Saturday, 10 November 2007

Moral Authority and Soft Power, or Nobody Listens When the Pot Calls the Kettle Black, part 1

So I've been thinking lately about different kinds of power and influence.

There's a theory of diplomacy that says there are three ways to influence people: hard power, financial power, and soft power. We might also call them sticks, carrots and models. Here's how it works.

If I want you to do something, here are my possible methods:

The Hard Power Way: I threaten to hit you with a stick. Obey me, or you will SUFFER! Internationally, this means military power.

The Financial Power Way: I offer you a carrot -- think of a donkey pulling a cart in order to reach the carrot dangled in front of its nose. If you do what I ask, I'll make it worth your while! Internationally, think of aid, lifting sanctions, lower trade tariffs, free trade agreements, opening doors for investment. This is certainly a more positive kind of power than hard power.

The Soft Power Way: I model the behaviour I'd like to see you try, and hopefully my way helps ME so much that you try it too, in hopes that it'll help YOU, too. Think of how many more people a cheerful, kind, peaceful monk will attract to his religion than a prosletyzer with a big sign saying "No Jesus: Hell!" (to say nothing of a suicide bomber). I want to get my marriage advice from an insanely happily married counsellor, not from one going through her third divorce.

This kind of soft power has no relationship to my ability to punish or reward you -- the richest countries are not necessarily the ones with the most soft power (other than in their economic infrastructure).

Countries like Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Canada regularly top worldwide lists of the top places to live, because of education, health care, social support and diplomacy, so when Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper criticizes China's human rights track record, people listen a lot more carefully than if, say, your friendly South American despot does. Maybe the best measure of a country's soft power is simply this: how would it go if you backpacked around the world with their flag on your t-shirt, and what kind of conversations would it bring about?

The strongest kind of soft power, I think (is strong soft power a contradiction in terms?) is moral authority -- I've been thinking a lot about moral authority. Fact is, in the arena of moral choices and exercising of power (particularly where one's power effects the basically powerless), your actions act as a megaphone or a muffler for your words. Being a leader and/or taking a stand puts one under a microscope, and it ought to, I think. So, when Mrs. Bush phones world leaders about the urgent human rights situation in Burma, all it does to me is highlight the fact her husband has no leg to stand on when it comes to a question of human rights violations, and if he took a posture against the Burmese junta, he'd be laughed right off his high horse (Guantanamo, Abu Gharib, etc.)

I had some interesting conversations in my classes about the American multinational companies that run sweatshops in China and South Asia -- I asked the question, "Does a company have a responsibility toward the community where it operates?" and if the company, with lots of money and power, doesn't protect and help its employees living on barely-sustenance wages, who will?

I talked about the hypocrisy of Nike projecting an image of empowerment when their shoes are manufactured in sweat-shops where women (along with men) work in ugly, ugly conditions these links are outdated, and I can't tell whether it's because Nike has made positive progress to improving conditions, or because their lobbyists are doing a better job of burying such stories before they get to the papers. Anybody have anything more current than these articles?

Think about how much credibility the Catholic Church lost in America when the pedophilia/cover-up scandal broke, or Senator Larry Craig flushing his reputation in a men's room. On the other hand, when Bill Gates created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he set an example for the rich and powerful that really shames guys like the CEO of Samsung (Korea's largest conglomerate) who's catching heat now in a bribery scandal/coverup. Al Gore should have gotten rid of his private jet before he made "An Inconvenient Truth" -- sure, he was buying carbon credits, sponsoring woodlands in India or wherever, but why not protect the rain-forest AND get rid of your private jet, if you're throwing down in the environmental arena, anyway?

Interests can also act as a megaphone or a muffler.
Canada criticized China's human rights record officially, despite any consequences it might have on Canada's economic relationship with the world's fastest growing market.

Meanwhile, nobody buys it anymore when G.W. Bush talks about bringing freedom INTO Iraq, because his interests reveal that he cares more about getting oil OUT of Iraq -- if it were actually about freedom, he would have gone after Robert Mugabe, too; if it were actually about WMDs, he would have dislodged Kim Jong-Il in North Korea before he aimed his big guns at Sadaam.

Names like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ghandi STILL carry influence, far out of proportion with the ACTUAL power they had, because they spoke moral truth to power.

Stay tuned for Moral Authority and Soft Power, part two: indeterminate bat-time, same bat-channel!

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