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Future Power is Soft Power

On Monday’s Newsnight and today at breakfast Professor Joseph S. Nye, former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, began a round of media and think-tank sessions to promote his latest book.

‘The Future of Power’ examines the prospect for change in the world order, that is, the rise of China, India, Russia and Brazil. At the Legatum Institute this morning he analysed what this meant for the United States in particular. This is power transition. He also examined the concept of power diffusion, which is likely to present policy makers even more intractable problems in the years ahead.

Conventional wisdom has the US declining and being overtaken by China. Professor Nye points out that rather than the US declining, China is catching it up in economic terms and so the gap is narrowing. That is a different state of affairs. Moreover, it is not the only aspect of power that counts. Using a chess analogy Nye says that the three components are military, economic and ‘soft’ power. With three-dimensional chess the assessment of the balance of power needs to be more sophisticated than either the imperialist approach (‘send a gunboat’) or the economic equivalent.

The economic argument is interesting in the light of President Obama’s decision, having initially tried to cosy up to China, to sell arms to Taiwan. Having thought that they had a soft President with whom to deal, some off the more aggressive Chinese officials suggested that they should punish the US by selling off US dollars from their rather large store. The Chinese central bank stood firm and said ‘if you cut them off at the knees, you cut us off at the ankles’. So power is relative.

Professor Nye then moved on to ‘soft’ power, to which he is undoubtedly deeply attracted, not least by having written another book about it. Power is not only manifested by brute strength either military or economic. Soft power can be seen in India’s ‘Bollywood’, its answer to Hollywood. The film industry is a vehicle for the projection of values and power and economic competence.
China doesn’t have a ‘Shollywood’ mainly because its society has censors and so creativity is shackled.

But China has recognised the power of national narrative and begun invest vast resources – some say more than $5 billion – to develop and transmit its story. It was stung by stories of repression at the Olympics. Of course, it does not help its case by arresting well-known architects at airports or as Hollywood would say ‘that’s not in the script’.

The communications industry has long made the case for the importance of narrative in any field – national, corporate, charitable, you name it. The ability to tell your story and gain a sympathetic, but not unquestioning, hearing is hugely important in the battle for airtime and understanding. That translates into every other aspect of power.

If that is one aspect of soft power, another is the diffusion of power through soft communications techniques. For example, the Stuxnet virus may have thrown Iran’s nuclear programme off course for years. That will cause no regret but what happens if the same virus attacks our nuclear power stations?
Who might unleash it? Could we find them? What might they want? Could we negotiate with them? Should we.

Professor Nye is too wily an old fox to give precise prescriptions. He questions assumptions and makes us pause over possible scenarios for the future. He is an optimist. His emphasis on the power of narrative is a lesson to all aspiring communicators and certainly central to work considerations here at Haslamedia.

The one aspect of world power not dealt with at any length today was that of Europe or ‘Old Europe’ as Donald Rumsfeld called it. You will be pleased to hear the he regards Europe as under priced in the global power stakes, but I think he was being kind to his European questioner. On a positive note he did not say ‘The end is nigh’.

‘The Future of Power’ Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr, Grantham Book Services, 978-1586488918 £16.99

5 Responses to Future Power is Soft Power

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