They're our social stratifications, but your problem
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the soft-power dominance of American social ills.
In Case You Missed It
Several days ago, I wrote about the Chernobyl metaphor’s use and abuse for Foreign Policy:
Anyone who relied on the Chernobyl metaphor to predict the political effects of the coronavirus got reality precisely backward. Where the logic of the fable emphasizes how closed authoritarian systems promote untruths and thus engender disaster, the relatively open societies of the United States, Canada, Europe, Brazil, and now India have proved vulnerable to COVID-19, a failing that crossed ideological complexions of ruling parties and varieties of democracy alike.
Years ago, in the era of Bush the First, Harvard Professor Joe Nye coined the term “soft power”.
In an essay for Foreign Policy, Nye argued that in the post Cold War world, then already emerging even as the Soviet Union shuffled toward oblivion, “physical survival is not the most pressing issue” for most states, and thus traditional forms of rivalry and domination would not characterize the emerging, interconnected world. Soft power, wrote Nye, complemented traditional sources of interstate power like military and economic strength and would form an element of international relations in the trickier, more complex world after victory over Communism. In this new world, he argued, “soft co-optive power is just as important as hard command power” because “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes.”
Like the “clash of civilizations”, which Harvard Professor Sam Huntington would popularize in an essay at about the same time for the more staid Foreign Affairs, Nye’s essay hit at a moment when intellectuals and policymakers proved willing audiences for big new ideas to replace “containment” and its ilk as orienting principles for U.S. foreign policy and the American study of international relations. Although Huntington’s entry proved a dead end (if a long-lived one), Nye’s conception of “soft power” proved both adaptable and sophisticated—one finds in his 1990 essay, for instance, a presaging of more recent turns in international-relations scholarship toward appreciating multiple hierarchies instead of the putative anarchy of the international system as well as a clear allusion to different social fields and forms of capital in each.
After a decline in popularity following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when interdependence was muscled out of the marketplace of ideas by civilizational slogans, marketing and the post-Iraq need for need Democratic policy ideas saw soft power reemerge as an Obama-era brand, with Hillary Clinton adopting “smart power” as a calling card.
Yet we may have been underestimating soft power all along.
Whereas Nye focused on soft power’s ability to shape the world in ways that would prove congenial to the hegemon, however, three decades on it is increasingly apparent that soft power extends beyond the desires of the state. In particular, the globalization of what would seem like U.S. domestic fights over issues such as the death of George Floyd while in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department, and the wider range of activism sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and related groups, demonstrates that the full meaning of “soft power” can’t be reduced to its importance for what governments want when they engage with the rest of the world. Rather, soft power also includes the influence of U.S. society on the politics of other societies even when the U.S. government would presumably prefer to not have those issues on the agenda.
Nye, in other words, conceived of soft power as a resource that states could draw upon to advance their foreign policies. The past year has shown that soft power doesn’t belong to any state but that it relates to the structural position of the hegemonic power—and that activists can harness soft power to change global terms of debate.
During tough international monetary negotiations, pugilistic U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally once told other rich country finance ministers that “the dollar is our currency but your problem.” In the same way, U.S. domestic fights over issues like racism are Americans’ social debates—but the rest of the world’s controversy. The sovereign society is that which decides on the terms of contestation.
How important is this? Just consider how much of a global figure George Floyd became. For example, here is a Pakistani tribute to the BLM movement:
I confess that I’m not schooled enough in Pakistani society to know what, if any, group Floyd and the BLM movement could be transposed onto. My knowledge of the United Kingdom, however, is a little greater, and so it came as no surprise when not only President Biden and other American political leaders issued statements when Derek Chauvin was convicted of George Floyd’s death but even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson:
Race and racism are, of course, far from unknown in the UK. I happen to know about this personally. When a group of rioters pushed a statue of a local philanthropist-slave merchant into the river in Bristol, for example, a Tweet of mine about the incident did numbers—largely in the UK:
U.S. protesters frequently called for—or enacted—the destruction or vandalism of statues of Confederate leaders and others as a part of BLM protests in the summer of 2020. This issue came to the fore in, among other places, France—again, a society with a big racial divide of its own, but one where the U.S. protests and local echoes forced the president of the French Republic, a monarch among republicans, to make a speech responding to demands for similar actions in France (he refused to get rid of the statues, obviously).
It is not just racial issues where we see this pattern of U.S. soft power shifting the scales of other countries’ issues. More recently, French intellectuals have been reported to be threatened by “woke” U.S. university culture, while Senator Josh Hawley has trumpeted an attack for his role in the January 6 coup/insurrection/riot by the British newspaper The Guardian as part of the marketing plan for his book. (The boomerang comes all the way home.) The twist here, of course, is that normally the actions of a first-term member of the U.S. upper house wouldn’t really be noticeable to British journalists writing for a mostly British audience.
Finally, of course, there’s a Russian angle. Last year, a number of outlets, including Foreign Policy, rushed into print pieces having to do with race, racism, and international relations. One Russian academic, Alexander Lukin, saw in this a new tool of “American dominance”, inadvertently writing the thesis of this newsletter pretty well:
The current “anti-racism” campaign in the United States is the apex of the long evolution of American society towards the adoption and dissemination of a certain system of views, which has been forming for a long time, but until recently did not raise serious concerns abroad. However, since the U.S. has a significant global cultural influence, this system extends globally and, if adopted by the international community, can turn the world into a place where living and acting will become quite difficult.
(International relations specialists will note the attacks on Kelebogile Zvobgo, Meredith Loken, and Security Dialogue—none of whom, of course, are part of the U.S. security state.)
Lukin called on Russian academics to “play a leading role in criticizing this new American centrism and reverse racism” as part of a global movement to resist this American attempt to dominate the rest of the world. The merits of his argument are not important here so much as his diagnosis that these forms of soft power can produce threats to other cultures—that hegemonic influence need not be exercised only be the state or its instruments, but that even graduate students and assistant professors in the hegemon can threaten the Russian Federation.
It turns out that we haven’t heard the last about what “soft power” means in the new era of great-power competition.
What I’m Reading
This week, I’ve been reading Gregory Koger’s Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate (2010).
Koger’s book examines the complete history of dilatory tactics—those used to delay the consideration or passage of legislative business—in the U.S. Congress. In this sophisticated and rigorous book, Koger advanced the state of the art in analyzing filibusters. He demonstrated both that the House was once the locus of delaying tactics and also that filibustering has taken many forms, from the long-winded Mr. Smith Goes to Washington spectacle of a reactionary speechifying until exhaustion to more concerted efforts like arranging for members to be absent, denying a quorum necessary for business to take place. More impressively, Koger developed a theory of why such tactics take place that goes beyond issue-oriented explanations. The core, he argues, is in the use of time as a resource in bargaining and obstruction. When the value of legislative time increases (as at the end of the session or during a modern legislature’s packed calendar), filibustering, or even the threat thereof, can provide a minority with immense leverage. Members of the majority, in turn, can adapt to (or live with) these threats as long as the costs of adaptation do not exceed the benefits of measures like changing the rules to reduce or eliminate such tactics (as the U.S. House long since accomplished). The implication is that filibusters are a minority tool guaranteed by the interests of (at least some) members of the majority who see filibustering as giving them a valuable source of leverage.