2017 – the year ‘soft power’ went missing?

trump-unAs we look back on world developments in 2017, I wonder whether this will come to be seen as the year that ‘soft power’ went missing.  On one side of the Atlantic, we have the British Government’s attempts to negotiate Brexit by threatening from the start to walk out of the talks because ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. On the other side of the Atlantic, we see President Trump overtly threatening nations who fail to support that US’s policy on recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  These are ‘hard power’ moves – the power that comes from force, threat and coercion.  Whatever happened to ‘soft power’?

The concept of soft power was developed by Harvard academic Joseph Nye as the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion.  Rather than falling back on tough-guy stances and strong-arm tactics, proponents of soft power point to the influence that can be gained from an outstretched hand of welcome, the desirability of co-operation rather than the pain of dispute.  Soft power is based, in the end, on the attractiveness of positive consequences and outcomes.  Hard power, on the other hand, is rooted in the pain of negative consequences.

Countries like the UK and USA have been able to develop huge soft power over the years, in no small part down to cultural exports like music, TV and (for the USA in particular) films.  For decades, other countries have taken on western thinking and customs almost by osmosis, by watching, listening and engaging.  These countries have also had long-term diplomatic and voluntary programmes such as the Peace Corps and the British Council, who in various ways have built connections based on common interests and the furthering of humanitarian and social progress.

Of course, hard power tactics are always hovering in the background and can’t be completely set aside in international relations.  The question is about the relative positions that hard and soft power can take on in building progress. In our book Host, Helen Bailey and I talk about ‘smart power’, which is using both hard and sort power in appropriate combinations.  As proponents of host leadership, we advocate starting with soft power and using it as far as it can go.  Good hosts – and good leaders – tend to leave the hard power options hanging in the background, perhaps as a gentle reminder of possible alternative ways and as a last resort when other routes have failed.

So what’s going on today?  We see the UK and USA, so often leaders in soft power diplomacy, resorting to overt and public hard power bargaining.  I suspect that in both cases the administrations have been co-opted by groups who have been fuming on the sidelines for decades, without experience of actually getting things done.  In the UK, the Brexiters look back to an imagined past where Britannia ruled the waves and the world marched to the Empire’s drum.  (This Empire was, of course, primarily a hard power construction.) The role of ‘experts’, at least in international relations, trade, economics and business, has been explicitly rejected by those who now find themselves Cabinet ministers.

In the USA Donald Trump, a businessman of dubious record and practices, seeks to play the zero-sum game that he and his supporter base understands (predicated on winning and losing) rather than the longer-term more ambiguous soft power of partnership building and mutual gain – where both sides can ‘win’ by enhancing their positions together.  Trump’s rejection of science, knowledge and expertise is surely unparalleled in modern times – who else would appoint to the role of Education Secretary a billionaire with no previous experience, or an EPA (environment) head wilfully ignorant of the scientific consensus about global warming and air quality?  On both sides of the pond, there seems to be no way to sustain a rational basis for debate and discussion – and so the emphasis immediately shifts to clumsy execution of threats and hard power tactics.

What will happen in 2018?  It seems to me that the role of soft power, and host leadership overall, has never had a more important part to play, in both trying to ensure that the worst results of failed hard power tactics are avoided and in bringing relations back onto a more productive level.  The trouble with making chest-beating threats is that one quickly finds oneself in a position where one must carry through (and damage everyone in the process) or back down (and find oneself in a much weaker position long-term).  Perhaps given the noise made by these administrations, we might hope to see soft power being used behind the scenes to attempt to find creative ways out of the knots inflicted on us by one-eyed simplistic leaders.

In the longer term, whatever happens, our societies will surely need to be reforged into some kind of greater unity and connection. This simply can’t happen using hard power leadership – Governments can impose their will for a while, but the democratic pendulum will eventually swing back and new visions will ensue.  The question is how long this will take, how much damage will be inflicted in the mean time, and who has the vision, skill and courage to do it.  Because – and get this – soft power is actually more difficult, more subtle, more effortful – than hard power. But the results are immeasurable more, the potential hugely greater.  Let’s make 2018 the year where soft power reveals itself in new ways and gains new traction in this always difficult emerging world.

By the way… we will have some exciting news about Host Leadership in January!  Keep 29 May 2018 free to come and join our next international Gathering.

Mark McKergow PhD MBA is a consultant and author bringing new ideas into the world of organisations.  He is the co-author of the best-selling The Solutions Focus which has sold some 30,000 copies and is in 11 languages.  His latest book (with Helen Bailey) is Host: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements (Solutions Books, London, 2014).  Mark has worked on every continent except Antarctica, and is known around the world for his winning combination of scientific rigour (as a ‘recovering physicist’) and performance pizazz.  His work presents ways of acting which fit, rather than fight, the complex emerging world in which we find ourselves.

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