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Where is soft power?

About the author
Director of the French journal Le Banquet, senior civil servant. His last book: Quand la France disparąt du monde (When France Disappears from the World), Paris, Grasset, 2008, arises from a two year research project on the foreign strategy and international expertise for the French Government.

Soft power is one of the major tools for a nation engaged in the world affairs. The nation's power and influence are not only---or even principally--- based on military force and economic expansion. Soft power doesn’t rest only on public authorities, but also on business and academic circles. However, the specific mechanisms by which this influence is exercised are very often obscure and it is hard to assess what or where or how it is constituted. A research project for the French government covering 2 years, 40 institutions and which took me to 20 countries aimed to uncover these mechanisms and loci. IRRC 2008, Berlin – Nov 18, 2008.

One of the main difficulties for researching soft power is that the States themselves do not master, decide and control many aspects of it. The strategies are often local, decentralized, empirical and based on what is perceived as a self-evident duty by many non official actors: they try to enhance and to promote what they analyse as a national interest in their own field of activity, commercial, scientific or intellectual. As in a theoretical market, these actors do not share a common predefined purpose and often ignore what the others are doing. There is neither a big brother nor a global manager.


Nicolas Tenzer is director of the French journal Le Banquet, and a senior civil servant. His last book: Quand la France disparaît du monde (When France Disappears from the World), Paris, Grasset, 2008, came out of a two year research project on the foreign strategy and international expertise for the French Government.

Nonetheless, some nations are conscious of the reality of these new factors of power and influence. In some cases, companies and scholars can be confident on the State’s support, and in others not – this was one of the main criticisms I made of the French strategy when examining the question of soft power for a government research project. Some countries take into account the hidden economic, ideological and political interests in defining their strategies, while others are stuck, dramatically, if I may say, in a more classical mode of diplomacy.


What is at stake?

First of all, some countries are very aware of the importance of the calls for tender for experts and consultants that come from international organizations, from some States and local authorities in developing, middle-income and emerging countries, from some aid agencies (when such tenders are genuinely open to international procumerent) and even from major NGOs and charities.Tomorrow sovereign wealth funds will join the process.

The global value of the tenders for experts and consultants is currently estimated at 500 billions dollars for the five coming years. They obviously have a direct impact on economy, with a multiplying effect for forthcoming tenders on goods, works and services. Their consequences are also indirect since they directly impact the technical norms, the States’ policies and the international standards (best practices and guidelines). Some success stories are also likely to be implemented elsewhere and to receive endorsements from international organizations.

Second, the international organizations and some commissions or committees amongst them are among the real places where the strategies and the rules for the future are defined. Even if these bodies do not have the faculty to enforce them, it’s difficult for a single State to work against them. Some groups of experts within the WHO or UNAIDS define public health strategies. Technical committees work within the EC and the UNEP on environmental norms. The UN Commission for Commercial Law in Vienna –-- in which American lawyers occupy a dominant position --- creates soft law on issues like electronic trade, transport regulations, securities, arbitration, etc.

There are all the concrete recommendations on development policy in various fields, which influence international opinion and enter into the common knowledge of global leaders in charge of these strategies. Within multilateral bodies, the concrete faculty to influence doesn’t usually belong to the general managers. Even where they can propose a general guiding vision, they will always be cautious not to be suspected of promting a specific national perspective.

It is the middle management of international organisations onto whom falls the responsibility to follow and even to propose the terms of references for tenders, to write the resolutions and the policy-papers that come out of research projects, etc. Some States are very aware of this mid-level locus of power and have built a strategy to promote some of their nationals when they apply to some crucial positions, even when these are not high prestige posts.

Finally, influence is built through the clever partnership that can arise between the country representatives of international bodies and their national aid agencies: their ability to propose strategies and to orient multilateral policies to sometimes promote national interests is a key point in the development of influence.

Third, similar issues arise for the main think tanks, the world ranked academic centres, the specialist international and regional forums and the global media. They are all nowadays part of a general strategy of influence. For a nation, this means having academics or other professionals able to participate to these multiple meetings, to promote original and well-thought through views and to propose papers whose vocation is to become the new international doxa.

The USA (and to some extent the UK) have a comparative advantage on this point: the competitiveness of their universities and research centres, the critical mass of their scholars, their openness to the world gave them the position of global leaders. Germany, Spain, the Nordic countries and some Asian countries have made notable progresses in this field. In April 2008, when the head of the British DfID decided to assign £1 bn to research in development issues for the period 2008-2103, he demonstrated a clear understanding of the power of intellectual innovation to maintain and reinforce international leadership.

international_cooperation.JPG Finally, we must not forget to point out the bilateral cooperation through which many States create concrete empowerment in a more competitive context --- notwithstanding the recommendations regarding the coordination of donors and the specialization of the development aid. This happens in developing countries as well as in newly industrialized ones. German aid agencies fund the creation of technical standards for railways in the Chinese ministry of Transports and develop the rules of intellectual property. In China also, Japan has developed a very specific aid program in the realm of commercial law and it is very active in promoting the energy efficiency. There are many examples in various regions of this sort of strategy. For example, some countries are very engaged in post-conflict situations under the umbrella of multilateral organizations and try to promote their own standards (and companies!) during the stabilization process.

Regarding these new realities of the world order, we should be neither cynical nor idealist. The aim of the State's exercise of power is not to promote its own industry while neglecting the interest of the country it aids. For one, it must take into account reputational issues. A competitive search for good ideas should deliver some benefits for the world as a whole, and certainly so if this occurs in a more transparent way and if watch-dogs like independent NGOs scrutinize and assess the process and the programs.

International Cooperation Will Speed Progress We should not regret the period of "reserved territories" for a given State, whether of a former colonial power or not. State strategies cannot be based on discourses, words and wishful thinking. The means and the tools of soft power –-- the faculty to create and to project international top-level expertise are a necessity for the defense of good practices in the international area. As I assessed it in the case of France, after visiting more than 40 international organizations and 20 countries, international expertise in public, private and academic realms is the real nucleus of foreign policy and even of security issues in a global world.

No nation should be too confident in the obviousness of its values, nor should think that good ideas are sufficient to be accepted worldwide and to be realised. For France as well as for other countries, we must be aware of the potential gap between the international ambitions and the ability to implement them, especially in the reform of the multilateral world order.

Developing soft power implies a daily effort not only in very senior officials meetings, but also in the field and within more confidential circles. It needs pro-activity and a serious back-office of technical experts, academics, etc. who are able to provide concrete recommendations and the elaboration of sustainable programs.

Good ideas are sometimes implemented by others because of the lack of technical capacities on the part of their proponents. A long run strategy cannot be based on general declarations. One other major point is the faculty for a nation to federate efforts coming from various sectors of activity. The most successful nations are those who are capable of joining in a common vision, without the absolute primacy of the State, scholars, private business, the intelligence community, NGOs, the Foreign services and the various administrations.

To bring them all coherently together requires a capacity to exchange ideas, to assess them and to allow the expression of dissenting opinions. This provides the basis for the creativity which is needed in the international sphere. So we have it: the new international challenges and the desire to participate in their solution must have a huge impact on domestic practices and the cultures of domestic institutions. Perhaps that is it one of their most fruitful virtues.