correct one, even when it isn’t paying immediate dividends. Now, some people undoubtedly use the phrase ‘soft power’ perjoratively, but I think another reason for its use is that it often stands as shorthand for a package of actions, symbols or even cultural artefacts which are often beyond the realm of the diplomats, sometimes even beyond the realm of government.

‘Soft power’, in its broadest usage, refers to America’s projection of itself to the rest of the world. Under this definition, long and gruelling negotiations in the Middle East are important, but so is the public conduct of a President. So is a firm declaration that the United States will never use torture. So is the well-being of its democratic institutions, the health of its citizenry, the treatment of its poor and sick and incarcerated. And so is the art and culture it reproduces in far-away countries. It’s one hell of a burden for one country to carry, but it demonstrates how, in terms of how this ‘soft power’ is exercised, Barack Obama is already the President.

Nonetheless, I think Ackerman’s right when he says that we should retire this kind of language; it’s unhelpful, inspecific and after eight years of unbridled Presidential machismo, the dichotomy between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ has been manipulated by the militaristic right to mean ‘strong’ and ‘weak’. Perhaps if we are to live in an era of change, it would be a good first step to replace these lazy terms with something a little more accurate.


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