Alternative Editorial: The Age of Soft Power

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Three stories are competing for our attention this week. Two are twists on long running sagas. Firstly Brexit, with Nigel Farage setting off on a 200-mile March to Leave from Sunderland to London on 16th March. It was a modest beginning with 100 Leavers, but almost as many reporters to capture those first steps – as Farage will not be walking the whole way.

The second is the growing story of Greta Thunberg – who we’ve covered consistently since December 2018 – whose school strike against the climate has spread to 700 places in 71 countries. Greta, who until recently was ‘the invisible girl’ in her class, obliged to begin her climate protest on her own, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the third is the agonising news of 49 people murdered and 48 wounded while at prayer in two separate Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s not the first massacre planned and executed by white supremacists yet, it seems to signify a growing possibility on the world stage. Not least because the atrocity was broadcast live on Facebook, prompting headlines such as The Daily Telegraphs’ “The First Social Media Terror Attack”.

Soft power is not weak power

What all three have in common is soft power: enough attraction as ‘stories’ to make their relatively small actions go viral and end up shaping the actions of others across the globe. First named as a concept by Joseph Nye in 1990, soft power was described as “the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce”.

At the time it appeared as a consolation for America’s loss of hard power - economic and military might - after defeat in Vietnam. US values, as captured in Hollywood and other representations of the ‘American Dream’, were seen as guarantors of US global dominance.

But at the same time, Nye drew attention to the growing army of non-state actors empowered by the internet. He pointed out how, previously, a propaganda campaign delivering hundreds of thousands of leaflets being dropped by airplane on terrorist strongholds, would cost millions of dollars. The same effect could now be achieved by a fourteen-year old on a smart-phone, for almost nothing.

My e-book Soft Power Agenda pulls together my writings on this phenomenon, including a series of Guardian columns, two speeches to NATO and a submission to the House of Lords Special Committee on Soft Power called Beyond Security in 2013.

At that time I recommended soft power should not be the remit of the national security department of any country, but should have a ministry of its own. In that way more attention could be paid to the personal, social and global effects of social media, alongside traditional forms such as mainstream news media. Such a department could also offer a focus on tools and practices for resisting destructive - and building constructive - narratives.

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Instead, more money was poured into trying to control soft power as if it was hard power – that is, as measurable and transactional. So on the one hand, more funding would be given to increasing British reputation abroad through the Great Britain campaign. On the other hand, there would be calls to shut down Facebook and Twitter accounts, and fine and threaten those – companies and individuals - who step out of line. But rather like gossips and hatemongers, info-corporations and fanatics are difficult to shame into new behaviours. They just pop up somewhere else, finding new forms of influence.

Soft power is, in itself, neither good or bad – like charisma or influence in general. Yet unless there is concrete action behind the soft power, it cannot deliver instant effects on its own merit. A nation’s soft power does not rise and fall that much year to year: reputation is a slow burn. But skilled manipulators, with hard power, can link one with the other. Trump’s construction of the Make America Great Again story, is propped up on a daily basis, becoming the rationale for his landmark decisions and massive spending.

What stories generate what actions?

Each of the examples at the top of this editorial have different kinds of effects. UKIP’s extraordinary triumph with Brexit, despite having only one MP at Westminster, was evidence that party majorities can be made irrelevant by emotional hijacking and story-telling. Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director of Vote Leave, makes forensic claims that proper research (meaning in this case, trespassing on people’s social media accounts to analyse their needs),  followed by incessant, sometime false promises to get those needs met, can win over any audience.

Yet there has been an inability to keep the story growing (due in part to all the key manipulators, Farage, Dominic Cummings and Cambridge Analytica leaving the scene). That means Brexit has been almost impossible to deliver.

Children in Westminster for the school strike

Children in Westminster for the school strike

And despite the incredibly uplifting effect of Greta’s action and the passion of the hundreds of thousands school-children on school strike, the fizzling-out of Brexit will not be enough on its own to save the planet. As Greta herself says, consistently, “I don’t want hope, I want action”. Michael Gove’s and other politicians’ attempts to align themselves with what we call RegenA for their own political advantage, without doing anything new, will only serve to prove her point that politicians “say they understand, but do nothing”.

Greta’s clarity on this point is the very reason that we, in A/UK, are collaborating every day to bring together people and organisations capable of taking concrete action, in order to answer her and her generation’s demands. We want to realise the potential of her soft power from the grassroots up. Without citizen action networks - that bring whole communities of citizens into contact with the on-the-ground personal, social and planetary solutions available of all kinds - nothing changes in the time we have to do so.

As we stand today, it is hard to know what the effects of the white supremacist actions in Christchurch, so effectively broadcast across the world on Facebook, will lead to. The fear is that it will lead to copy-cat actions by others, with easy access to arms, around the world. In that sense, the potential for rapid acceleration is similar to - no doubt because it’s an imitation of - its enemy, ISIS. However, other responses are also possible.

After Anders Brevik murdered 69 young activists in Norway in 2011, the government response was to ask for calm amongst the population. They urged their citizenry to try to accept that this was a terrible crime by an individual, rather than any associated group. As a result, there was no fanning the flames in the Norwegian media and no reprisals amongst the people.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern has also quickly stepped in to calm the waters, focusing the public’s energy on action she can initiate – immediate financial support for the families, many of whom lost their breadwinners, and more importantly, gun control. To succeed in making it impossible for ordinary citizens to buy automated weapons of the kind used in Christchurch – and in so many other atrocities, especially on campuses in the US – would offer a model to the US public to call for.

Take back control - of our minds

It would be right to say soft power is nothing new: we’ve always been prey to propaganda, influence, emotional manipulation. Consumerism depends entirely on our vulnerability to advertisers, selling their products as answers to our emotional needs. How can we inoculate ourselves against the power of these stories? The obvious answer is to regain our ability to think for ourselves as forces all around us try to harness our emotions for their agendas – both for good and evil.

But for that we would need to do something long overdue: take back control of our minds. Ritually step away from the networked devices that continuously stream the opinions of others. Find practices, places and lifestyles that allow us enough time and space to be with our own thinking - whether that be gardening, or mindfulness, or singing - pick your own restorative practice.

We must understand better our own motivations and circumstances. Develop the ability to observe others’ agendas without reacting or capitulating. Build the structures to be able to deliberate, thoughtfully, with others.

Is that soft, Utopian talk? Maybe – but to get to an alternative reality for all of us, we need alternative actions at the heart of our political process. And creating the best circumstances within which we can start to take back control of our own lives, has to be the goal.