I first learned about the concept of soft power two years ago or so. The term was coined by Harvard Kennedy School professor Joseph Nye in his 2004 book Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics. It is all about influencing behavior based on the legitimacy of your objectives without commanding it with threats or payment. It relies on the ability to shape the preference of others through co-option, rather than coercion.
Soft power is particularly critical in our times, due to the nature of the conflicts in which we increasingly find ourselves, in particular, the global war on terrorism. These conflicts are sometimes called the The Long War, especially within the US Military, as a way to describe our present global struggles against a variety of enemies spread around the world, which will likely last for decades. These enemies are organized into small groups, distributed and very local - that is, living among civilian populations - but they coordinate, recruit and fund their actions around the world in a whole new set of ways.
Such conflicts have much more of the feel of a battle of civilizations or cultures. The main objectives of the amorphous enemies in the Long War seems to be to destroy our very way of life and impose their own. Thus, winning the Long War is perhaps as much about winning the hearts and minds of people and nations as it is about defeating, or at least containing, an enemy that is amorphous and often hard to find.
In 2006, the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington convened a bipartisan, high-level Commission on Smart Power chaired by Professor Nye and Richard Armitage, to "develop a blueprint for revitalizing American's inspirational leadership."
“America must revitalize its ability to inspire and persuade rather than merely rely upon its military might. Despite the predominance of U.S. hard power, there are limits to its effectiveness in addressing the main foreign policy challenges facing America today. Many of the traditional instruments of soft power, such as public engagement and diplomacy, have been neglected and fallen into disrepair.”
The Commission’s report, released in November of 2007, concluded that:
“The United States must become a smarter power by once again investing in the global good - providing things people and governments in all quarters of the world want but cannot attain in the absence of American leadership. By complementing U.S. military and economic might with greater investments in soft power, America can build the framework it needs to tackle tough global challenges.”
A few weeks ago the New York Times Magazine devoted its whole issue to the theme of Saving the World’s Women. In its remarkable lead article, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn noted: “In the 19th century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.”
Some might think that this is just another liberal manifesto aimed at righting the injustices perpetrated against girls and women around the world. And, that, it indeed is. But it is also a soft power manifesto on national security, offering perhaps the most innovative and effective approach to fighting the war on terrorism by fighting against the oppression of women around the globe, but especially in poorer countries and emerging economies.
“Yet if the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. “Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos. There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”
In a very moving article, Afghan School Girls vs Jihadists, Dexter Filkins describes the Taliban’s vicious battle against educating girls. He tells the story of a Taliban attack on girls on their way to the Mirwais school in Kandahar by throwing acid in their face. One girl in particular, Shamsia, was severely burned and nearly blinded in the attack.
Let me remind you that the Taliban used to rule Afghanistan, and we removed them from power in the aftermath of 9/11 for harboring Al-Qaeda and collaborating with them in masterminding the World Trace center attacks. These allegedly fierce, macho fighters seem very threatened by girls learning to read and write and thus becoming more independent and economically self-sufficient as they grow older. Their attack against the girls walking to the Mirwais school was not an isolated incident, writes Filkins:
“By early summer , at least 478 Afghan schools had been destroyed, damaged or threatened out of existence, the overwhelming majority of them for girls, according to the Afghan Education Ministry. The means employed to terrorize girls were inventive. In May, 61 teachers and pupils in Parwan Province, most of them girls, seemed to have been poisoned by a cloud of gas let loose into a school courtyard. It was the third suspected gas attack on a school this year. In Kandahar, Nasaji Nakhi High School and Miyan Abdul Hakim High School were set afire.”
While the conflict in Afghanistan is not going well by almost any classic measure, perhaps there is a ray of hope. If you look at Afghanistan from the point of fighting the Long War with soft power, perhaps you can find some flickers of optimism, as Filkins says:
“Eight year after the Americans came to Afghanistan, it is hard to find reasons to be optimistic about the future. In November 2001, when the Taliban clerics fled Kabul, the country lay in ruins. Today, it still does. Outside Kabul, there is hardly any government to speak of. There are governors, there are some police authorities and there is very little else. The roads are mostly broken and unpaved. Warlords hold much of the country in their hands. The goodwill that flowed so freely eight years ago has mostly disappeared, drained away by the failure to rebuild the country, to crush the Taliban and to do so without slaughtering innocents. It is easy to give in to despair.”
“And yet if there is one unambiguously positive change that the American-led enterprise has brought it is the education of girls. In 2001, only a million Afghan children were enrolled in school, all of them boys. The education of girls was banned. Today, approximately 7 million Afghan children attend school, of which 2.6 million, or roughly a third, are girls.”
“Q: There are counterterrorism experts who have made the observation that countries that nurture terrorist groups tend to be the same societies that marginalize women. Do you see a link between your campaign on women’s issues and our national security?”
“Clinton: I think it’s an absolute link. Part of the reason I have pursued it as secretary of state is because I see it in our national security interest. If you look at where we are fighting terrorism, there is a connection to groups that are making a stand against modernity, and that is most evident in their treatment of women.”
“What does preventing little girls from going to school in Afghanistan by throwing acid on them have to do with waging a struggle against oppression externally? It’s a projection of the insecurity and the disorientation that a lot of these terrorists and their sympathizers feel about a fast-changing world, where they turn on television sets and see programs with women behaving in ways they can’t even imagine. The idea that young women in their own societies would pursue an independent future is deeply threatening to their cultural values.”
Secretary Clinton got to the heart of the matter in her answer to this question:
“Q: In your confirmation hearing, you said you would put women’s issues at the core of American foreign policy. But as you know, in much of the world, gender equality is not accepted as a universal human right. How do you overcome that deep-seated cultural resistance?”
“Clinton: You have to recognize how deep-seated it is, but also reach an understanding of how without providing more rights and responsibilities for women, many of the goals we claim to pursue in our foreign policy are either unachievable or much harder to achieve.”
“Democracy means nothing if half the people can’t vote, or if their vote doesn’t count, or if their literacy rate is so low that the exercise of their vote is in question. Which is why when I travel, I do events with women, I talk about women’s rights, I meet with women activists, I raise women’s concerns with the leaders I’m talking to.”
“I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress — that we have made progress on many other aspects of human nature that used to be discriminatory bars to people’s full participation. But in too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people’s full human potential.”
To succeed in the long fight against global terrorism, it is critical that our moral authority and our national interests strongly overlap. This is the very essence of soft power. It is also very smart politics. The case presented in Saving the World’s Women is as compelling an example of such an overlap as I have seen. Kristof and WuDunn write:
“Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country’s population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren’t fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys’ locker room. That’s in part why the Joint Chiefs of Staff and international security specialists are puzzling over how to increase girls’ education in countries like Afghanistan - and why generals have gotten briefings from Greg Mortenson, who wrote about building girls’ schools in his best seller, “Three Cups of Tea. Indeed, some scholars say they believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.”
Later in their article, they have some advice for our President:
“And so, if President Obama wanted to adopt a foreign-aid policy that built on insights into the role of women in development, he would do well to start with education. We would suggest a $10 billion effort over five years to educate girls around the world. This initiative would focus on Africa but would also support - and prod - Asian countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan to do better. This plan would also double as population policy, for it would significantly reduce birthrates - and thus help poor countries overcome the demographic obstacles to economic growth.”
Finally, they point out that such an investment in soft, smart, and let me add, pink power is arguably much more effective than our traditional investments in foreign aid:
“For all the legitimate concerns about how well humanitarian aid is spent, investments in education, iodizing salt and maternal health [all described in their article] have a proven record of success. And the sums are modest: all three components of our plan together amount to about what the U.S. has provided Pakistan since 9/11 - a sum that accomplished virtually nothing worthwhile either for Pakistanis or for Americans.”