Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Hard Edge to Soft Power

It’s increasingly clear that Chinese are interested in developing their soft power, as well as their military and economic power. Is this something that Americans should be concerned about? Is the development of another country’s soft power entirely benign, or can it legitimately be of concern to others?

Some forms of soft power are non-threatening. These include the attractiveness of a country’s culture, the beauty of its landscape, the appeal of its educational system, even the skill of its diplomatic corps. To be sure, there may be a degree of competitiveness here, in the sense that all these forms of soft power may enable a country to develop more vital hubs of cultural, tourist, intellectual, and diplomatic activity than other countries enjoy. But the overall effect is positive: everyone benefits from the emergence of these new centers of soft power.

But two other types of soft power may be somewhat less benign. They are the use of soft power to explicitly legitimize the development of one’s own harder forms of power; and then the use of soft power to delegitimize another country’s power, whether hard or soft. Both of these, especially the second, may make the acquisition of soft power a much more competitive undertaking. And while China is clearly trying – with some degree of success – to develop the benign forms of soft power, it is also attempting to create these two other forms of soft power as well.

Legitimizing Chinese power

One key purpose of soft power is to legitimize the development and deployment of harder forms of power, both military and economic. Since hard power can appear threatening, soft power can be used to reassure others about the intentions that harder power will ultimately serve.

Chinese became interested in this issue when they grappled with what initially appeared to them to be a puzzle. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when the United States became the world’s sole superpower, why did not the rest of the world come together to counterbalance it? Chinese analysts considered two possible explanations for this. One was that the world was truly unipolar – that the US was so powerful that the only possible response was to bandwagon, not counterbalance. But the other, seemingly more plausible to Chinese analysts who see an irreversible trend toward multipolarity, was that the US was not seen as sufficiently threatening to warrant counterbalancing. And they concluded that the main reason why American predominance was not widely regarded as threatening was that America’s hard power was legitimized by its soft power.

This conclusion became even more relevant to Beijing when the rise of Chinese economic and military power toward the end of the 1990s began to produce concerns about China’s own intentions, and to give rise to the so-called “China Threat” theory. To counter that theory, Chinese analysts realized, Beijing would have to find ways of doing what the U.S. had done so well: to use soft power to legitimize its acquisition of hard power.

Beijing could have tried to do this by putting forward an idiosyncratic set of goals and values to justify the rise of Chinese power. For example, it could have reasserted some of the ideological values rooted in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Or it could have presented a set of cultural values drawn from Chinese civilization. And, indeed, Beijing has used both these approaches, but to a remarkably limited degree. It continues to talk about a “new international economic order,” much as it did in the 1970s; and it has started to talk about creating a “harmonious world,” using a term that has much deeper resonance in Chinese traditional rhetoric than in contemporary international parlance.

But China’s main strategy has been to invoke universal international values – not specifically Marxist-Leninist or Chinese values -- to justify its rise. In so doing, China has been exercising soft power in an unusual way. It has not taken the approach described so well by Joseph Nye: persuading others to be like China. Instead, it has taken just the opposite tack: trying to persuade others that China wants to be just like them. In other words, China has been reassuring the rest of the world it has accepted international norms and values, and therefore its rise will not be a threat to the international community that upholds those values.

But of course, in invoking those international norms, China has done so selectively, stressing those with which it felt most comfortable and, as we will see in the next section, sometimes using them to subtly delegitimize the exercise of power by the United States. This list of selected universal norms and values is a long one, but they can be summarized by grouping them into five broader categories: goals, values, transactional norms, institutional norms, and policy norms.

  • Goals: Chinese leaders speak of a variety of goals that they say China shares with other nations. Two frequently used formulations are “peace, prosperity, and partnership” for the international system as a whole, and “stability, development, and human rights” for the individual countries within it. These two formulations build on the earlier statement, associated with Deng Xiaoping, that the world is in an era of “peace and development” – a statement that, in turn, was a tacit repudiation of the Maoist formula of a world characterized by “war and revolution.”
    The Maoist formula was a good example of the presentation of an idiosyncratic set of goals that, in the end, appealed to only a relatively small number of people and to even fewer governments. By emphasizing the more universally held values of “peace and development,” in contrast, Deng's formula has been more reassuring form of soft power. The subsequent addition of values such as “prosperity,” “stability,” and “human rights” only enhances its appeal.
  • Values: Here, China has also invoked universal values, but more selectively. It has championed the Westphalian values of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, together with the more recent value of cultural diversity. These lead China to oppose intervention by stronger powers in the internal affairs of the weak, oppose unwanted regulation of sovereign states by international institutions, and defend each government’s right to define its own path of development free of foreign pressure. To be sure, Beijing China no longer absolutizes these values, and is even willing to support economic sanctions and humanitarian intervention in certain circumstances. But in general China holds to what I call the “conservative” (or “modern”) values in international affairs, whereas the U.S. upholds what might be called more “liberal” (or “post-modern”) values – values that permit intervention and sanctions in the name of the protection human security and the promotion of human rights.
  • Transactional norms: By transactional norms, I mean the norms that govern the interactions among states. Here, China has made a somewhat more original contribution – indeed, a contribution that some say will form the basis of a new Chinese theory of international relations – by saying that it stands for “partnerships” that are characterized by norms such as mutual understanding, trust, consensus, and cooperation. These are universal values, to be sure, but they have previously been applied more to domestic social relations than to the international relations among states. China also continues to uphold the related elements of the “five principles of peaceful coexistence,” including equality and mutual benefit.
  • Institutional norms: Similarly, in its discussion of international organizations, Beijing favors those that follow the norm of universal (rather than selective) membership and that operate on the basis of consensus (rather than majority rule or minority dominance). In so doing, it claims two be upholding the principle of democratic governance of international affairs, and opposing any country’s claims to hegemony or dominance.
  • Policy norms: China also has codified a set of norms that underlie specific foreign policies and development programs: For example, China says its foreign policy is organized around “defensive defense,” ”cooperative security,” “win-win” economic relationships, and unconditional foreign aid. And Beijing’s development policy advocates experimentalism, gradualism, and varied solutions to fit the particular circumstances of each developing country, all undertaken by a strong, authoritarian, pro-development state.

Delegitimizing American power

At the same time that Beijing is trying to use soft power to legitimize its growing role in the world, there are also some signs that it is simultaneously attempting, at least to a degree, to delegitimize American power and policy. It is doing so by suggesting the ways in which its selection of universal goals, values, and norms stand in contrast to America’s, and the ways in which American foreign and development policies violate the norms and values that China espouses.

Let’s proceed through the same five categories outlined above, to see how Beijing uses them to criticize the United States, and thereby attempts to delegitimize the American role in the world:

  • Goals: Here, the differences between China and the U.S. are centered more on the goals that Beijing asserts for individual countries than on its goals for the international system. On the latter, China does not imply that the U.S. does not join China in favoring international peace and prosperity as ultimate objectives. But on the former, China asserts far more differences with the U.S. By setting out China’s three goals – stability, development, and human rights -- Chinese analysts say that the U.S. is focused only on one (human rights), and even there is focused primarily on political and civil rights, rather than on the economic and social rights that have equal standing under international law. Beijing does not accept the charge that China is not as committed to human rights as is the U.S. Instead, it says that the U.S. ignores the developing world’s equal interest in stability and development, especially for poorer states, and is willing to sacrifice them in a quixotic attempt to promote democracy and pluralism in countries that are not yet “ready” to achieve them.
  • Values: Here, the differences are far starker, although not absolute. As noted above, China can be seen as upholding “conservative” values in international affairs, which Beijing then contrasts with the “liberal” values (and I stress this is my term, not Beijing’s) promoted by the United States: the right of the U.S., either unilaterally, in concert with its allies, or with the backing of international organizations, to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs to impose Western policies, institutions, and values. Increasingly, too, Beijing accuses the U.S. of a cultural bias – of a “West-centric discourse” that denies the acceptability of anything other than Western policies, institutions, or values in evaluating the domestic and foreign policies of other countries.
  • Transactional norms: As noted above, China advocates transactional norms that embody the ideal of cooperative relationships among trusting partners. Beijing accuses the United States of frequently violating those norms. It claims that America’s relationship with China, like its relationships with other countries it regards as potential threats, is characterized by mistrust and misunderstanding. China also says that the U.S. deals with other countries through sanctions and pressure, rather than in a cooperative and consensual sprit; and conducts its relations with other countries in a hierarchical or hegemonic way, rather than forming equal partnerships of the sort that Beijing claims to favor.
  • Institutional norms: China reserves some of its most pointed criticism of the United States for violating its favored institutional norms: universal membership organizations that operate on the basis of consensus. It has criticized US alliances, especially in Asia, and US proposals for the creation of a league of democracies, as “dividing the world” on the basis of “ideological thinking” and a “cold war mentality.” In other words, these are allegedly institutional reflections of a American mindset that demands allegiance to “Western values,” mistrusts and misunderstands countries that do not unequivocally accept those values, and creates hierarchical and exclusive relationships centered on the US rather than more equal and inclusive “partnerships.”
  • Policy norms: Finally, many of China’s policy norms can be seen as criticisms, direct or indirect, of American policies. For example, “defensive defense” is a criticism of the US policies of preemptive and preventive war. Similarly, China contrasts its “no-strings-attached” approach to ODA with the conditionality associated with the United States and the Washington-based international financial institutions, and contrasts the gradualistic and experimental strategy of development with the orthodox neo-liberal approach it attributes to the “Washington Consensus.”


My point here is not to suggest that China’s normative arguments are correct or unanswerable. Rather, it is to assert that China is using normative arguments to legitimate its rising military and economic power, so as to reduce the chances that China’s rise will be seen as a threat that requires other countries to counterbalance it. It is also to suggest that China is using those same normative arguments to delegitimize some aspects of American foreign and defense policy.

The main implication is that the U.S. will have develop effective counterarguments (or, in some cases, to modify its policies) if it is to maintain the international legitimacy that is such an important part of its overall national power. Many American analysts focus on the rise of the harder forms of Chinese power, or the more benign forms of soft power. They may not be paying adequate attention to the ways in which that soft power can possess a harder edge.

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