Soft Power and Strategy

As the last few posts have argued, the dominant form of power in the world is coercive force deployed either through a Clausewitzian strategy of attacking a central focal point of an adversary or the approach of Sun Tzu, which argues such power can be deployed a number of different ways that do not require direct combat (and that a skillful warrior will avoid such confrontations and achieve victory with little or no combat). Sun Tzu also places a premium on information which was an essential ingredient in the successful practice of the art of war. Indeed, this focus on gathering information through spies is the closing thought in Sun Tzu’s key work, suggesting the ancient Chinese strategist wanted this bit of insight to resonate with those who received his wisdom on watr. Sun Tzu’s focus on information allows one to make a transition away from thinking about power in the traditional sense of coercive force and toward an alternative vision of power that has always been the subject of great interest, but usually only in a subordinate position to violence. Yet is this traditional view incorrect? Moreover, even if this view is not correct, does the existence of nuclear weapons and norms against excessive loss of life create an environment in international politics where the notion of violence and coercion as the pre-eminent form of power no longer applies? If this is the case, what are the alternative forms of power?

The term “soft power” has become a popular way of talking about exercising influence without necessarily resorting to coercive force. The idea has been the scholarly focus of former State Department operative Joseph Nye, who coined the term in the aftermath of the Cold War and brought it back into prominence after the attacks of September 11th when the general feeling was the United States needed to do a better job “presenting” itself to certain parts of the world it had neglected or alienated in the past. Nye described soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”[1] The presence of soft power, Nye goes on to argue, changes the nature of global politics and how states compete with one another: “Politics becomes in part a competition of attractiveness, legitimacy and credibility. The ability to share information—and to be believed—becomes an important source of attraction and power.”[2]

This leads to two key questions: What are different types of soft power and what are the strategies available for deploying them? Nye breaks down the different forms of soft power in the following ways: culture, political values and foreign policies. The temptation, Nye cautions, is to see soft power exclusively in the cultural context and overlook how the other two elements also play an important impact.[3] But in the context of the discussions of the previous posts, the type of power of most interest here is kinetic in nature—that is, can be deployed and directed at a target with the result that the actor targeted will change its behavior. Policies and values change behaviors, of course, but usually in a very passive way. They are introduced into a community and, if not rejected out of hand immediately, take a long time to embed and internalize themselves before any obvious shift in behavior is detected. If the time needed for these processes to take effect is too long, then the temptation here is to abandon the means of soft power and rely on the traditional capability of military force and coercion—a form of power that, whatever its drawbacks—is quick, efficient and immediate when successfully applied. Which leads to wondering whether it is possible to deploy some element of soft power in a similar way as military power using the Clausewitzian strategy of attacking the “center of gravity” in order to get an adversary to submit to one’s will? Traditional military strategists would likely give a negative answer, but there are a few prominent voices that would argue otherwise.

One of them was George Creel. As I wrote in my book, The American Empire and the Arsenal of Entertainment, George Creel was one of the most important figures in understanding the place of information and media in the larger context of global politics. He was a newspaper reporter from the Midwest when President Woodrow Wilson named him the head of the Committee on Public Information. With much of the American public skeptical about the decision to commit troops to the bloody conflict raging in Europe, Wilson deemed it important to persuade the American masses that the cause of the war was just and victory required the unquestioned support of the entire population. Creel approached the task of disseminating information to the masses the same way a general thinks about deploying force on a battlefield, and just as a military professional uses all the combat weapons available to triumph over the enemy, the information professional had to use all the media tools available to reach as many members of the population as possible. The following quote captures well how Creel saw information dissemination as another “front” within the larger war:

    There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ. The printed word, the spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the cable, the wireless, the poster, the sign-board—all these were used in our campaign to make our own people and all other peoples understand the causes that compelled America to take up arms.[4]

What Creel is arguing here is that by harnessing the various media platforms available, coordinating the messaging, and directing that message to a targeted audience, you could deploy information in a similar fashion as bullets or explosive ordinance in order to get an adversary to change its behavior. Indeed in some cases, the ammunition in those guns was actual “paper bullets” of information:

Mortar-guns, loaded with “paper bullets,” and airplanes, carrying pamphlet matter, bombarded the German front, and at the time of the armistice balloons with a cruising radius of five hundred miles were ready to launch far into the Central Powers with America’s message.[5]

Equally important for Creel was also the fact that this information not be slanted or contrived or in any altered in order to meet some kind of ideological requirement. Going back to Nye’s point about soft power consisting of the ability to share information and to be believed while sharing this information, Creel insists that this Clausewitzian style attack of “paper bullets” be truthful in nature:

What was needed, and what we installed, was official machinery for the preparation and release of all news bearing upon America’s war effort—not opinion nor conjecture, but facts—a running record of each day’s progress in order that the fathers and mothers of the United States might gain a certain sense of partnership…Our job, therefore, was to present the facts without the slightest trace of color or bias, either in the selection of news or the manner in which it was presented. Thus, in practice, the Division of News set forth in exactly the same colorless style the remarkable success of the Browning guns, on the one hand, and on the other the existence of bad health conditions in three or four of the cantonments.[6]

The “paper bullets” had to be truthful if they were to be effective, according to Creel. This did not mean all facts had to be published and that dramatic and extreme editorial judgment was not exercised, but generally speaking, if it was to be published by the Committee on Public Information, it had to be true.

One can conclude here that Creel’s ethic (just touched upon in the preceding paragraphs) represents an “approach” to the Clausewitzian strategy in the use of soft or “non-coercive” power. Using every form of media available, one can direct vast amounts of truthful information at a target in order to persuade a shift or change in behavior. This approach may still not be as effective as direct violent military attack, but it also might be more effective to waiting for the other, slower elements of soft power to which Nye refers to take effect.

It is interesting to note that many prominent officials in the US government were upset with Creel and his Committee on Public Information after the end of World War I. Despite Creel’s insistence on only publishing truth, many critics still contended that the agency was a propaganda outfit designed to deceived and manipulate the American public. The irony here is that a few years later, that actual approach to soft power strategy—using information is a deliberatively deceptive way—was put to good effect by the rise of totalitarianism.

The idea that one can “tell a lie often enough and it will become the truth” has more or less been demonstrated to be empirically true.[7] Whereas with Creel, information directed at the mental “center of gravity” had to be true to be effective, the approach described here (which might be labeled the “Goebbels Approach” after master Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels) insists that the only necessary component for success is quantity of information. Though this is a bit of a distortion of Goebbels full idea, which also emphasized the important role of the state in lending legitimacy to the lie, it nevertheless gives information an added transformative weight. This is because propagating lies allows for stories, imagery and programming guarantees a reaction that is viscerally moving and stimulating to the collective conscious of a mass audience. With effective market research and propagandists who know their audience, raw emotional buttons will always be pushed and yield the desired reaction. Indeed, this more pragmatic view of informational power was the only acceptable measure of effectiveness. Goebbels claimed…“that propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result. It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.”[8]

The language here echoes very much how military thinkers might talk about the use of certain violent weapons platforms. One may find the use of nuclear weapons objectionable, but one cannot argue with their effectiveness, especially as means of deterrence (which may explain why countries like Iran are so interested in developing them). So it is with informational “weapons” that traffic in untruth—the lack of accuracy and authenticity in their messages may be upsetting and bothersome to many fair-minded people, but it would be foolish to believe that states that might lack certain capabilities in the realm of coercive power would eschew an alternative form of power deployed in a certain way on ethical or moral grounds. This may very well be the reason why a state like Russia was (is) so keen on developing social media bots on Twitter and Facebook to interfere in elections in western countries. These capabilities and strategies for deployment offer an enticing way to make up for the shortcomings Russia has faced since the end of its superpower status. And it would be naïve to think other nations aren’t also researching and developing these kinds of capabilities.

To summarize: information transmitted and disseminated through media technologies offers a means to “fire” soft power “ordnance” at target audiences in order to induce a behavioral change that would be too costly in terms of human suffering if done through threats and coercive power and too slow if done through cultural channels. The Creel Approach to using informational power envisions a multi-platform “attack” at the mental, intellectual and imaginational “center of gravity” of a particular community or society. The Creel Approach also insists that these informational munitions be truthful and accurate so as to preserve the credibility of the entity (state or otherwise) making these “attacks.” Conversely, the Goebbels Approach, while also envisioning a multi-platform attack, insists that lies and falsehoods can and should comprise the content of the informational assaults. Whatever loss of credibility occurs with these types of messages is made up for with the greater likelihood of successful mental shifts in the target population.

This leaves one last element to explore in the exploration of power and strategy in the media age—that element that combines non-coercive informational power with the Sun Tzu approach to deploying power. This is the element of the spectacular, and will the focus of the next post.

     [1] Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), x.

     [2] Ibid., 31.

     [3] Ibid., 11-15.

     [4] George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.

     [5] Ibid., 11.

     [6] Ibid., 72-73.

     [7] See and

[8] Goebbels quoted in Richard W. Rolfs, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (New York: University Press of America, 1996), 274.

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